Torn between modernity and monarchy
Kader Abdolah’s book The King places him in a tradition that goes back centuries, the tradition of great storytellers with their tales and legends about the illustrious rulers of Persia. There is a particular reason for his choice of material: his great-great-grandfather, Mirza Kabir, was the vizier of Shah Naser, who ruled at the turn of the nineteenth century.
As grand vizier, Kabir is the most important policy advisor to the shah, who is torn between the modern age and the monarchy and, by extension, between international power play and internal conflict. Vizier Mirza Kabir wants to take Persia into the modern world, by building factories, constructing roads and railways and offering the impoverished, illiterate citizens new prospects in the form of work or education.
Mahdolia, the shah’s mother, who represents the interests of the aristocratic property-owners, is diametrically opposed to the vizier’s politics. In addition to these national conflicts, Naser has to combat threats at his borders, from the Russians to the north and from the British in their Indian colony to the east. Naser is a weak ruler, constantly doubting his own decisions. However, he achieves some success when he beats the British and conquers the city of Herat in what is now Afghanistan. The shah is regarded as the shadow of God on earth for good reason.
Not only does Abdolah paint a clear picture of the political, historical and social context, he also presents magnificent descriptions of the shah’s personal life and the almost medieval, enchanted life at his court, based around insanely opulent palaces, vast treasures and extensive harems – it’s the kind of picture that emerges from the fairytale world of One Thousand and One Nights.
However, the story ends in a nightmare when the shah has his photograph taken. This picture, taken to celebrate a quashed rebellion, turns out to have been set up as an opportunity for an assassination attempt. The shah’s death means the rise of a new dynasty.
The murderer was the grandfather of the last shah, whose downfall is so beautifully captured by Ryszard Kapuściński in his famous account, Shah of Shahs (1982). These two books are in a similar vein. Together, they present a penetrating picture of the history that formed modern-day Iran – a country that is still torn between religious traditionalism and modernity, between poverty and wealth.