Last night most of us had written or broadcast stories saying that the loya jirga, Afghanistan’s national political assembly, was opening today. It was scheduled to start at 8 a.m. Then it was delayed until 3 p.m. But by midday a press conference was called, and we knew it wouldn’t happen until at least tomorrow.
That made today the kind of day reporters hate. Not a lot of news and lots of time hanging around, drinking bottled water, tense and afraid to go anywhere in case a story breaks. It wears me out and makes me irritable.
I thought of an old column by Russell Baker in the New York Times. He once suggested that journalism schools make students sit outside a locked door all day and then go back and write a story. I didn’t like the prospect of doing that in a foreign country, where any assumptions I make might be patently stupid.
I also felt a bit silly. Average folks here seemed completely at ease. So what if the loya jirga started a day later? What difference would it make? An Arabic translator once told me: “When God created time, he created a lot of it.” That lesson is well learned across Afghanistan.
But not in the press corps. For us, this was a crisis. I and dozens of my colleagues raced across town, from the convention site to the U.S. embassy, kicking up clouds of dust.
The American government was helping mediate and stage-manage the events, and they knew we were hungry. So they arranged for press briefing at the embassy and then scheduled a statement for the cameras at the house of the former king, Zahir Shah. Appearing with the king would be Hamid Karzai, the Western-backed leader of the interim Afghan government.
On the eve (well, maybe the eve of the eve) of the loya jirga, this would give us a story. So about 150 reporters, photographers, translators, and cameramen arrived at once and tried to squeeze through a 3-foot-wide iron gate into the royal compound. I hate getting pushed and shoved and whacked in the head by TV cameras. It’s a common thing in Washington, but overseas I had gotten away from the pack.
We’d already spent part of the afternoon waiting in the hot sun at the U.S. embassy, so things didn’t smell too good, probably adding to the bad vibes.
Once through the gate, I got my first glimpse of the king’s house. It was surprisingly modest, an ugly modern concrete design ruined further by security grates welded to the outside. The ironwork made it look like a building at the zoo, but for the fresh paint and the gorgeous rose garden in the yard.
White plastic chairs were set out under a canopy, except in the middle of the front row where a wooden one had been placed. You didn’t have to ask if the king would sit there.
Zahir Shah, at 87, can manage little more than a whisper. So an aide read aloud his statement endorsing Karzai. Karzai then praised the king. It wasn’t a whole lot, but we had our story. We tried for more, shouting some pointed questions, White House press corps-style. Did this deal include a special role for the king? What about his family, which craves a return to power in some form? Karzai smiled and brushed us aside, and the king seemed unaware.
Exiting the king’s compound was much easier, as the pressure was off. But those few steps struck me as a longer mental journey. Emerging from the quiet beauty of the garden into the dirty street, Kabul seemed so far from where it should be.