Ryszard Kapuściński, a poetic reporter of the human condition

Ryszard Kapuściński was a historian, writer and journalist. His reporting was both philosophical and poetic without sacrificing fact, the inventor of ‘literary reportage’. I’ve read his Heban(Ebony), Szachinszach (Shah of Shahs), Cesarz (Emperor). He specialized in Africa and Latin America and Cesarz (Emperor), the story of Haile Selassie, is his best known book. He did also write about the Soviet Union, the first part of his Imperium (First encounters 1939-1967) describes Kapuściński’s original voyage through Belarus, Siberia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbeijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kirghiz, and Uzbekhistan. Here is my translation of Kapuściński’s description of an encounter with Gulnara Gusein, a medical student and phytotherapist in Azerbeijan

People come to Gulnara with a paper from professor Gasanov. On the paper, the professor prescribed the name of a flower and the duration of smelling. The smelling is done sitting down, most often for ten minutes. Gulnara oversees so that everyone is smelling what they are supposed to, so that, for example, a sclerotic does not begin to smell rosemary. The flowers stand in rows in a glass house that is called a phytotherapy office, it is reminiscent of a greenhouse. Gulnara tells me to sit down and also smell something. Can I sense the scent? I don’t smell anything. Obviously – that is because a flower does not emit a scent all for itself. One has to touch the stem, and the flower can feel that someone is showing interest in it. And it starts to emit its aroma. Every stir the flower meets with aroma – it is naive and frivolous, it wants to be liked by everyone. Comrades, stir up the flowers! – Gulnara reminds the elders sitting in the study, who start to stir the stems as though they were shaking ants off of them.

I ask Gulnara, who is a medical student, if she believes, that a flower can cure a human being. Cure not psychologically, because this possibility has been substantiated, but cure physically, for example return elasticity to a calcifying cell. Gulnara smiles. She says only, that people from all over the world come to see her. She emphasizes: even from America. Professor Gasanov’s method – therapy using the scent of flowers – has already become well known.

I think that for Gulnara, like for me, the charm of this method is not only its aesthetic trait, but also its cheer and goodly wisdom. What is the professor supposed to do with an elder that carries seven crosses and forgets their date of birth? Of course, the professor could put them in a crowded hospital room, into the odor of chloroform and iodine. But what for? Is a twilight that smells of flowers not more beautiful than the twilight of chloroform? So when the professor sees someone, who has to look into their identity documents to give him their own date of birth, and complains, that his head is silting somehow, professor listens carefully, and then writes on the paper: “Rp.: Laurel leaves. Ten minutes a day. For three weeks.” And look, says Gulnara, crowds try to see the professor. The waiting list lasts for months.

source: translated from Polish, Imperium, 2001 edition, p 58-

While in Armenia, he recounts the biography of Soghomon Soghomonyan (Komitas), as it was told to him by the young composer Emina Aristakesjana.

1915, the beginning of the massacre of Armenians in Turkey. Until the times of Hitler, it was the greatest massacre in the history of the world, one and a half million Armenians died. Turkish soldiers dragged Komitas on a cliff from whence they were to execute him. At the last moment the daughter of the sultan of Istanbul saved him, his student. But he already saw the abyss and this disturbed his mind.

He was 45 then. Someone took him to Paris. He did not know that he is in Paris. He lived another 20 years in an insane asylum. He walked little, was silent, but looked on. Perhaps he saw those who came to visit him, they say that he stared at their faces.

When spoken to he did not respond.

They tried different things. They sat him down in front of an organ. He got up and left. They played records for him. He gave the impression that he did not hear. Someone placed on his lap the Armenian instrument, tar. He carefully put it away. Nobody knows for sure if he was ill. Perhaps he chose silence?

Maybe that was his freedom.
He did not die, but he was no longer alive.
He existed-in-non-existence in this hanging between life and death, in the lunatic purgatory. Those who visited him say that he was increasingly tired. He stooped, thinned, darkened. Sometimes he fidgeted his fingers on the table, in silence, because the table made no sound. He was calm, always serious.

He died in 1935: so after 20 years he fell into that abyss before which the daughter of the sultan of Istanbul saved him, his student.

source: translated from Polish, Imperium, 2001 edition, p 51-

Kapuściński died last Tuesday, January 23, 2007.

This man who witnessed 30 coups and revolutions and counted Che Guevara, Salvador Allende and Patrice Lumumba among his friends


In his “Travels with Herodotus,” due to be published in the United States this year, Kapuscinski offers tribute to the Greek historian he considered the world’s first great reporter.

In a 2003 speech, Kapuscinski explained Herodotus’ formula for successful journalism: First, be willing to submit to hard, painstaking travel to get information first hand. Then, be able to listen carefully and respectfully to people. Third, do your homework, be investigative and precise. Journalists must be “missionaries, translators and messengers.”

Retrieved from:  International Herald Tribune. “Kapuscinski, master of literature of fact ” http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/01/24/news/GEN-Kapuscinski-Appreciation.php

see also: NPR – audio of 1988 interview with Ryszard Kapuscinski

[Edited from Photomedia Forum post by T.Neugebauer from Jan 28, 2007   ]