Shah of Shahs / Ryszard Kapuściński

Exactly 38 years ago, Khomeini returned to Iran from his exile in France, and set in motion the Islamic Revolution of Iran.

A little over a year ago, I devoured Ryszard Kapuściński's short book "Shah of Shahs" (rendered into very readable prose by translators William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand) in a single day.

Kapuściński was a hard-boiled journalist, a kind of Polish hybrid of Indiana Jones and Hunter S. Thompson, except far more daring than the latter, and, um, an actual person, unlike the former.

He made it his business to be in Teheran in the late 1970s, just before and during the Khomeini revolution. In the book, he tells the story of the rise of fall of the Shahs, and the Islamic revolution he witnessed in real time.

I cannot recommend this book enough. I took plenty of notes while reading, and, employing my famous Structured Procrastination technique, I finally found time to process them and offer this (still messy) digest of impressions and quoted passages.

Kapuściński can compose striking sentences, even in translation. E.g. what a poignant use of the phrase "last seen":

"They must have marched in the front ranks of the demonstration, right into the machine-gun fire. Or sharpshooters on nearby rooftops picked them off. We can suppose that each of these faces was last seen in the gun-sight of a soldier taking aim."

Or this, about the elder Shah (in the 1950s):

"But at this moment the father is assuming power with all his inborn energy and drive. He has an acute sense of mission and knows what he is after — in his own brutal words, he wants to put the ignorant mob to work and build a strong modern state before which all will beshit themselves in fear."

And he is insightful, in real time (remember, he is writing as Khomeini's revolution is taking place), observing simply:

"But the abuses of power and the lawlessness of the palace made the mullahs into advocates of the national interest."

Another memorable picture:
"So Iran quickly transforms itself into a great showplace for all types of weapons and military equipment. "Showplace" is the right word, because the country lacks the warehouses, magazines, and hangars to protect and secure it all. The spectacle has no precedent. If you drive from Shiraz to Isfahan even today you'll see hundreds of helicopters parked off to the right of the highway. Sand is gradually covering the inert machines."

Kapuściński is concise, and gripping. But he is also masterful at summarizing a whole period, or a complex of behaviors, in one sweeping, vivid paragraph. E.g. about the first Shah:

"The army is the apple of the Shah's eye, his great passion. The army must always have money. It must have everything. The army will make the nation modern, disciplined, obedient. Everyone: Attention! The Shah issues an order forbidding Iranian dress. Everyone, wear European suits! Everyone, don European hats! The Shah bans chadors. In the streets, police tear them off terrified women. The faithful protest in the mosques of Meshed. He sends in the artillery to level the mosques and massacre the rebels. He orders that the nomadic tribes be settled permanently. The nomads protest. He orders their wells poisoned, threatening them with death by thirst and starvation. The nomads keep protesting, so he sends out punitive expeditions that turn vast regions into uninhabited land. A lot of blood flows. He forbids the photographing of that symbolically backward beast, the camel. In Qom a mullah preaches a critical sermon, so, armed with a cane, the Shah enters the mosque and pummels the critic. He imprisons the great Ayatollah Madresi, who had raised his voice in complaint, in a dungeon for years. The liberals protest timorously in the newspapers, so the Shah closes down the newspapers and imprisons the liberals. He orders several of them walled up in a tower. Those he considers malcontents must report daily to the police. Aristocratic ladies faint in terror at receptions when this gruff unapproachable giant turns his harsh gaze on them. Until the end Reza Khan preserves many of the habits of his village childhood and his barracks youth. He lives in a palace but still sleeps on the floor; he always goes around in uniform; he eats with his soldiers from the same pot. One of the boys! At the same time, he covets land and money. Taking advantage of his power, he accumulates incredible wealth. He becomes the biggest landowner, proprietor of nearly three thousand villages and the two hundred and fifty thousand peasants living in them; he owns stock in factories and banks, receives tribute, counts, totes, adds, calculates — if a splendid forest, green valley, or fertile plantation so much as catches his eye, it must be his — indefatigably, insatiably he increases his estates, multiplying his enormous fortune. No one may even approach the borders of the Shah's lands. One day there is a public execution: On the Shah's orders a firing squad kills a donkey that, ignoring all warning signs, entered a meadow belonging to Reza Khan. Peasants from neighboring villages are herded to the place of execution to learn respect for the master's property. But apart from his cruelty, greed, and outlandishness, the old Shah deserves credit for saving Iran from the dissolution that threatened after the First World War. In his efforts to modernize the country he built roads and railways, schools and offices, airports and new residential quarters in the cities. The nation remained poor and apathetic, however, and when Reza Khan departed, an exultant people celebrated the event for a long time."

Or, again penetratingly observant, this time in a poetic, figurative passage:

"Oil kindles extraordinary emotions and hopes, since oil is above all a great temptation. It is the temptation of ease, wealth, strength, fortune, power. It is a filthy, foul-smelling liquid that squirts obligingly up into the air and falls back to earth as a rustling shower of money. To discover and possess the source of oil is to feel as if, after wandering long underground, you have suddenly stumbled upon royal treasure. Not only do you become rich, but you are also visited by the mystical conviction that some higher power has looked upon you with the eye of grace and magnanimously elevated you above others, electing you its favorite. Many photographs preserve the moment when the first oil spurts from the well: people jumping for joy, falling into each other's arms, weeping. Oil creates the illusion of a completely changed life, life without work, life for free. Oil is a resource that anesthetizes thought, blurs vision, corrupts. People from poor countries go around thinking: God, if only we had oil! The concept of oil expresses perfectly the eternal human dream of wealth achieved through lucky accident, through a kiss of fortune and not by sweat, anguish, hard work. In this sense oil is a fairy tale and, like every fairy tale, a bit of a lie. Oil fills us with such arrogance that we begin believing we can easily overcome such unyielding obstacles as time. With oil, the last Shah used to say, I will create a second America in a generation! He never created it. Oil, though powerful, has its defects. It does not replace thinking or wisdom. For rulers, one of its most alluring qualities is that it strengthens authority. Oil produces great profits without putting a lot of people to work. Oil causes few social problems because it creates neither a numerous proletariat nor a sizable bourgeoisie. Thus the government, freed from the need of splitting the profits with anyone, can dispose of them according to its own ideas and desires. Look at the ministers from oil countries, how high they hold their heads, what a sense of power they have, they, the lords of energy, who decide whether we will be driving cars tomorrow or walking. And oil's relation to the mosque? What vigor, glory, and significance this new wealth has given to its religion, Islam, which is enjoying a period of accelerated expansion and attracting new crowds of the faithful."

He is a keen psychologist, well-schooled by Orwell (I am guessing), e.g.:

"The ubiquitous terror drove people crazy, made them so paranoid they couldn't credit anyone with being honest, pure, or courageous. After all, they considered themselves honest and yet they couldn't bring themselves to express an opinion or a judgment, to make any sort of accusation, because they knew punishment lay ruthlessly in wait for them. Thus, if someone verbally attacked and condemned the monarch, everybody thought he was an agent provocateur, acting maliciously to uncover those who agreed with him, to destroy them."

And he is, of course, writing for and during communist Poland, so his observations aren't only about Iran. E.g.:

"In this way terror carried off its quarry — it condemned to mistrust and isolation anyone who, from the highest motives, opposed coercion. Fear so debased people's thinking, they saw deceit in bravery, collaboration in courage."

Another masterful passage:

"Unfortunately, the monarch's satisfaction is not to last long. Development is a treacherous river, as everyone who plunges into its currents knows. On the surface the water flows smoothly and quickly, but if the captain makes one careless or thoughtless move he finds out how many whirlpools and wide shoals the river contains. As the ship comes upon more and more of these hazards the captain's brow gets more and more furrowed. He keeps singing and whistling to keep his spirits up. The ship looks as if it is still traveling forward, yet it is stuck in one place. The prow has settled on a sandbar. All this, however, happens later. In the meantime the Shah is making purchases costing billions, and ships full of merchandise are steaming toward Iran from all the continents. But when they reach the Gulf, it turns out that the small obsolete ports are unable to handle such a mass of cargo (the Shah hadn't realized this). Several hundred ships line up at sea and stay there for up to six months, for which delay Iran pays the shipping companies a billion dollars annually. Somehow the ships are gradually unloaded, but then it turns out that there are no warehouses (the Shah hadn't realized). In the open air, in the desert, in nightmarish tropical heat, lie millions of tons of all sorts of cargo. Half of it, consisting of perishable foodstuffs and chemicals, ends up being thrown away. The remaining cargo now has to be transported into the depths of the country, and at this moment it turns out that there is no transport (the Shah hadn't realized). Or rather, there are a few trucks and trailers, but only a crumb in comparison to the need. Two thousand tractor-trailers are thus ordered from Europe, but then it turns out there are no drivers (the Shah hadn't realized). After much consultation, an airliner flies off to bring South Korean truckers from Seoul. Now the tractor-trailers start rolling and begin to transport the cargo, but once the truckdrivers pick up a few words of Farsi, they discover they're making only half as much as native truckers. Outraged, they abandon their rigs and return to Korea. The trucks, unused to this day, still sit, covered with sand, along the Bander Abbas-Teheran highway. With time and the help of foreign freight companies, however, the factories and machines purchased abroad finally reach their appointed destinations. Then comes the time to assemble them. But it turns out that Iran has no engineers or technicians (the Shah hadn't realized). From a logical point of view, anyone who sets out to create a Great Civilization ought to begin with people, with training cadres of experts in order to form a native intelligentsia. But it was precisely that kind of thinking that was unacceptable. Open new universities and polytechnics, every one a hornets' nest, every student a rebel, a good-for-nothing, a freethinker? Is it any wonder the Shah didn't want to braid the whip that would flay his own skin? The monarch had a better way — he kept the majority of his students far from home. From this point of view the country was unique. More than a hundred thousand young Iranians were studying in Europe and America. This policy cost much more than it would have taken to create national universities. But it guaranteed the regime a degree of calm and security. The majority of these young people never returned. Today more Iranian doctors practice in San Francisco or Hamburg than in Tebriz or Meshed. They did not return even for the generous salaries the Shah offered. They feared Savak and didn't want to go back to kissing anyone's shoes. An Iranian at home could not read the books of the country's best writers (because they came out only abroad), could not see the films of its outstanding directors (because they were not allowed to be shown in Iran), could not listen to the voices of its intellectuals (because they were condemned to silence). The Shah left people a choice between Savak and the mullahs. And they chose the mullahs."

More psychologizing, this time on a national (and possibly overambitious or facile) scale:
"[The Shah is] talking to an engineer from Munich, a foreman from Milan, a crane operator from Boston, a technician from Kuznetsk. And who are the only Iranians in these pictures? Ministers and Savak agents guarding the monarch. Their countrymen, absent from the pictures, observe it all with ever-widening eyes. This army of foreigners, by the very strength of its technical expertise, its knowing which buttons to press, which levers to pull, which cables to connect, even if it behaves in the humblest way, begins to dominate and starts crowding the Iranians into an inferiority complex. The foreigner knows how, and I don't. This is a proud people, extremely sensitive about its dignity. An Iranian will never admit he can't do something; to him, such an admission constitutes a great shame and a loss of face. He'll suffer, grow depressed, and finally begin to hate. He understood quickly the concept that was guiding his ruler: All of you just sit there in the shadow of the mosque and tend your sheep, because it will take a century for you to be of any use! I on the other hand have to build a global empire in ten years with the help of foreigners. This is why the Great Civilization struck Iranians as above all a great humiliation."

Kapuściński does not shy away from the sordid:

"Shah Nasr-ed-Din ran up such debts in Paris brothels that, in order to bail himself out and get back home, he sold the French the rights to carry out archaeological expeditions and keep whatever artifacts they found."

On the extrareligious value of mosques under the Shah:

"There are marked differences in the construction of a mosque and a Christian church. A church is a closed space, a place of prayer, meditation, and silence. If someone starts talking, others rebuke him. A mosque is different. Its largest component is an open courtyard where people can pray, walk, discuss, even hold meetings. An exuberant social and political life goes on there. The Iranian who has been harassed at work, who encounters only grumpy bureaucrats looking for bribes, who is everywhere spied on by the police, comes to the mosque to find balance and calm, to recover his dignity. Here no one hurries him or calls him names. Hierarchies disappear, all are equal, all are brothers, and — because the mosque is also a place of conversation and dialogue — a man can speak his mind, grumble, and listen to what others have to say. What a relief it is, how much everyone needs it. This is why, as the dictatorship turns the screws and an ever more oppressive silence clouds the streets and workplaces, the mosque fills more and more with people and the hum of voices. Not all those who come here are fervent Muslims, not all are drawn by a sudden wave of devotion — they come because they want to breathe, because they want to feel like people."

Another universally-applicable musing:

"The causes of a revolution are usually sought in objective conditions — general poverty, oppression, scandalous abuses. But this view, while correct, is one-sided. After all, such conditions exist in a hundred countries, but revolutions erupt rarely. What is needed is the consciousness of poverty and the consciousness of oppression, and the conviction that poverty and oppression are not the natural order of this world. It is curious that in this case, experience in and of itself, no matter how painful, does not suffice. The indispensable catalyst is the word, the explanatory idea. More than petards or stilettoes, therefore, words — uncontrolled words, circulating freely, underground, rebelliously, not gotten up in dress uniforms, uncertified — frighten tyrants. But sometimes it is the official, uniformed, certified words that bring about the revolution."

Kapuściński on the moment of revolution:

"Now the most important moment, the moment that will determine the fate of the country, the Shah, and the revolution, is the moment when one policeman walks from his post toward one man on the edge of the crowd, raises his voice, and orders the man to go home. The policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd are ordinary, anonymous people, but their meeting has historic significance. They are both adults, they have both lived through certain events, they have both had their individual experiences. The policeman's experience: If I shout at someone and raise my truncheon, he will first go numb with terror and then take to his heels. The experience of the man at the edge of the crowd: At the sight of an approaching policeman I am seized by fear and start running. On the basis of these experiences we can elaborate a scenario: The policeman shouts, the man runs, others take flight, the square empties. But this time everything turns out differently. The policeman shouts, but the man doesn't run. He just stands there, looking at the policeman. It's a cautious look, still tinged with fear, but at the same time tough and insolent. So that's the way it is! The man on the edge of the crowd is looking insolently at uniformed authority. He doesn't budge. He glances around and sees the same look on other faces. Like his, their faces are watchful, still a bit fearful, but already firm and unrelenting. Nobody runs though the policeman has gone on shouting; at last he stops. There is a moment of silence. We don't know whether the policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd already realize what has happened. The man has stopped being afraid — and this is precisely the beginning of the revolution. Here it starts. Until now, whenever these two men approached each other, a third figure instantly intervened between them. That third figure was fear. Fear was the policeman's ally and the man in the crowd's foe. Fear interposed its rules and decided everything. Now the two men find themselves alone, facing each other, and fear has disappeared into thin air. Until now their relationship was charged with emotion, a mixture of aggression, scorn, rage, terror. But now that fear has retreated, this perverse, hateful union has suddenly broken up; something has been extinguished. The two men have now grown mutually indifferent, useless to each other; they can go their own ways. Accordingly, the policeman turns around and begins to walk heavily back toward his post, while the man on the edge of the crowd stands there looking at his vanishing enemy. Fear: a predatory, voracious animal living inside us. It does not let us forget it's there. It keeps eating at us and twisting our guts. It demands food all the time, and we see that it gets the choicest delicacies. Its preferred fare is dismal gossip, bad news, panicky thoughts, nightmare images. From a thousand pieces of gossip, portents, ideas, we always cull the worst ones — the ones that fear likes best. Anything to satisfy the monster and set it at ease. Here we see a man listening to someone talking, his face pale and his movements restless. What's going on? He is feeding his fear. And what if we have nothing to feed it with? We make something up, feverishly. And what if (seldom though this may occur) we can't make anything up? We rush to other people, look for them, ask questions, listen and gather portents, for as long as it takes to satiate our fear."

The tyrant's downfall spiral:
"After this demonstration, the Shah felt better. He seemed to be getting back on his feet. Until then he had been playing with cards marked with blood. Now he made up his mind to play with a clean deck. To gain popular sympathy, he dismissed a few of the officers who had been in charge of the units that opened fire on the inhabitants of Tabriz. Among the generals, this move caused murmurs of discontent. To appease the generals, he ordered that the inhabitants of Isfahan be fired on. The people responded with an outburst of anger and hatred. He wanted to appease the people, so he dismissed the head of Savak. Savak was appalled. To appease Savak, the Shah allowed them to arrest whomever they wished. And so by reversals, detours, meanderings, and zig-zags, step by step, he drew nearer to the precipice."

Like Thucydides's infamous τα δέοντα ("the needful"; "what is appropriate"), Kapuściński volunteers to supply what is not available as hard evidence. He imagines what he laments was missing:

"The cameramen overuse the long shot. As a result, they lose sight of details. And yet it is through details that everything can be shown. The universe in the raindrop. I miss close-ups of the people who march in the demonstrations. I miss the conversations. That man marching in the demonstration, how full of hopes he is! He is marching because he is counting on something. He is marching because he believes he can get something done. He is sure that he will be better off. He is marching, thinking: So, if we win, nobody's going to treat me like a dog anymore. He's thinking of shoes. He'll buy decent shoes for the whole family. He's thinking of a home. If we win, I'll start living like a human being. A new world: He, an ordinary man, is going to know a minister personally and get everything taken care of. But why a minister! We'll form a committee ourselves to run things! He has other ideas and plans, none too precise or distinct, but they're all good, they're all the kind that cheer you up, because they possess the best of attributes: They'll be carried out. He feels high, he feels the power mounting in him, for as he marches he is also participating, taking his destiny into his hands for the first time, taking part for the first time, exerting influence, deciding about something — he is."

another perfect miniature:

"Further down Engelob Street is a baker's that sells fresh, hot bread. Iranian bread is shaped like a big, flat cake. The oven in which these cakes are baked is a hole dug into the ground, ten feet deep, with walls of inlaid clay. A fire burns at the bottom. If a woman betrays her husband, she is thrown into such a well of fire. Razak Naderi, a boy of twelve, works at this bakery. Somebody ought to make a film about Razak. At the age of nine he came to Teheran looking for work, leaving his mother, two younger sisters, and three younger brothers behind in his village near Zanjan, six hundred miles from the capital. From that time on he has had to support his family. He gets up at four and kneels by the oven door. The fire is roaring, and frightful heat pours out of the oven. With a long rod, Razak sticks the loaves on the clay walls and sees they are taken out when they are done. He works this way until nine in the evening. What he makes, he sends to his mother. His possessions consist of a suitcase and the blanket in which he wraps himself at night. Razak continually changes jobs and is often unemployed. He knows that he can blame only himself. After three or four months he simply begins to long for his mother. He struggles against the feeling for a while, but he ends up getting on the bus and returning to his village. He would like to stay with his mother as long as possible, but he knows he cannot — he is the sole support of the family, and he has to work. He goes back to Teheran and finds that someone else has taken his job. So Razak goes to Gomruk Square, the gathering place of the unemployed. This is the cheap labor market, and whoever comes here sells himself for the lowest wages. Yet Razak has to wait a week or two before someone hires him. He stands on the square all day, freezing, soaked, hungry. Finally a man turns up and notices him. Razak is happy; he is working again. But the joy wears off quickly, the sharp longing soon returns, so he returns again to see his mother and returns again to Gomruk Square. Right next to Razak there is the great world of the Shah, the revolution, Khomeini and the hostages. Everybody is talking about it. Yet Razak's world is even bigger. It is so big that Razak roams around it and can't find a way out."

Kapuściński on the resilience of structures:

"In every revolution, a movement grapples with a structure. The movement attacks the structure, trying to destroy it, while the structure defends itself and tries to extinguish the movement. The two forces, equally powerful, have different properties. The properties of a movement are spontaneity, impulsiveness, dynamic expansiveness — and a short life. The properties of a structure are inertia, resilience, and an amazing, almost instinctive ability to survive. A structure is rather easy to create, and incomparably more difficult to destroy. It can long outlast all the reasons that justified its establishment. Many weak or even fictitious states have been called into being. But states, after all, are structures, and none of them will be crossed off the map. There exists a sort of world of structures, all holding one another up. Threaten one and the others, its kindred, rush to its assistance. The elasticity that helps it to survive is another trait of a structure. Backed into a corner, under pressure, it can suck in its belly, contract, and wait for the moment when it can start expanding again. Interestingly, such renewed expansion always takes place exactly where there had been a contraction. Structures tend toward a return to the status quo, which they regard as the best of states, the ideal. This trait belies the inertia of the structure. The structure is capable of reacting only according to the first program fed into it. Enter a new program — nothing happens, it doesn't react. It will wait for the previous program. A structure can also act like a roly-poly toy: Just when it seems to have been knocked over, it pops back up. A movement unaware of this property of the structure will wrestle with it for a long time, then grow weak, and in the end suffer defeat."

The Iranian revolution compared to Kapuściński's rich store of revolutions observed:
"Iran — it was the twenty-seventh revolution I have seen in the Third World. Amid the smoke and the roar, rulers would change, governments fall, new people take their seat. But one thing was invariable, indestructible, and — I dread saying it — eternal: the helplessness. These chambers of the Iranian committees reminded me of what I had seen in Bolivia, Mozambique, the Sudan, Benin. What should we do? Do you know what to do? Me? Not me. Maybe you know. Are you talking to me? I'd go whole hog. But how? How do you go whole hog? Ah, yes, that's the problem. Everyone agrees: That is indeed a problem worth discussing. Cigarette smoke clouds the stuffy rooms. There are some good speeches, some not-so-good, a few downright brilliant. After a truly good speech, everyone feels satisfied; they have taken part in something that was a genuine success."

Kapuściński's theory of development:

"The Shah thought that urbanization and industrialization are the keys to modernity, but this is a mistaken idea. The key to modernity is the village. The Shah got drunk on visions of atomic power plants, computerized production lines, and large-scale petrochemical complexes. But in an underdeveloped country, these are mere mirages of modernity. In that kind of country, most of the people live in poor villages from which they flee to the city. They form a young, energetic workforce that knows little (they are often illiterate) but possesses great ambition and is ready to fight for everything. In the city they find an entrenched establishment linked in one way or another with the prevailing authorities. So they first learn the ropes, settle in a bit, occupy starting positions, and go on the attack. In the struggle they make use of whatever ideology they have brought from the village — usually this is religion. Since they are the ones who are truly determined to get ahead, they often succeed. Then authority passes into their hands. But what are they to do with it? They begin to debate, and they enter the spellbound circle of helplessness. The nation stays alive somehow, as it must, and in the meantime they live better and better. For a while they are satisfied. Their successors are now roaming the vast plains, grazing camels, tending sheep, but they too will grow up, move to the city, and start struggling. What is the rule in all of this? That the newcomers invariably have more ambition than skill. As a result, with each upheaval, the country goes back to the starting point because the victorious new generation has to learn all over again what it cost the defeated generation so much toil to master. And does this mean that the defeated ones were efficient and wise? Not at all — the preceding generation sprang from the same roots as those who took its place. How can the spellbound circle of helplessness be broken? Only by developing the villages. As long as the villages are backward, the country will be backward — even if it contains five thousand factories. As long as the son who has moved to the city visits his native village a few years later as if it were some exotic land, the nation to which he belongs will never be modern."

On Immigrants

Speaking of immigrants, Sir Ian McKellen would like to offer this passage, from the Elizabethan play Sir Thomas More:

Marry, the removing of the strangers, which cannot choose but much advantage the poor handicrafts of the city.

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding tooth ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.

Before God, that’s as true as the Gospel.

Nay, this is a sound fellow, I tell you. Let’s mark him.

Let me set up before your thoughts, good friends,
On supposition; which if you will mark,
You shall perceive how horrible a shape
Your innovation bears. First, ’tis a sin
Which oft the apostle did forewarn us of,
Urging obedience to authority;
And ’twere no error, if I told you all,
You were in arms against your God himself.

Marry, God forbid that!

Nay, certainly you are;
For to the king God hath his office lent
Of dread, of justice, power and command,
Hath bid him rule, and willed you to obey;
And, to add ampler majesty to this,
He hath not only lent the king his figure,
His throne and sword, but given him his own name,
Calls him a god on earth. What do you, then,
Rising ’gainst him that God himself installs,
But rise against God? What do you to your souls
In doing this? O, desperate as you are,
Wash your foul minds with tears, and those same hands,
That you like rebels lift against the peace,
Lift up for peace, and your unreverent knees,
Make them your feet to kneel to be forgiven!
Tell me but this. What rebel captain,
As mutinies are incident, by his name
Can still the rout? Who will obey a traitor?
Or how can well that proclamation sound,
When there is no addition but a rebel
To qualify a rebel? You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in line,
To slip him like a hound. Say now the king
(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)
Should so much come to short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—
Why, you must needs be strangers. Would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.

Goodreads is fun; Dickens; Mortimer

I've been pretty indifferent to most of the recent social-network sites, but I'm really enjoying I'm a pretty busy reader, with a large to-read list etc., and I like (but am very undisciplined about) recording my thoughts in little reviews after finishing books, and this site provides for easy and social-as-you-want-to-be tracking of all of this.

Here are a couple of reviews I posted recently:
  1. On ''Becoming Dickens'' by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
  2. On ''Collected Plays: Volume One'' by John Mortimer

TestTOSterone, or: Brilliant foolish men go off and get killed

(the post's title is to be pronounced as George Carlin does, here.)

The Guardian featured an interesting piece on the (forgotten) poet and critic Edward ThomasWikipedia, who was friends with the young Robert Frost, during Frost's England years, before he made his name as a poet.

The piece is really worth reading in its entirety. It mentions an incident, an unpleasant encounter with an ornery gamekeeper in the winter of 1914, that, combined with Thomas's anxieties and the perceived opprobrium from Frost in Thomas's reading of "The Road Not Taken", eventually (after much agonizing) drove Thomas to enlist, at the ripe age of 37, and go off to France with the British army, only to get killed shortly thereafter, in early 1917.

Ironically, as Wikipedia tells us:
He was killed in action soon after he arrived in France at Arras on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917. Although he survived the actual battle, he was killed by the concussive blast wave of one of the last shells fired as he stood to light his pipe.

The same week I was reading the guardian piece, I had been reading Saki'sWikipedia Chronicles of Clovis, which the late Christopher Hitchens had recommended to me through The Atlantic back in 2008.

Saki is everything Hitchens promised, and more. I can't recommend him enough. His style is brief and focused, his imagination wild and ingenious, and his disposition satirical but never cynical. If one must compare, he most closely resembles P.G. Wodehouse, perhaps, but with a mean streak and many more animals thrown in. Go read his works, they are all in the public domain and readily available on Project Gutenberg and Wikisource.

The public library Complete Stories I had been reading, though, had a bonus: a 90-page biography of Saki written by his sister Ethel. It is a rare jewel: an unsentimental, concise, and uninterpretative biography with excellent access to the facts. Through Ethel's account of their stifling childhood and generous verbatim quotations from Saki's letters, we get to form our own opinions about the man and his art, without having to accept or resist the biographer's interpretation. Even if you do read the public domain e-texts of Saki's works, do try to get your paws on the biography (I doubt it was ever published separately), as it is indispensable to understand Saki's end:

Yes, the scarlet thread linking Saki and Thomas is their senseless death in the killing fields of France. Saki, too, voluntarily enlisted to His Majesty's armed forces, at the even riper age of 43, despite being officially over-age. He refused an officer's commission and enlisted as an ordinary Royal Fusilier.

Somehow, despite the enormous loss to mankind of this unique and wonderful voice and talent, one is less sorry for Saki than for poor confused Thomas, for it is clear that Saki had the time of his life in the trenches, both during training in old blighty and in deployment on the continent: His letters from the front to Ethel are ecstatic, full of boyish joy and good cheer, and it is clear the man is at last living a lifelong dream.

The biography helps understand the background for this: Saki's lonely childhood and loveless upbringing, the lack of peers and friends throughout that childhood, and the physical confinement on the grounds of the country estate he grew up in, all contributed to his lifelong thirst for high adventure, derring-do, and the wilder regions of the globe. This sheds light on some of his writing choices, such as the contrafactual ("alternative history") novel When William Came, describing an England conquered by Kaiser Wilhelm II, or his tribute to Gibbon, The Rise of the Russian Empire.

The scarlet thread does not let up: eye-witnesses report that Saki's last words, crouching in a shell-crater, before he was hit by a German sniper, were "put out that bloody cigarette!"

McGurl answers Batuman on Creative Writing

Also enjoyed Prof. Mark McGurl's well-argued response to Elif Batuman's review of his book The Program Era, on the rise of the "creative writing" classes.

I found McGurl's rebuttal of Batuman's seemingly gut-reaction, mandarin rejection of modern fiction convincing. Perhaps I've been guilty of an unthinking Batuman-like attitude myself. Reading McGurl, I notice that I do, in fact, approve of quite a few modern fiction authors, and this without being at all well-read in contemporary fiction.

E.M. Forster on Lust

How wonderfully well he puts it, in his so-called "Locked Diary":
“I should like to record – and why not here – that during nearly 70 years I have been interested in lustful thoughts, writing, and sometimes actions, and do not believe they have done me or anyone else harm”.
And elsewhere:
“how annoyed I am with Society for wasting my time by making homosexuality criminal”
(through this thoughtful book review in the London Times)

דחיינות מובנית / פרופ' ג'ון פרי

רבים שואלים אותי איך אני מספיק לעשות הרבה דברים, והנה יצאתי צדיק, ומלאכתי נעשתה בידי אחרים: הפרופ' ג'ון פרי חשף את הסוד במסה קצרה ובהירה. הוא אף התיר לי, באדיבותו, לתרגם אותה לעברית למען ירוץ בה הקורא העברי, והרי היא לפניכם:
דחיינות מובנית / פרופ' ג'ון פרי
תרגם אסף ברטוב

"כל אדם מסוגל לכל כמות של עבודה, ובלבד שאין זו העבודה שמוטלת עליו באותו רגע" -- רוברט בנצ'לי, בספר Chips off the old Benchley (1949)

זה חודשים שאני מתכוון לכתוב את המסה הזו. אז איך סוף סוף התיישבתי לכתוב אותה? כי מצאתי סוף סוף קצת זמן פנוי? כלל וכלל לא. יש לי עבודות של סטודנטים לבדוק, טופסי הזמנה לספרי לימוד למלא, הצעת מחקר לשפוט עבור קרן המדע הפדרלית, וטיוטות של דוקטורטים לקרוא. העבודה על המסה הזו היא אמצעי לאי-עשיית כל הדברים הללו. זו תמציתה של השיטה שאני מכנה "דחיינות מובנית" (structured procrastination), אסטרטגיה מופלאה שגיליתי, אשר הופכת דחיינים לבני אדם יעילים, שזוכים לכבוד והערכה על כל מה שהם מספיקים לעשות ועל השימוש הנבון שלהם בזמן.

כל דחיין דוחה דברים שהוא צריך לעשות. דחיינות מובנית היא אמנות הפיכת המגרעה הזו ליתרון. המפתח הוא ההבחנה שדחיינות אין פירושה התבטלות מוחלטת. נדיר שדחיין באמת לא עושה כלום; דחיינים נוטים לעשות דברים בעלי תועלת משנית, כגון עבודה בגינה, חידוד עפרונות, או עריכת תרשים שמתאר איך יסדרו מחדש את הניירות שלהם, לכשיתפנו לכך. מדוע נוטים הדחיינים לעשות דברים כאלה? כי עשייתם מאפשרת לא לעשות משהו חשוב יותר. אילו כל מה שנותר לדחיין לעשות היה לחדד עפרונות, שום כוח בעולם לא היה מניע אותו לעשות זאת. לעומת זאת, אפשר להניע את הדחיין לבצע מטלות קשות, חשובות, ואפילו תלויות-זמן, ובלבד שהמטלות הללו יאפשר אי-עשיית משהו חשוב עוד יותר.

דחיינות מובנית פירושה סידור המטלות שעל הדחיין לבצע במבנה שמנצל את העובדה הזו. יש לסדר את רשימת המטלות בסדר חשיבות יורד. המטלות הנראות חשובות או דחופות ביותר תופענה בראש הרשימה. אבל תהיינה מטלות ראויות גם במורד הרשימה. ביצוע המטלות במורד הרשימה הופך להיות דרך לאי-ביצוע המטלות בראש הרשימה. בעזרת מבנה מתאים של מטלות, הדחיין הופך לאזרח מועיל. מתברר שהדחיין אף עשוי, כמוני, לצבור מוניטין של אחד שמספיק המון.

ההזדמנות המושלמת לדחיינות מובנית שנקרתה על דרכי היתה כשאשתי ואני שימשנו אנשי סגל דיירים ב"בית סוטו", אחד המעונות של אוניברסיטת סטנפורד. בערב, מול עבודות סטודנטים שעלי לבדוק, הרצאות שעלי להכין, וחובות שונות מועדות אקדמיות, הייתי יוצא מהקוטג' שלנו אל המועדון במעונות ומשחק פינג-פונג עם הסטודנטים, או מדבר איתם בחדריהם, או סתם יושב וקורא עיתון. מהר מאוד זכיתי במוניטין של איש סגל כיפי, ונודעתי כאחד הפרופסורים הבודדים שטורחים לשהות במחיצת סטודנטים ולהכיר אותם. איזה סידור! לשחק פינג פונג כדי לא לעשות דברים חשובים יותר, ולזכות במוניטין של המורה הטוב.

דחיינים רבים הולכים בדיוק בכיוון הלא נכון. הם מנסים למזער את המחויבויות שלהם, בהנחה כי אם יש להם רק משימות מועטות לעשות, הם יחדלו מן הדחיינות וייגשו למלאכה. אך זה מנוגד לטבעו של הדחיין, ומקלקל את הכוח המניע העיקרי שלו. המשימות המועטות הללו יהיו כמובן החשובות ביותר, והדרך היחידה להימנע מלבצען תהיה לא לעשות דבר. דרך זו סתם תהפוך אותך לבטלן, במקום לאדם יעיל.

בשלב זה ודאי עולה בלב הקורא השאלה "ומה עם המטלות החשובות בראש הרשימה, אלה שאף פעם לא מבצעים?" אכן, זו עשויה להיות בעיה.

הפטנט הוא לבחור בסוג המשימות הנכון עבור ראש הרשימה. למשימות מהסוג המתאים ביותר שתי תכונות: ראשית, נראה כאילו יש להן מועדים ברורים (אבל בעצם אין להן); שנית, נראה שהן חשובות ביותר (אבל בעצם אינן כה חשובות). למרבה המזל, החיים מלאים במשימות כאלו. באוניברסיטה, רוב מכריע מבין המשימות שייך לסוג הזה, ואני בטוח שכך המצב ברוב המוסדות הגדולים האחרים. הנה למשל הפריט בראש הרשימה שלי ברגע זה ממש: מדובר בהשלמת מאמר עבור כרך אקדמי שעוסק בפילוסופיה של הלשון. הייתי אמור להגיש את המאמר לפני אחד-עשר חודשים. ביצעתי מספר עצום של מטלות חשובות כדרך לא לעבוד על המאמר. לפני כחודשיים, אכול רגשי אשמה, כתבתי מכתב לעורך והסברתי כמה אני מצטער על האיחור, והבעתי את נחישותי להתחיל להתקדם. כתיבת המכתב היתה, כמובן, דרך נוספת להימנע מעבודה על המאמר. בסוף התברר שאני בעצם לא מאחר הרבה יותר מכל שאר מחברי המאמרים לאותו כרך. ועד כמה חשוב אותו מאמר בכלל? לא חשוב עד כדי כך שלא יגיע יום אחד משהו חשוב יותר. ואז אתיישב לכתוב את המאמר.

דוגמה נוספת היא אותם טופסי הזמנת ספרים. אני כותב את המסה הזו בחודש יוני. באוקטובר, אתחיל ללמד קורס על אפיסטמולוגיה. טופסי הזמנת ספרי הלימוד היו צריכים להגיע לחנות הספרים מזמן. קל להתייחס לזה כמשימה חשובה עם מועד דוחק (לטובת הקוראים הלא-דחיינים אסביר שמועדי הגשה מתחילים להיות דוחקים באמת בערך שבועיים אחרי שהם חולפים). אני מקבל תזכורות ממזכירת החוג כמעט מדי יום; סטודנטים שואלים אותי מדי פעם מה נקרא בקורס, וטופסי ההזמנה הריקים נחים במרכז שולחן הכתיבה שלי, מתחת נייר העטיפה של הכריך שאכלתי ביום רביעי שעבר. המשימה הזו מצויה קרוב לראש הרשימה שלי, והיא מניעה אותי לעשות דברים מועילים אחרים, לכאורה פחות חשובים. אך לאמיתו של דבר, חנות הספרים כבר עסוקה דיה עם כל הטפסים שהגישו עמיתי הלא-דחיינים. אני יכול להגיש את הטפסים שלי גם באוגוסט והכל יהיה בסדר. אני רק צריך לבחור ספרים ידועים ממו"לים זריזים ויעילים. עד תחילת אוגוסט, ודאי תצוץ משימה אחרת, לכאורה חשובה יותר. ואז ארגיש פנוי נפשית למלא את הטפסים, כדרך להימנע מעשיית המטלה החדשה הזו.

הקורא החריף אולי חש בשלב זה שדחיינות מובנית מצריכה מידה מסוימת של הונאה-עצמית, מכיוון שהדחיין בעצם מרמה את עצמו בתרמית פירמידה מתמדת. בדיוק כך. על הדחיין לזהות ולהתחייב למשימות בעלות חשיבות מוגזמת ומועדי הגשה לא-מציאותיים, תוך שהוא משכנע את עצמו שהן חשובות ודחופות. אין זו בעיה, מכיוון שכל הדחיינים מצטיינים גם בהונאה עצמית. ומה נאצל יותר מלפצות על מגרעה אחת בעזרת מגרעה אחרת?
--המקור כאן
נ.ב. את התרגום הזה, למשל, השלמתי לפני כשנה, ורק עכשיו התפניתי להעלותו לרשת. ככה זה.

אמנות האירוע בעולם הפתוח

(רשמים מכנס Global Melt בברלין, 2011)

רבים מאיתנו פעילים במסגרות התנדבותיות – קוד פתוח, תוכן פתוח, יזמות חברתית, וכו' – ולעתים משתתפים בתכנון אירועים שונים – כנסים, הרצאות, סדנאות, וכו'. מעבר לעובדה שרובנו לא עוסקים בהפקת אירועים באופן מקצועי, יש קווי דמיון לא מעטים בין אירועים של – למשל – ויקימדיה, קריאייטיב קומונס, מוזילה, עמותת המקור, וכו'.

בתאריכים 28-29 במרץ נערך בברלין מפגש בין נציגים מכמה ארגונים (קרן ויקימדיה, קריאייטיב קומונז, קרן מוזילה, KDE, CiviCRM, Kabissa) וכן כמה פעילים בלתי-משויכים, שבו נדונו בעיות משותפות בארגון אירועים (משלב התכנון, דרך שלב הביצוע, ועד שלבי המעקב אחרי תוצאות), והוצעו מספר כלים שעשויים לסייע למארגני אירועים בעולם הפתוח.

המפגש הורכב מדיונים קצרים בקבוצות עבודה קטנות, שבחנו נושאים שונים, כגון:
  • מיקרו-אירועים (עד שלוש שעות, עד 15 משתתפים)
  • תנועות עולמיות ואירועים מקומיים – יחסי הגומלין
  • משיכת, קליטת, והשארת משתמשים/פעילים חדשים ("ניוביז")
  • תקשורת ושיחוּר (outreach)
  • כלים (לניהול פרויקטים, לניהול נרשמים, לניהול תוכן, לתרגום, ועוד)
מצא חן בעיני במיוחד שלצד הדיונים הקצרים, שהיו כשלעצמם מאוד פרקטיים ומוכווני תוצרים (deliverables), התחלקנו גם לקבוצות עבודה שעבדו על אפיון כלים חדשים שעשויים להועיל באירועים בעולם הפתוח.

באחת הקבוצות הללו, הגיתי רעיון (ופיתחתי אותו עם כל הקבוצה) שזכה לשם Sparklez, והנה מהותו בקיצור:

הבעיה: במהלך אירועים קורה לי לעתים קרובות שאני נתקל באדם עם תחומי עניין משיקים לשלי, או שעובד על פרויקט שעליו הייתי רוצה לשמוע עוד; אז מחליפים כרטיסי ביקור (אם יש), או שמות משתמש, והצעירים מפטירים זה לעבר זה את כִּינוּיָּם בצוויצר, ואחרי האירוע, כשהעבודה השוטפת שחיכתה במהלך האירוע שוטפת אותי מחדש, אני זוכר (במקרה הטוב) ליצור קשר עם אחד מעשרה אנשים כאלה, אם אני מוצא את כרטיס הביקור, ואם אני מצליח לשחזר את הפרצוף או הנושא או תחום הענין שגרם להחליף פרטים מלכתחילה.

פתרון: במהלך האירוע, באותו רגע שבו נוצר הקשר (a “Sparkle”), כותבים (על בריסטול או לוח שהציבו מארגני האירוע) את שמות האנשים שיצרו קשר, וכמה מלים (שתיים עד עשר) של הקְשר ("מיקרו-כלכלה בהוראת ביולוגיה", "מה שהיא עושה בטכניון", וכו'). מארגני האירוע מצידם מתחייבים ש:
  • בחלוף חודשיים ממועד הכנס, הם ישלחו דואל פרטי ונפרד לכל אחד מבעלי ה-Sparkle, ויזכירו לו/לה את הקשר שנוצר ואת ההקשר
  • אם שני הצדדים הספיקו לקיים קשר ויצא משהו מהשיחה – רעיון, פרויקט, החלפת מידע מעניינת – המארגנים יציעו לשתף את החדשות עם שאר באי הכנס, או באתר האירוע, דף האירוע בפייסבוק, וכו'.
  • אם הצדדים טרם ניסו לקיים קשר, יוכלו להתייחס לדואל כתזכורת, ולבחור לקבל תזכורת נוספת במועד מאוחר יותר
  • אם הצדדים קיימו קשר אבל התברר שאין על מה לדבר או לעבוד במשותף, יסמנו את סיום ה-Sparkle ולא ישמעו יותר מהמארגנים בעניין הזה
  • (בדואל יהיו לחצני תגובה: דחייה ("נודניק"/Snooze), שיתוף עם אחרים ("אנחנו מארגנים מושב משותף בכנס השנתי ביקנעם!"), ביטול.
מימשנו גרסה נסיונית (ידנית – בריסטול ומחויבות אישית של המארגנים) של הכלי הזה כבר במהלך הכנס הזה, ונתקבלו 14 Sparkles. בעוד חודשיים אוכל לספר לכם מה יצא מהם. כבר בשבוע הבא תיערך התקנה שניה של הגרסה הנסיונית בכנס KDE בברלין. בקרוב – אפליקציית ווב לעזרת המארגנים.

בכנס נולדו עוד רעיונות טובים, כגון "עשר דרכים להפקת האירוע הגרוע ביותר בכל הזמנים" – מדריך קצרצר אך מאיר עיניים על דרך השלילה. אני מזמין אתכם לעיין באתר הכנס.

"אותן השנים עודן עומדות בגרונותינו"

"הנה, הביני -- כאשר הייתי אני בן גילך היה כל העולם מלחמה -- החדרים היו מלחמה, הלבבות היו מלחמה, הרחוב ודרכי הנדודים... ולא היה מקלט.  אני, או למשל היא, אחותך, בלענו את הנעורים ככלבים רעבים את העצם עם מעט הבשר שעליה.  ועתה הננו אנשים בוגרים ובודדים מאוד, ואותן השנים עודן עומדות בגרונותינו ואי אפשר לנו... אי אפשר, להקיאן.  גם עכשיו אסור לנו לבוא לחדר כזה שלך -- מה יכול אני להגיד לך ביום סתיו כזה המעיק על שכמי כמשא כל החיים?  -- הן לך, בוודאי, תהומות תוגה וגעגועים משלך ואני -- האדם הבוגר העומד לפנייך פה -- אני יכול רק לומר: -- מה שמחוץ לאדם, מה שמעבר לגופו ולנשמתו -- זר לו, רחוק ממנו תמיד.  והוא אחד, אחד, אחד..."

לאה גולדברג, "הנערה ואורחה", 1933