Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Meeting with the Ayatollah

I met with the real, live Ayatollah!  Not THAT Ayatollah, but a local guy here that is considered the holiest of the holy for the minority sect.   His name is Ayatoullah Al-Sheigh Abdul Mone'm Al-Zien.  I was too afraid to ask if I could just call him Al...

He is able to travel freely through every country in West Africa on a diplomatic visa and is revered as a king by his followers.  The Ayatollah is of Lebanese decent, so I obviously visited with my Lebanese friend to ensure proper translation.  Okay, I was traveling with my boss, the former Minister of Education, to give the news that our campus was closing and I was essentially just tagging along so I could say I met an Ayatollah, but humor me for a moment with my self-importance.  On another note, my Lebanese friend is also responsible for the spelling of the Ayatollah's name, although I'm pretty sure it's not correct because every Google search turned up empty. 

There is a strong Lebanese contingent in Dakar - about 25,000 - and, like many places, they run the bodegas, grocery stores, money changing shops and other small businesses that the locals never seem to figure out how to do for themselves.  And, like many places, they are largely reviled in the city. 

We were welcomed into the meeting room which might be described as "Muslim retro-chic" if that was the motif someone was trying to achieve.  It might also be described as "hasn't been updated in 30 years" since the wall-to-wall carpeting, faux leather furniture and gargantuan coffee table were obvious relics.  The bookshelves were packed with what might have been the Arabic Encyclopedia Britanica, but I'll never know for sure.  For all I know, the books may have consisted of 35 years of back issues of "Good Housekeeping" magazine set in fancy bindings. Although I'm pretty sure it wasn't the latter, because we were served cheap tea and very cheap store-bought cookies upon the arrival of "The King."  There's a reason some people have a lot of money: they don't spend it.

The Ayatollah is a Shiite in a town where the Sunnis outnumber them by the millions.  I was told beforehand that this man was very open-minded and is considered by many to be "a thinking man."  After meeting him, I draw the conclusion these personality traits are probably as much a function of being a minority pragmatist for more than 20+ years instead of being truly open-minded. 

The Ayatollah lamented the politicians' requests for Lebanese support in the upcoming elections.  "They come to us many months before an election asking for money and for our votes; then we don't see them or hear from them for 5 years."  In other words, not much different than the U.S...  He made some suggestions (including one that I hear more and more often - that my boss should run for president) including the keen observation that he cannot support 15 different opposition candidates such that the opposition might be smart by consolidating to one candidate that he might be able to support.

He spoke of how the current administration has done little in terms of public works for its citizens.  He noted the Lebanese Shiites have built a hospital that has served more people - free of charge - than the government-run hospital.  The Ayatollah is considered "a friend of math and science" and he told of the new school being constructed in downtown Dakar and offers to build other schools in the rural areas.  He even explained how his organization made a generous offer to build a new power plant to assist with the regular electricity shortages.  Of course, there was a small catch: "We only asked that we be allowed to take the regular profits from this power plant."  In other words, proposal was dead on arrival because the current power structure is much more concerned with having a monopoly on taking profits from state-run enterprises than in providing more electricity.

We left after an hour's time and with a list of complaints that we were asked to take to "people who can do something about them."  It seems this is one case where controlling a big pile of money can't buy happiness.

There is a very relevant side note to my visit.  The mess in Cote D'Ivoire has had a dramatic impact on the Lebanese community in that country.  They made the silly mistake of siding with the now deposed leader, Laurent Gbagbo.  The Lebanese are now being persecuted by the new, democratically elected leader; their stores are being looted, their homes are being burned and their bank accounts are being frozen.  Funny how we never hear about these stories on the evening news.  Many of the Cote D'Ivoire Lebanese are fleeing for the relative safety of Dakar. 

It is a reminder that supporting one political agenda in Africa is enough to get you killed if it's the wrong agenda.

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