Dr. Abdullah, the Lion’s Politician

We first met this man for an hour one day before lunch, at his office in Kabul.  He is a slight diversion in our film about photographer Reza, but they are old friends from their years with Massoud.  Despite prior communication with his staff, it took the better part of an earlier hour to get inside, so we sat on the curb and waited, the bustling late morning traffic at curious shrugworthy odds with the lackadaisical pedestrians hunched nearby.  Dr. Abdullah’s armed guards patrolled the front gate, a nondescript alleyway between a fitness shop and, well, some other shop, as forgettable as those of any city block.

The thing about security in Kabul is that, when told not to film in one direction or another, you must simply wait until no one’s around to say no – or, just as good, until you’ve made friends with the people who’ve told you no.  One end of the street bordered an administrative building of some kind, heralded by a red-and-white enclosure , so, with Reza wired for sound, we filmed his impromptu conversation with the lemon vendor parked in the opposite direction to kill time.  Soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs – a sight so common throughout Afghanistan that their relative absence in provincial villages began to parody their abundance elsewhere – patrolled a razor-wired gate across the street, beyond a cart loaded with watermelons whose caretaker dozed in the dry heat.  We snuck off shots of the soldiers, between cars, when we guessed they weren’t looking.

bicyclesBetween mixing Reza’s lavalier, I took pictures of the watermelon vendor, the men passing time on the sidewalks, a pair of bicycles chained to a tree.  And then suddenly we were beckoned in, granted permission by a cadre of invisible higher powers working immediately below Dr. Abdullah – the Lion of Panjshir Ahmed Shah Massoud’s ally and chief political advisor during the Soviet war; former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Northern Alliance during the war against the Taliban, reappointed during the interim administration in December 2001, and confirmed the next year to serve under the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan; a trained opthalmologist; and candidate for the presidency of Afghanistan, having formally registered the day we arrived in Kabul on May 6, 2009.

His gate patrol was friendly and polite, no doubt treating us as friends of Reza instead of Americans or media; they glanced at my shotgun mic and searched my mixer bag as a matter of course – the airport guards would ransack my bags two weeks later as I was on my way out of the country as though I were smuggling their burka-clad women.  Behind the gate sat a small office building with a front desk and a single hallway branching off into the various meeting rooms, where quiet bearded men sat in comfortable chairs around glass tables laden with dishes of dried fruit and sugar-coated almonds.  Hallways are our lobbies; whatever takes place behind the frequently open doors is never far away, and the pertinent door is never entirely clear.

I had a picture of Dr. Abdullah before we arrived.  I knew little about him, except that we was a medical doctor and a confidante of Massoud’s.  I imagined him as an older man, looking serene and wise in a robe and long beard, well-trimmed as befitting a politician but humbler in dress, as befits a freedom fighter.  Dr. Abdullah is full-on politician.  He dresses – in Kabul – in fine suits, wearing a short beard and groomed gray hair.  He is average height and carries a middle-aged belly, and a face that, on the stage of geopolitics to which he aspires, is entirely unnoteworthy.  It did occur to me then that there should be no practical reason why Massoud’s most trusted associates should have distinguished features, but given Massoud’s own striking face and unmistakable scarecrow physicality, I envisioned a Dr. Abdullah who would first and foremost impress in appearance alone.  He does not.

What does strangely impress is his quiet way of speaking, his immediacy of presence.  We filmed his initial greeting with Reza before meeting him ourselves, and there is no doubt that as a politician – as a meeter of people, as a social entity, as a potential leader – he wields considerable gravitas.  But as is often the case with politicians, you’re simply not aware of it until afterward, when upon reflection his stature begins to stack up against the people around him.  With Reza, he is familiar, even intimate.  They speak closely and softly from four or five feet away in opposing chairs, both conscious of our cameras and completely complicit in each other’s faint posturing.  They are men of self-aware prestige, and have finessed the art of pose.  It’s not unnatural, really, nor false, not among equals.  They both know their weight in their relative fields, and care, passionately, that they do not appear insincere.

Their conversation is slight, somewhat rigid.  They have not met in some time, and their personal ease mixes awkwardly with their need to say something important for our camera.  Even as a sound guy, there are times when I’m more absorbed by a person’s behavior and the environment than by his words; Reza and Dr. Abdullah speak skirtingly of the need for proper leadership in Afghanistan, its brittle future, its chunky past, but I examine the open laptop in front of the fireplace; the tight organization of the couches and chairs in the room and our cameramen’s attempts to manuever them; the carefully framed position of Reza’s and Dr. Abdullah’s chairs, so clearly arranged for two conversing men to be photographed.  The windows just behind them are tightly curtained, so the room is oddly dark, illuminated only by the sunlight coming in from the glass doors across the room that somehow fails to bounce off the yellow walls.  Dr. Abdullah’s men stand silently in the front of the room near the door, a handful of suits without personalities.  The job of a politician’s henchman can’t be a glorious one, especially when your man is so obviously risking his life to run for the presidency, and these guys took it with a humbling seriousness.  When the meeting was over, they shuffled us out of the room with little more than the usual pomp, reserved mostly for Reza, and we were out of the building in a minute or two.

The next day we were on our way out of Kabul for the Panjshir Valley, and within the week met Dr. Adbullah twice in the valley.  As a Northern Alliance mujahideen, he would be greeted in Panjshir a virtual hero.  Ostensibly he was there to run for president, but his office and our crew were in irregular communication along the way, and the possibility of appearing in a National Geographic documentary couldn’t hurt him.  We ran into him – or rather, his convey overran ours – on the rutty, unpaved road heading north through the valley.  His SUVs passed ours and stopped in the village ahead of us as Reza tried to hurry our driver to catch up.  The doors on his vehicles opened with military precision and his armed guards flanked the road ahead and behind the convoy, ignoring us as we pulled to a stop just behind the last SUV.  Their AK-47s felt excessive here, among their strongest supporters in the entire country; that Dr. Abdullah did not appear, and his convoy suddenly packed in and raced ahead before Reza could get his attention, seemed indicative of the show of effortless force a presidential candidate probably feels he has to exhibit to convince the Afghan populace he’s worth voting for.

Dr AbdullahOur vehicles caught up with Dr. Abdullah’s a few miles up the valley, in a tiny village.  The local elders were all there, and Abdullah was dressed in a traditional white kurta instead of a suit.  We joined them in the second story of the only building in sight, in a room barely long enough, we would discover that night, for four men to sleep head-to-foot, as a giant meal – entirely out of scale with our rural environs – appeared on the floor before us.  A small, wizened man at the head of the room dominated the conversation by status and reputation alone, it would seem, as he uttered only a few words among the roomwide banter but drew rapt attention for each of them.  He commanded substantial respect from both Dr. Abdullah and Reza, and the hierarchical configuration of tribal Afghan society was never clearer to me than it was during this lunch.  The tone among leaders is one of lighthearted mutual respect, reminiscing on old times with a ponderous, vaguely self-conscious solemnity that, from time to time, can veer into emotional displays embarrassing for those of us without the cultural background to grasp its purpose.  The past is something to acknowledge and revere with feeling.  Our foreign selves excluded, every man in this room shared viscerally in that past.

Dinner wound to a close, and before Dr. Abdullah left, he and Reza repeated their conversation in Kabul, but this time with patience and greater openness, discussing the current trajectory of Afghanistan and Afghans as it seemed to them rather than as it played well for a camera crew.  They sat side by side on pillows in front of the window and spoke in low, intimate tones, so low that at times I had opened up their microphone channels all the way on my mixer, magnifying every foot shift and murmur from the other men in the room.  Dr. Abdullah speaks as a gunless general leading troops to bloodless battle, calm in his self-assurance and confident of his mission, and Reza listens as an old friend, trading Abdullah’s candor for unqualified support for his candidacy.  They strike me now as a pair of veterans, corraling their vast experience and complicated knowledge toward a sincere plan for the country’s future.  They understand Afghans’ fierce national pride and their collective shortcomings, and Dr. Abdullah voices more than once the inherent personal danger in running for Afghanistan’s presidency, of the almost certain voter fraud and, let’s say, extranational coersion that he feels will surely put Hamid Karzai back in office on August 20.

* * * * *

We ran into Dr. Abdullah once more, outside a mosque in Panjshir where he and his retinue had stopped for noon prayer.  He emerged from the mosque into the gathering supportive crowd, shadowed by his Kalashnikoved guards and hounded by our enormous camera, appearing at ease and in his element.  Our trip ended on May 21, and he has continued his abbreviated run for president since.  He holds second in the polls only to Karzai, who’s reviled in Afghanistan as a feckless Western appointee but who may win, perhaps on those very grounds.  Abdullah has traversed the country, addressing crowds in places, like Kandahar, where many of his opponents are afraid to appear; on July 28 gunmen wounded one of his campaign managers in western Afghanistan in an attack that killed the car’s driver.

Even if he wins the election, Abdullah would face the Taliban in the west and south of the country, growing insurgency against the American occupation throughout the country, and a pervasive cultural attitude that does not yet grasp the dynamics of democracy as we understand it.  He will be expected, like Obama, to fix the frustrating failures of the last administration with inordinate speed, and to bring peace to a country at current war with its former conqueror and on the verge of a second war with a current ally.

He seems to know he will lose to Karzai; his late arrival to the race suggests a near half-heartedness to his candidacy, but then, there is something unpredictable about the country’s mood anyway.  Afghanistan is pie-sliced from top to bottom: broken in the east, on fire in the south, and barely healing in the north, in terrible need of a unified direction thus far eluding its factions, tribes, and national politicians.  Yet Abdullah runs, with a heedless, unreasonably bold assurance Afghans should recognize.  The approach may or may not put Afghanistan back on a progressive, self-sustaining track, but for the last 30 years, nothing else has.

2 Responses to “Dr. Abdullah, the Lion’s Politician”

  1. Andrew- awesome post. You should share this kind of stuff more often. I use unique, collaborative type post/ideas/people all the time. Keep sharing! Look for the link back to you soon.

    • abaker79 Says:

      hey man, thanks for your comment. how do you incorporate collaborators into your site? i’d love to contribute if i can.

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