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  • Mullah Mansour's Theatrical Triumph, and Our Loss
  • Joel Schechter (bio)

During November 2010, at the same time that the Berkeley Repertory Theatre hosted a day-long cycle of plays about Afghanistan, featuring England's Tricycle Theatre company in carefully rehearsed scenes of warfare, negotiation, and treachery, a more daring theatrical performance took place in Afghanistan. Leaders of state met an impostor who said he was Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the Taliban's second highest commander. The alleged Mullah engaged in several negotiating sessions with officials of NATO, including American representatives, and he even met Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the presidential palace. Rarely have actors been accorded such negotiating power. For his visits, the Mullah was paid quite handsomely; although it may have been written off as "travel expenses," the money was meant to encourage other Taliban leaders to support Karzai's regime. The payments turned out to be wasted—like most of the funds the United States spends on the Afghan war—as Western diplomats won no concessions from the Taliban, and the impostor vanished.

We may never learn who the Mullah actually was or how he performed such a convincing impersonation of a Taliban leader. I have yet to read any speculation that he was a bhand practicing in the long-standing Indian and Pakistani tradition of comic impersonation; but it merits consideration. Two New York Times reporters avoided that possibility when they wrote: "Some officials say the man may simply have been a freelance fraud, posing as a Taliban leader in order to enrich himself" (Filkins and Gall 2010).

Could the Mullah have been a Pakistani bhand who crossed the border, as some soldiers have been known to do during the Afghan war? Claire Pamment, a faculty member at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, Pakistan, informs me that the bhands of Pakistan use "forked tongues" as "their chief ammunition":

The great negotiators on contemporary Pakistan television are the bhands—who have entered the media when the high seriousness and bleakness of political talk shows have become otherwise impenetrable. The bhands slip between their own comic persona to playing politicians, and in the slippage between the two...humanize dry political discourse. There is a whole stock of historic/legendary fools and jester figures that relate to such antics—Mullah Nasruddin, Mullah Dopiyaza, Birbal, Sheikh Chilli.

(Pamment 2010)

One master trickster, Amir Hamzah, "often defers his revelation [of imposture] until after money or goods are transacted," according to Pamment (2010).

If Mullah Mansour was following well-developed bhand practices, with the variant of not revealing his identity after payment, no one in the press has noticed it, or even considered it, as far as I know. If the CIA or other intelligence agencies had any inkling of this possibility, they probably would not share it with the rest of us.

Perhaps if diplomats sent fewer secret cables over the internet, and met face to face more often with their adversaries, they would not be vulnerable to Wikileaks or to an impostor like the alleged Mullah; at least they would know what leaders of their enemy look and sound like. [End Page 7] For years politicians and pundits in the United States have spoken dismissively of "political theatre," and used the term to accuse adversaries of inconsequential, sensationalistic speeches, mere spectacle without the votes or public support to back up an assertion. Mullah Mansour has shown the world another kind of political theatre, one that requires great acting skills, mastery of costume, movement, religious rhetoric and political jargon, and a superb sense of timing. (If he overstayed his welcome, hosts might figure out his deception; his entrances and exits had to be brilliantly executed.)

In California, where I live and teach, the state has advanced two film actors to the rank of governor in recent decades (and one of those two—a very high percentage—went on to perform in the White House). Here we pay attention to leading actors and sometimes elect them. Actors, including the bhands, have proven themselves capable of commanding attention outside Hollywood, in other centers of power and artistry, from Sacramento to Washington to Kabul. Under these circumstances, it may be misguided to spend...


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