October 12, 2010
Massoud and BHL
I was first introduced to Afghanistan in a very academic dry setting. None of the books I had read for my class at the Fletcher School even had photographs. I studied the history, stumbled over the politics and eventually understood the ethnic intricacies. It was 1992 and Afghanistan was a distant, war torn, closed society. The international press barely made it "inside". Kabul was a forbidden city. If aid workers and Afghans ventured "inside Afghanistan", it was on the borders.
The name Massoud was thus familiar to me from these classes. He was a warlord, and the head of a militia. However, it was an article that appeared circa 1999-2000 that truly introduced him to me. It was the first time I had heard of the author of the article, the famed French philosophist Bernard Henri Levy, also known under his acronym BHL. It was one of those "bombshell" articles in Le Monde that I will always remember.
I am glad I got introduced to BHL through his writings of Massoud and vice versa. Massoud brings out the best side of BHL, his humanitarian and cultural relativism philosophy. Massoud is best portrayed with the romanticized words of his friend and admirer.
Through BHL's words, I discovered in Massoud, a Che Guevera like figure. I was on a plane, and I remember read the article out loud to my husband. Since it was in French, I had to interpret simultaneously for him, which made me appreciate BHL's style even more. A few months later, at a summer resort in France, a friend pointed out to a man and an actress (his wife Arielle Dombastle) and told me that was BHL!
I took my then 2 month old son and presented him to the philosopher: "this boy is Afghan I told him. I must congratulate you on the portrait-article you made of Massoud. You have fueled our dreams."
I have since sampled a few of BHL's works. I barely enjoyed his Daniel Pearl story. He described Pakistan as the "last inferno" of Dante. On the other hand, I was very impressed with "American Vertigo", a travelogue he wrote "in the footsteps of Tocqueville", a French philosopher of the XVIIIth century who traveled the new nation of the United States. In this book, BHL came upon an unknown professor, Barack Obama
who he prophesied (as philosophers should) that he would be the first black President of the USA. Perhaps Obama mentioned his ambitions, but BHL believed in the aura that he discovered. He published a whole chapter in 2005 about Obama. It was a gamble BHL was willing to take as he backed a man who wasn't even a candidate till 2006. It appears that BHL is a king maker.
The very tan French intellectual, probably flattered by my compliments, was charmingly friendly. We spoke about Massoud. It was the summer of 2000. One year before Massoud was assassinated. Massoud's death is one of those happenings you never forget. I was at a gas station in Northern California, buying a soft drink. I remember I cried in disappointment. A symbolic figure had died.
Massoud's image has since September 9th, 2001 (2 days before September 11) covered the walls of his country. He has received all the honors from his countrymen, tribesmen and fellow Panshiris. A famous Iranian photographer Reza, who shadowed the political hero, has immortalized his photogenic charisma. Together, Reza and BHL have facilitated the emergence of Massoud as an icon, a historical figure.