Wednesday, September 20, 2006

My dinner with Mahmoud

Today, I got an interesting call on my secure line. Ordinarily, all I hear on that phone are pre-recorded debt-relief pitches and Democrats pleading for money, but this time Condoleeza Rice was on the other end. I could tell she had something important on her mind, since she skipped all the awkward pleasantries expected of people who were once ardent lovers, but have since grown into a comfortable-if-distant friendship (with benefits). I must admit, I was a little put off by her official manner. Sure, she can take that tone with her lackeys and with intransigent world leaders, but this was her Kevie-foo-foo she was talking to.

“Kevin, I’ve got something I need you to do...” she began.

“Whatever you desire, my pookie-foot,” I told her, but my honeyed tone didn’t faze her a bit.

“Listen. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is coming to the U.S. today and I want you to keep an eye on him, okay?”

Well, I bet my gasp could have been heard all the way to Foggy Bottom. I’m afraid that, for a moment at least, I lost my cool: “Not that, butter bear!” I wailed, “You know I would do anything for you, but—please!—not that! Let me follow around Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev instead! Or let me spy on Surinamese President Ronald Venetiaan! Anyone but Mahmoud, Condi! Please!”

Condi just clucked her tongue at my histrionics. “Your country needs you, Kevin,” she said.

“I’m real busy, though! I’ve got lots to do here! I mean, I have to write this gay cowboy song for my friend Mel and I have to re-alphabetize my Latin jazz CDs and I...” I babbled, but the Secretary of State—foul temptress that she is—just cut me off.

“Listen. If you don’t do it, I might have to leak those pictures of the time you and Katherine Harris—”

“I’ll do it!” I cried out then, both immensely distressed and slightly excited. You see, part of me gets kind of turned on whenever Condi plays hardball. “Just get me a plane ticket and I’ll be right out there,” I said.

She let out one of her sweet little chuckles and said, “That’s the beauty of it. He’s going to Minneapolis after his U.N. appearance. You don’t have to go anywhere.”

“But why is the President of Iran coming to Minneapolis?”

“The C.I.A. says he’s crazy about snowglobes. Apparently, that big mall you have out there has a bunch of them that he can’t even find on eBay.”

“Huh,” I said, “Well, I guess I’ll report back to you tomorrow, my darling sugar-tushy...”

“Great,” the most powerful woman in the Bush administration said, “And while you’re at it, try and find out about that whole nuclear weapons thing.” She hung up on me then, and I was left cooing my smooth lines into a dead receiver.

I tried not to be too hurt. After all, if I did her this favor, she would be in my debt for something big. Because, as she and few others know, me and Ahmadinejad go way back. It was the mid-80s, when he was a respected professor of traffic engineering at the Iran University of Science and Technology and I was wandering the earth pretending to be the reincarnation of Omar Sharif. We met by chance in a Tehran cafe and—if I remember correctly—soon got in a full-scale screaming match over the merits of noted Persian poet Hafiz. He took the tack (woefully common, I might add) that the great mystic was simply a Sufi heretic, while I argued that his humanism and aesthetic brilliance transcended such petty sectarian strictures. We almost came to blows about this, and we parted as bitter enemies.

Now, two decades later, I saw him again, only this time he was carrying an armful of snowglobes through Camp Snoopy. I shadowed him for awhile, trying to figure out what approach would be the best. You don’t just walk up to one of the big players in the Axis of Evil and start chatting him up about Israel, after all. You have to be sort of slick about it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to use any of my fancy fake-out techniques. It was around the kiddie boat ride that he spun around, strode straight up to me and asked, in his passable English, “Excuse me, mister, but could you point me in the direction of the Sbarro?”

I had to roll with it. That’s what high-stakes diplomacy is all about. Without missing a beat, I said “I’m looking for that myself. Let’s try upstairs.”

At first, I was a little surprised that he didn’t recognize me, but then I remembered that, during my Omar Sharif days, I always had a small monkey perched on my shoulder. Without it, I look like a totally different guy. As we strolled among the teenage girls and the Peanuts gang, I fell easily into one of my most trusty disguises: that of a traveling plumbing-parts salesman from suburban Memphis. “You sure have a lot of snowglobes there, fella,” I said, my accent a perfect simulacrum of the west Tennessee way of speaking.

“Yes. They are beautiful, are they not?” the Iranian President said, beaming with pride at his purchases.

I nodded and guided him stealthily to the escalators. Of course, as a longtime Minnesota resident, I knew that the Sbarro was on the third floor, but I couldn’t tip one of our nation’s most outspoken enemies off to that fact. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, this espionage, and that’s why they don’t let just any dipshit do it. I had to go to school for, like, two years. All the while, I kept him occupied with small talk and good-natured banter. Over the course of this, I discovered several small bits of intelligence. Most of these are classified, but a few I can share in a public forum such as this one. They are (1) that the President of Iran agreed that it was cold in Minnesota today and (2) that Tehran is beautiful this time of year.

Eventually, we found our way to Sbarro and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad carefully set his snowglobes on an empty table and went to take his place in line. There was a little tiff when one of the employees there accidentally tried to give him pepperonis on his pizza slice, but this didn’t rise to the level of an international incident. With our trays and our large Pepsis, we sat down together and started in on a genial conversation.

When you’re in the business of figuring shit out on behalf of the government, you have to set aside some of your moral compass. It sounds disgusting, but it’s true. I couldn’t do my job effectively if I looked across the plastic food court table and saw a dangerous demagogue, a notorious anti-Semite, and a potential world-destabilizer. That would make keeping up the charade very difficult, so I had to swallow my knowledge of world affairs and my distaste for his policies and see him just as goofy Mahmoud, an avid snowglobe collector.

The only trouble was that he seemed to have no intention of letting in his amiable dinner companion in on any nuclear secrets. Perhaps he thought a plumbing-parts salesman wouldn’t be interested, perhaps his advisors had warned him against it. No matter the reason, all I got was a long lecture on traffic engineering. I wish I could say it was illuminating, but it wasn’t. It was boring. You can only hear so much about what Central Asian heat does to asphalt and the number of traffic lights needed on arterial roads. It isn’t a very “sexy” subject, I’m afraid.

But Mahmoud wouldn’t let up. He got really into it, and before I knew it, four hours had gone by and I hadn’t learned a single fucking thing about uranium enrichment. It was unbearable. I lost my mind a little bit. When he stopped to catch his breath, I said, “Well, that reminds me of something I read one time. Would you like to hear it?”

Mahmoud looked skeptical, but he nodded and bade me go on. He was clearly a man not used to being interrupted. But the expression on his face was priceless when I rose to my feet and began to recite---in my flawless Farsi---the immortal words of the 31st Ghazal:

“ Preachers who display their piety in prayer and pulpit
behave differently when they're alone.

It puzzles me. Ask the learned ones of the assembly:
"Why do those who demand repentance do so little of it?"

It's as if they don't believe in the Day of Judgment
with all this fraud and counterfeit they do in His name.”

With the lyrics of Hafiz of Shiraz ringing in his ears, the President of Iran finally recognized me as his foe of so many years ago. The noise he made then was frightful, half a hiss of rage and half a squeal of horror. And the last thing I remember is him winging a Winnie the Pooh snowglobe at my head.

When I woke up, I was on Air Force One with a bandage around my head. I’m writing this from a safe house basement somewhere in Northern Virginia, in between debriefing sessions. With any luck, I’ll be back in the Midwest tomorrow morning. It’s a hassle, true, but sometimes you just have to answer when your country calls...