by Dimitri Nasrallah
Esplanade Books, 2018
I like to take my breakfast on the veranda, in the humid morning air, while reading The Nation. That way I know exactly how to abuse its editor during our daily exchange. A national newspaper, to my mind, should have priorities.
I’ll tell you, quite honestly, I went through eight elections during my presidency. Eight. That’s two more than my dad Blanco, who’s practically a saint in this country and could have easily kept going had circumstances allowed it. I had landslides some years, others that required a bit of massaging, and each one of them provided its own unique challenge. But sitting on my hands like I have today, a vip spectator with access to the front row, the green room, the cast, a firm hand on the director’s shoulder, a pin on the producer’s lapel, and yet no access to the stage itself, no full control of what’s about to happen, leaving that all to Vadim, why, it’s maddening.
This morning I woke up in a daze, after only four hours of sleep, which is as much as I can manage these days. The alarm was set to remind me that a lineup of pills stands behind it. I was already awake, staring at the ceiling. I sat up and ingested eight pills one by one, tongue, sip, swallow, repeat, until I could feel them burn down the lining of my leather stomach.
After breakfast, I had to go cast my vote before a strobe of camera flashes, if only for symbolic purposes. So, after I’d dressed, I ordered a helicopter to my rooftop’s landing pad, and from there we soared above Qala Phratteh to the Ministry of the Interior. I like to sit up in front next to the pilot, Franco, whom I’ve known for many years, one of the Bleed family’s longest-serving employees. Franco handed over the controls for a few minutes, because none of the pills I swallow every morning do as much to get my blood rushing like the sharp tilt of piloting an aircraft over Revolution Square, the warm wind rifling through my clothes like an overzealous border agent.
Have you ever seen the city in the morning from a helicopter? From up there, I can see the forested ridge of the Allegory Mountains encircling the capital, cradling an orange pillow of pollution. My father’s statue marks Revolution Square, his sword rising up to cut the man-made cloud. There’s only a hint of the eight boulevards leading out from the square. Today they were all lined with military trucks. The Bleed cinemas, the Bleed National Library, Bleed Stadium, the business district, the Lezer hovels, the copper waters of the Zafer River – you can tour it all with the turn of the steering stick, as if operating a surveillance camera.
Franco landed the helicopter on the roof of the Ministry of the Interior, and I leapt out as gingerly as one can at 82 with a bad leg and a cane, all the while holding down my silk tie against the rotor blades’ gust. Inside, I took the elevators down to the main lobby where my bodyguard, a former wrestling protégé of mine, met me with the open arms of the son I never had. I donned sunglasses and limped into the public gallery to cast my vote before the state-sanctioned press corps. I flashed a quick victory sign as I pushed the voting card into the ballot box.
We disappeared into the private backrooms of the ministry. It was time for the morning’s debriefing – a round table of the Bleed administration’s executive committee, where I still hold a chair as Special Counsel to the President, a post I invented in the last months of my administration. I was impatient to get going, but I was trying my hardest to resist leading the meeting, out of deference to my son’s image, and also out of respect to the staff who end up performing so much of the heavy lifting for which he invariably assumes credit. These days it’s the General who carries most of the load, given that he’s my longest-standing confidant and has been my right-hand man for almost three decades. That means that I confer with the General on many of the government’s priorities, and he in turn controls much of what happens in this room, to my liking. So the meeting began when the General marched into the room, threw his officer’s cap onto a coat rack and smacked the conference table with the palm of his hand.
“The day’s not off to a good start,” he said. “Lineups at polling stations are already longer than anticipated, and international observers are practically at every station. We should still have a fairly good idea of who’s voting against us. The main objective of the day is to give the impression that Vadim is the natural man to beat. If we push back too hard today, he’ll look weak.”
Everyone around the table looked defeated already.
“If we can only get Vadim past this hurdle,” I said, leaning forward, “then I’m sure over the next five years he’s going to mature into his role. He’ll turn 40 over the course of this coming term. I’m sure he’ll settle in better than he already has.”
For the next 30 minutes we discussed how to best get our voters out. With the help of my cane, I stood up and sighed. “Let’s hope the day doesn’t turn up too much trouble. Make sure our people get out and vote. If the opportunity arises to turn the situation in our favour, take it. At any sign of violence in unfriendly areas, shut down the polls. As far as we’re concerned, our man is out front with the silent majority. At the end of the day, we’ll take a look at the results and decide where to go from there. Those results do not leave this building without my say-so. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” the ministers all said in unison, a spark of the discipline that used to occupy these halls on a daily basis.
After I adjourned the meeting, the General walked me down to my waiting limousine, and we reminisced about past elections along the way. The General and I have been through a lot together. On the drive back home, the limousine slipped through the silent streets of the normally bustling downtown core.
That evening, I tried my best not to show my worry at the state dinner. I worked the Bleed Ballroom with my usual flourishes, glad-handing ministers, stroking the egos of our American guests, all of them reticent senior managers of our uranium mines. These are the people who generously support our family and national programs with the land leases we’ve provided them, even though their government refuses to communicate with us officially. Tonight, their anxiety was hanging in the air like the smoke of so many cigars. No matter the subject of conversation, the refrain would return, often in little more than a whisper, “Your Excellency,” because I’m cordial but not generous with our uranium-mining consortium, “my bosses back home would like assurances if President Vadim Bleed loses. We’ve invested so much here that…”
I know what you’re thinking. At my age, five years removed from my 29-year run as President, shouldn’t I be bronzing on the deck of a private yacht amongst the archipelagos of the Indian Ocean? I should’ve had more children, kept more options open for my succession. Shouldn’t I be off enjoying my golden years, instead of pinch-hitting for Vadim? For that matter, shouldn’t he be at this state dinner in the Bleed Ballroom?
Written by Dimitri Nasrallah