Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ahmed Rashid: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Leonard Cohen

Ahmed Rashid is best known as a political journalist writing about Central Asia, particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Rashid, who is based in Pakistan, is one of the more astute and insightful writers about the history and complexity of events unfolding in Pakistan and Afghanistan and is an acknowledged expert on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda's operations in the Afghanistan- Pakistan territories. His articles appear regularly in the New York Review of Books and the UK Guardian.

His most recent books include Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan (2012); Taliban: The Power of Militant Islam in Afghanistan and Beyond (2010) Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (2008).

In his latest article Why I Love Leonard Cohen Rashid writes not about Pakistan, Afghanistan or the Taliban, but Canadian singer songwriter Leonard Cohen.
I was introduced to Leonard Cohen’s music by a friend the day I arrived at Cambridge in September 1968. I immediately went out and bought his first long-playing record, The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Then I listened to him obsessively, every night for three years—always waiting for the next album like a child. Yet I never saw him perform live until this fall, forty-four years later.

Cohen, now seventy-eight, has just finished a European tour and begun a thirty-five city American tour—a coup considering that American audiences have been on the whole less appreciative of his work than their European counterparts. The performance I saw in Madrid was heart-rending, pure euphoria and exultation. He played for four hours and the Spanish audience would not let him go. At the end he skipped off the stage like a young man. His latest album, Old Ideas, reached number one on the charts in eleven countries, from Belgium to Poland to Canada. Many of his most ardent fans do not speak English but learn the words of his songs nevertheless.

The opportunity finally to meet Cohen and indulge in a long conversation with him before the show revealed a man who is humble and deeply in touch with the world. We talked about not only his music and his band but the wars in Afghanistan and Syria, growing old, why he has deliberately avoided becoming a rock celebrity, and the variety of religions and spiritual paths he has embraced over the course of his life. 

Working as a journalist, I have taken Cohen everywhere, through long bouts covering the wars in Afghanistan and Central Asia, including during a stint with the Taliban in the 1990s. Wherever I travel, I still pack him like a sleeping pill, a beautiful ghost you can surrender to, a spiritual man for these unspiritual times, someone with whom you can shed the weight of reality, your fears and concerns.
Above all, Cohen’s music is about love, tolerance, and beauty.

These days he is preoccupied with death and his own passing, ruminations that have resulted in him often singing one of his earlier great songs, “If It Be Your Will”:

If it be your will that I speak no more
And my voice be still as it was before,
I will speak no more.
I shall abide until
I am spoken for,
If it be your will.
If it be your will that a voice be true,
From this broken hill I will sing to you.
From this broken hill all your praises they shall ring.
If it be your will to let me sing. 

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