This morning, it finally happened. Gretchen called from the reception area and told me, “Ahmed is here, and I’m taking the rest of today and all of tomorrow off. I’ll call from home and cancel your remaining appointments through noon. You can cancel the rest through six tonight yourself.” Then she hung up. And no, I’m not going to fire her, and regular readers of this Web log would be quick to apprehend why. “Ahmed,” as he calls himself, isn’t supposed to just show up like that, and this was the first time he simply walked in without warning.
Darting into my desk drawer for a double dose of pathologist’s camphor, I fortified my nostrils for the shock and walked out into the reception area. Despite the fact that I had a nine o’clock consultation scheduled with an economist from the World Bank, a fellow who has never missed an appointment in seven solid years, he was gone, and the only sign of his prior presence there at eight-forty-five was a large, glistening puddle of vomit near the hallway door, apparently expelled against his will as he dashed out.
“Ahmed” was there, of course, in an eye-strain-inducing lime green burnoose, sitting on a chair with a Cartier briefcase perched on his lap. “Good friend Tom!” he bellowed as I approached him. “Your presence makes Ahmed smile!” With that, he opened the briefcase to reveal a pile of Krugerrands big enough to choke an endangered white rhinoceros.
“For you, my friend Tom!” he proclaimed, snapping the briefcase shut and shoving it into my hands. “Ahmed needs to speak with you very much!”
“Certainly,” I sighed, gesturing toward the twin oak doors leading to my office. “Come in, please.”
I have always done my best to discourage “Ahmed” from booking consultations with me by asking for large multiples of my usual fees, but it has never worked – the man has so much money, it doesn’t seem to matter what I charge. “This is quite a surprise,” I opined as he made himself comfortable on the couch in front of the picture window overlooking the White House and I wondered to myself what it was going to cost to get the stench out of the damned thing once he had sat on it without the usual pre-consultation five mil plastic cover installed over it. Perhaps, I thought, it might be cheaper to just buy another lamb skin upholstered Finn Juhl couch. “Is there some sort of emergency?”
“Yes, yes,” he replied, “very, very big emergency. You know Jamal Khashoggi?”
“Only very casually,” I allowed. “I’ve met him at a couple of social gatherings here in Washington. He was murdered, apparently, just this month, at the Consulate of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey.”
“Khashoggi make very, very big mistake,” he asserted in a stage whisper, leaning in for emphasis. “He writes many, many bad things about the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, but he does not see that the prince is a man of great honor, who will not stand for insults!”
“Well, now, my friend,” I admonished, “that’s not… entirely accurate, is it? As I recall, Khashoggi’s personal jibes at the crown prince were pretty tame, actually. I recall Khashoggi chiding the crown prince for ‘rash actions,’ ‘questionable judgment’ and being ‘intolerant of dissent,’ and other words to that effect, but you must admit, that’s hardly being insulting. After all, it’s the role of a concerned, professional journalist to offer constructive, insightful criticism and speak truth to power, is it not?”
“And who,” my guest demanded in a slightly bristling tone, “is the person the Americans and English think of when you talk about speaking truth to power?”
“That would be Sir Thomas More, of course.” I replied.
“Yes, yes, that is the man,” he nodded, “and what happened to him, for speaking truth to power?”
“He was beheaded,” I admitted, “but history vilifies his killer, King Henry VIII.”
“Maybe so,” he shrugged, “but history cannot put the head back on Sir Thomas More, can it? And tell me, my good friend Tom, do you think King Henry cared who liked him or not?”
“Frankly,” I averred, “there’s plenty of evidence that King Henry did, in fact, want people to like him. He just wasn’t very good at getting them to do so.”
At that, “Ahmed” rose up from the couch and stabbed his right index finger at me with a big smile and an air of triumph. “Yes, yes! And who else is like that? I will tell you – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that is who! He tries to make the people like him, yes? He opens the cinema for the first time in thirty-five years and lets the people see Emoji Movie! You see Emoji Movie? Very, very funny! Everyone have good time! And he let women drive, too! He allow music, dancing, plays, all kinds of nice things that were forbidden – and more! He takes the Morality Police off the streets! All kinds of good things, I tell you, my good friend Tom, he did them! And these things made his people happy and they love him for it! I know, because I have been there when these things were happening, in the palace with the prince and also I see on the streets, how much the people are happy and love him! But what does Jamal Khashoggi do? Does he write in Washington Post about happy and love? No! He writes that the crown prince is wrong and is doing bad things!”
“If that’s the prince’s interpretation of Jamal Khashoggi’s journalism,” I chided, “he’s not very sophisticated. You need to realize that in addition to those reforms you told me about, he is also responsible for the detention of numerous civil rights activists, and conducted a vicious purge of his political opponents under the guise of fighting corruption. He has also committed mass false imprisonment and outrageous acts of extortion. And it could be argued that he is a war criminal, since his policy of mass bombings during conduct of the war in Yemen resulted in famines, and using the food supply as a weapon to carry out a policy of genocide against civilian populations is a crime against humanity.”
“Oh, no, no, no,” my reeking client chuckled with a puckish grin as he playfully wagged his finger at me, “I know my good friend Tom too well for that! You are… how do you say it… jerking my chain, playing at a bleeding heart person, just to be the advocate of the Devil, yes? Good friend Tom cannot fool Ahmed – we both know that Middle East is no American Forth of July church picnic! The prince does what he knows the prince must do! And sure, Jamal Khashoggi complained when the prince kill some Yemenis, but when the prince put Wahhabis in jail, nobody in America complain, do they?”
“Okay, then, I suggested, we’ll have to agree to disagree on what constitutes shining examples of the crown prince’s virtues and what heinous acts comprise his moral lapses,” I pressed, “and get down brass tacks – what dire emergency brings you here without calling to make an appointment with Gretchen first?”
“Ah, yes, that,” he groaned as he collapsed back onto the couch in despair. “Speaking with my good friend Tom is so interesting, I almost forgot the terrible trouble poor Ahmed has. You know… oh, how you say his name in English… Mak-eee… you know the man from Italy, Nick-oh-low… Mak-eee…”
“Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli?” I ventured. “The man who wrote The Prince in 1513?”
“Yes, yes,” he nodded vigorously, “that is the one.”
“What about him?” I asked, quite nonplussed – this was about the last thing I would have guessed “Ahmed” would bring up in a conversation, that’s for sure.
“I hear about this book that is called ‘The Prince,’ and I think, Ahmed now spends much time with the crown prince, maybe I can learn something. So I get a copy in Arabic and I read. Is very good book. Such clever advice, it remind me of my good friend Tom. I think, ‘Tom in Washington DC, he could have written this,’ as I read it. And in last few years, I am doing much business in Saudi Arabia, making much baksheesh, making many friends, and I make friends with the crown prince, and we talk. And so, when the crown prince ask Ahmed what he thinks, Ahmed tells Mohammed bin Salman something from the book.”
“Like what?” I asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
“I tell him, ‘It is good to be loved, and it is good to be feared, but it is far better to be feared than loved.’”
“Oh, Jesus,” I exclaimed without thinking. “Um… what else?”
“I tell the crown prince, ‘Do not be interested in the status quo, be interested in overthrowing it.’ And I tell him, ‘Learn to deceive and you will find many who are willing to be deceived,’ and I tell him, ‘Politics should have no relation to morality.’ He liked that one very much.”
“And Mohammed bin Salman thought you were coming up with these little gems all by yourself?” I asked.
“Ahmed does not know for sure,” he declared, holding his hands uplifted in a gesture of helplessness, “because Ahmed does not know if the prince ever read that book.”
“All right,” I relented, “I understand. You got a chance to become the confidant of a powerful person and you took it. I can’t say I agree that you were giving the crown prince the best advice under the circumstances, but that’s a matter of judgment. I wouldn’t have told him that stuff, but then again, you’re not me. But I still don’t see the emergency you were talking about.”
“Ahmed was coming to that,” he explained. “You see, good friend Tom, what Jamal Khashoggi write in Washington Post, it make the crown prince very, very angry. So when he tell me about that, I tell him another thing I read in the book, ‘When you seek to injure a man, see to it that your injury is so severe he can never take vengeance on you for what you have done.’ And then I see, like you Americans say, the light bulb go off over the prince’s head. And he ask Ahmed to use his friends in all places in the Middle East to watch Khashoggi and tell Ahmed and then Ahmed will tell the crown prince – where is Khashoggi, what is he doing, when will be here, when will he be there… and Ahmed does this, and tells the crown prince everything Ahmed hears about this man, Khashoggi.”
“And then,” I noted, “the prince dispatches a hit squad of Saudi government thugs to intercept Khashoggi when he visits the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to fill out some paperwork so he can get married.”
“It is true,” my guest admitted with a slight catch in his voice, “this information came to the crown prince from one of Ahmed’s friends.”
“And the moment Khashoggi set foot in the Saudi consulate, he was strangled and beaten to death,” I continued, “after which, the prince’s thugs took off Khashoggi’s clothes and put them on a decoy lookalike who traipsed outside in front of the various video cameras around the consulate in an attempt to make it look like Khashoggi had left the building, creating a distraction while the rest of the thugs carved up the dead body and prepared to smuggle it out of the consulate to some remote location for ultimate disposal by a local operative.”
“Ahmed is so sorry,” he wailed as he began to weep crocodile tears, “You must believe, good friend Tom, that Ahmed never thought the prince would do such a thing with the information Ahmed and Ahmed’s friends gave him! And now, nobody will come to prince’s big economic conference! Nobody will invite the prince for state visit! People call the prince murderer now, and you cannot imagine, good friend Tom, how angry the prince is about all that!”
“Oh, maybe I can,” I told him. “I know, for example, that he’s rounding up people who allegedly had something to do with the Khashoggi assassination mission and accusing them doing it without his permission or knowledge.”
“Yes, yes,” my malodorous guest gently sobbed, “and this is Ahmed’s big emergency! Ahmed does not want to have his head chopped off just because he agreed with the crown prince that the press is the enemy of the people and tried to help the prince take care of some annoying reporter who was spreading fake news about the prince! Please, please, good friend Tom, tell Ahmed what he should do!”
The camphor was wearing off, so I paused for a moment to replenish it, turning away from my client so as to avoid having him observe me and perhaps ask what I was doing. It was an advantageous choice, since my actions apparently lent a generous aura of drama to what I said next. Turning back to face him again, I declaimed as though I were Demosthenes, “He who serves himself well serves the prince better still.”
“My good friend Tom!” he yelped, wide-eyed with amazement. “Did Mak… uh, the man who wrote that book… did he say that?”
“No,” I dryly replied, “I did. Now, what you need to do in your current situation is serve your own interests completely, giving no thought to those of anyone else.”
“Meaning… what, my good friend Tom?” he inquired, his face a topographic map of bewilderment itself.
“That person who gave you the information about Khashoggi’s visit to the Saudi consulate?” I prodded.
“Him?” my guest responded.
“You know where he is?” I sought to confirm.
“Yes, yes, my good friend Tom, Ahmed knows where that person is,” he assured me.
“Serve your own interests, then,” I solemnly advised, “and convince the prince that he is to blame, not you.”
“Oh, oh yes!” he exulted. “I see now! The prince must have somebody’s head for this, and the prince will be best served if that person is not Ahmed! Oh, thank you, thank you, good friend Tom,” he burbled as he leaped up from the couch and kissed my hand effusively, following it with a monumentally rank and nauseatingly close bear hug. “I will do this thing as you say, right now!”
And with that he was gone, as suddenly as he had appeared. I put the briefcase full of Krugerrands in the office safe, then called building management and told them to send someone to my reception area to clean up a pile of vomit.