Friday, November 6, 2009
Ahmad Chalabi by Dexter Filkins
And so here was Chalabi, driving south in a convoy full of guns. After forty-five years in exile, he had come home to a strange land. In the West he was a famous man, and now a notorious one as well. He was a banker and a millionaire and a mathematics professor trained at MIT and the University of Chicago. But in Iraq his roots had withered and died. And so now, in January 2005, Chalabi was reinventing himself as an authentic Iraqi. He was running for a seat in the new Iraqi parliament.
Chalabi had entered his Islamist phase. In his speeches he had begun to speak reverently of Islam and the Prophet. In Baghdad, he had begun forming alliances with Islamist leaders, most notably, most remarkably, with Muqtada himself.
It wasn't terribly convincing. Chalabi did not wear a turban. He had no beard. He did not pray. He did not, really, even pretend. But as a practical politician- as an exile come home to a strange land growing stranger by the day- Chalabi had needed to do something. After ten minutes in the shrine, Chalabi emerged. He climbed into his SUV and sped away back to Baghdad. His goal had been accomplished. By morning, all of Najaf would know that Chalabi had come to pay homage under the golden dome of the Shrine of Imam Ali, the tomb of the son-in-law of the Prophet, the holy heart of the Shiite faith.
I pressed him on this bit of opportunism, but he would not give the game away. "It would be bad for me to do that," Chalabi said, cutting me off. "It defeats the purpose." Games-man, exile, idealist, fraud: Chalabi was someone who I never missed the chance to follow around. It wasn't just that he was brilliant, or nimble, or ruthless, or fun. When I looked into his eyes and saw the doors and mirrors opening and closing, I knew that I was seeing not just the essence of the man but of the country to which he'd returned. L'etat c'est lui. Chalabi was Iraq...
I asked Chalabi about the negotiations on the Iraqi constitution. It was the summer of 2005 and the dead line was near. The Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds were at a standstill. Chalabi was intimately involved in every aspect of the negotiations. He spoke perfect English and perfect Arabic and his energy and intelligence were limitless. Even so, I had to be careful whenever I chose to rely on him. Chalabi always had his own agenda, usually several of them, which he worked on different levels, like a game of three-dimensional chess. Chalabi wanted a unified Iraq, but he was a friend of the Kurds, who wanted autonomy. He was an entirely secular man, but he had pulled close to Muqtada, who wanted an Islamic state. He wore suits and he wore dishdashas. Who was he this time? I felt like any member of the American government must have felt in dealing with Chalabi: was I getting more out of Chalabi than he was getting out of me? Or was I being conned and charmed into submission?
"We are on the brink of an agreement," Chalabi said. "Everything has been settled."
I took out my notebook. This was news. Chalabi's face was blank. What was settled, exactly? I asked.
"Oil", Chalabi said, spooning some ice cream.
"It's settled," Chalabi said, face still blank.
We talked details, about which Chalabi was distressingly vague. What's left to be settled? I asked.
Well, said Chalabi, there is no agreement yet on the role of Islam in family issues..."whether to allow clerics on the Supreme Court has not been decided."
I sighed. There wasn't much point in asking Chalabi where he stood on all these issues. I knew him too well for that; he would not have answered.
"It's the same old story", I told him, "You call it progress, you say you are near an agreement, but at each session you maybe solve half your differences. And then the next day you resolve half of what is left. But it never ends."
"Yes", Chalabi said crisply, glancing in Jim's direction. "Zeno's Paradox".
Jim nodded knowingly.
"An infinite converging series", said Chalabi.
"It's called Zeno's Paradox" , Jim said, jumping in, "You add an infinite number of smaller and smaller numbers together and get a finite sum. In other words, an infinite number of meetings and you get to the constitutional agreement in a finite time."
"Yes, exactly",said Chalabi with a smile.
"You'll never get there, I said, trying to pick up the metaphor, whatever it was, "because it's infinite."
"No," Chalabi said, smiling blankly. "That's not right."
Jim laughed. I tried to change the subject.
"Okay, you seem to be backpedaling on women's rights. You say you are secular, but if you let Islamic courts get involved in family disputes, then you are inserting Islam into the state. You are doing the Islamists' bidding."
"Absolutely false", he said
"But how can you square being secular with allowing imams to settle divorces and inheritance?" I asked
"Have you heard the joke about the rabbi and the priest on the airplane/"
How could I refuse? I didn't know the joke.
"A priest and a rabbi are riding on a plane," Chalabi said, leaning back in his chair. "After a while the priest turns to the rabbi and asks, 'Is it still a requirement of your faith that you not eat pork?'
"The rabbi says, 'Yes, that is still one of our beliefs."
"So the priests asks, 'Have you ever tasted pork?'
"To which the rabbi replies, 'Yes, on one occasion I did succumb to the temptation and tasted pork'."
Chalabi was grinning widely.
"The priest nodded and went on with his reading. A while later, the rabbi asked the priest, "Father, is it still a requirement of your church that you remain celibate?'
"The priest replied, 'Yes, that is still very much a part of our faith.'
"Then the rabbi asked him, 'Father, have you ever succumbed to the temptations of the flesh?'
"The priest replied, 'Yes, Rabbi, on one occasion I was weak and broke my faith.'
"The rabbi nodded understandingly for a moment and then said, 'A lot better than pork, isn't it?'"
Chalabi beamed at his joke, and Jim and I laughed. After a few more minutes it was time to go. Past curfew. The streets of Mansour were dangerous in the fall of 2005. Kidnappers and insurgents everywhere, even in Baghdad's best neighborhoods. Chalabi uttered something to an attendant, and we said goodbye. As we drove from the compound, a row of Iraqi police cars appeared, their blue lights flashing, getting in line to escort us back across town.