Vaclav Havel Walks into a Nightclub

My one night at a rock concert with the Czech dissident, artist, and president.

It's a shame that the death of one of the world's most ghastly leaders, North Korea's Kim Jong Il, will overshadow the death of one of its finest: Vaclav Havel, the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, who passed away on Sunday, Dec. 18, of respiratory ailments -- he was a lifelong smoker and lung cancer survivor -- at his country estate in northern Bohemia. I only met Havel once and wouldn't pretend to know him, and my reminiscence accordingly counts for far less than the rest that will be offered. You can read those if you want to understand why Havel matters to history or art; what follows, for what it's worth, is an account of why he matters to me.

It was six-and-a-half years ago in Washington, D.C., and I had somehow persuaded an extremely indulgent editor friend at a music and fashion magazine to let me write a short squib about a Czech band called the Plastic People of the Universe, which was playing at the Black Cat nightclub on 14th Street. I mostly wanted an excuse to meet "the Plastics," a band whose legend far outstripped its recorded catalog, most of which was out of print and hopelessly difficult to find. The group had formed in Prague in 1968, amid the rush of the Prague Spring, with the intention of playing music inspired by the American experimental rock musicians they adored: the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart. It was a modest aim that, after Soviet tanks rolled into Wenceslas Square the following August, suddenly looked revolutionary. The Plastics were not particularly political, but Czechoslovakia's newly disciplinarian communist regime looked askance at their lyrics -- many of them written by the best Czech poets of the era -- which celebrated sexuality, Catholic imagery, and other taboos. In 1976, after years of government harassment, the band's members and associates were finally rounded up and hauled into court on trumped up "disturbing the peace" charges.

Among the poets whose work had informed the Plastics' records -- which were pressed in sympathetic Western countries and circulated samizdat-style in Czechoslovakia -- was Vaclav Havel. The band's trial inspired him and other dissidents to draft the landmark Charter 77 human rights declaration the following year, a document that laid the foundation of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The conviction of the Plastics -- which was finally overturned by the Czech Supreme Court in 2003 -- also prompted some of Havel's finest writing. In his essay "The Trial," Havel described how the court proceedings made the band into "the unintentional personification of those forces in man that compel him to search for himself, to determine his own place in the world freely, and in his own way, not to make deals with his heart and not to cheat his conscience, to call things by their true names."

The seven-piece band that was waiting downstairs in the Black Cat's sepulchral green room when I arrived that summer afternoon included only a couple of the members who had founded the Plastics 37 years earlier. One of them, saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec, also happened to be the band's de facto English-language spokesman; after leaving prison, he had spent many years in exile in Canada. Brabenec was 62 and, with his long flowing hair, prodigious beard, and heavy Slavic features, resembled an Orthodox patriarch. Like everyone else in the band, he smoked incessantly as he described the details of the band's visit to Washington. "Oh," he added, leaning back in the cracked pleather chair, "and Vaclav is coming."

A couple of hours later, they trooped down the stairs: not just Havel, who happened to be in town for a reading at the Library of Congress, but also former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the Czech ambassador. They availed themselves of the cooler full of Heinekens, drinking and smoking with the band and listening while the bassist, Eva Turnova, recounted her run-in with Lenny Kaye, the proto-punk guitarist and her hero, on the band's tour stop in New York. Then the band was called up to the stage, and the rest of us followed, settling in the back of the club around a big black plywood table, sticky with stale beer and etched with the names of dozens of past concertgoers.

On the stage, Brabenec let loose an ear-splitting peal of free improvisation, and the rest of the band settled into a heavy, abrasive rhythm. This was not the Fleetwood Mac of Bill Clinton's administration, and I leaned over to ask Albright what she thought of it. "I think it's -- I think it's great," she said after a lengthy pause. "I like it a lot. Now, I can't say I've heard a lot of it -- I've mainly heard about them."

Havel, the old avant-gardist, was watching with a smile on his face. He had personally coaxed the Plastics out of retirement in 1997 for a performance at Prague Castle on the 20th anniversary of the Charter 77 signing; a year later, he brought Plastics bassist Milan Hlavsa -- who died in 2001 -- to Washington to perform with the band's hero, the Velvet Underground's Lou Reed, for Havel and Clinton at the White House. I asked him about his relationship with the band, but the music drowned out his soft voice, and I stopped after a couple questions, feeling guilty -- I was keeping him from watching the show. On the dance floor, the Czech ambassador was shimmying to the music with a drink in his hand and a Plastics T-shirt under his sport coat. A slow trickle of admirers approached Havel for his autograph, which he signed with a pair of red and green felt-tip pens: "Havel" in loopy cursive, followed by a heart.

Then without warning, Turnova blew Havel's cover, outing the "ex-president" in the back of the club. A couple of hundred fans turned around to face Havel, who stood up and waved sheepishly, his shoulders hunched slightly inside his sport coat. "For Mr. Havel," Brabenec called out, "'Magical Nights!'" The Plastics launched into a song of the same name, one they had performed three decades earlier at a clandestine music festival that Havel hosted at his country house. The lyrics went:

We live in Prague, that is the place

Where the Spirit itself will show its face.

We live in Prague, that is the place.

The ex-president smiled again, and I realized I was in the presence of something remarkable. Here was a man who had survived one of the Eastern Bloc's worst regimes and helped overthrow it; who had navigated the confusion of the Iron Curtain's fall and the division of his own country; who had endured the myriad little compromises and disappointments that come with the actual business of governing. Yet he had emerged somehow intact, in a way that the U.S. politicians I had met in Washington, survivors of far less battering public experiences, rarely seemed to be. As I watched him drinking beer with old friends and basking in the sound of a band he had seen play who knows how many times, it was possible to believe that one could plunge into the morass of politics and emerge on the other side a human being. Havel had, true to his own words, determined his own place in the world.

It was 1 a.m. by the time the encores wound down and Havel finally got up from his seat. After he had left, I noticed something on the table at the place where he had been sitting. It was just a concertgoer's name, etched through the black paint in loopy cursive, punctuated with a heart.



The Frankenstein of Tahrir Square

Egypt is spinning out of control. But it's not only the fault of the ruling military junta -- the protesters in the street deserve plenty of blame, too.

CAIRO — Tahrir Square smells like piss. It is no surprise. After all, people had been living there in a tent camp for weeks. Yet the stench is also fitting for Egypt's current impasse. Egyptians -- soldiers, police, activists, soccer hooligans called "ultras," and others -- have abused this ostensibly hallowed ground at various moments since Hosni Mubarak's unexpected fall almost a year ago.

The latest affront to the revolutionary promise of Tahrir came this past weekend, just to the south of the square on Qasr al-Aini Street, where Egypt's parliament and cabinet buildings sit. There, military police and protesters engaged in a pitched battle using rocks, glass, metal, truncheons, and Molotov cocktails. At one point, an Egyptian soldier standing on the roof of the cabinet building literally appeared to urinate on the protesters below. (The symbolism was lost on no one.)

The proximate cause of Cairo's current spasm of violence was the military police's ill-advised effort to clear a relatively small number of protesters from in front of the cabinet building. The clashes, however, have revealed a deeper, more profound problem afflicting Egypt. The country has retreated from the moment of empowerment and national dignity that the uprising symbolized and is now grappling with a squalid politics and the normalization of violence.

What is perhaps most disturbing is that the weekend's battle, which left 10 dead and hundreds injured, didn't seem to have a point. The young toughs who descended on Qasr al-Aini Street after news spread of the Army's efforts to clear the area seemed less concerned with principle than combat. Having cut their teeth and paid for it with the loss of 45 lives in late November clashes with the police and military, these kids seemed to be looking for payback. Qasr al-Aini Street bellowed with chants of "Death to the field marshal" -- a reference to Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) head Gen. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi -- rather than the significantly more inspiring "Freedom! Freedom!" that echoed through the concrete canyon of Tahrir during the January uprising.

How did Egyptians get to this warped, demented, bizarro version of Tahrir Square? It is easy to blame the SCAF, as so many have, but the generals have also had a lot of help. Each of Egypt's primary political actors -- the military, revolutionary groups, Islamists, and liberals -- have contributed mightily to the country's current political impasse and economic collapse through a combination of incompetence, narcissism, and treachery. This has left a society on the edge, one in which minor traffic accidents become near riots, soldiers beat women with reckless abandon, and protesters burn the building containing some of Egypt's historical and cultural treasures.

The military command, which handled the 18-day uprising so well, has compensated for its lack of political acumen with brutality. The combination of both suggests a military command adrift with no real grasp of the political dynamics of the society they lay claim to protect and lead. It is not clear to whom, exactly, Egypt's generals were listening in February when they drew up plans for handing power over to civilian rule, but they have presided over a transition that has sown confusion and heightened tension -- all in the name, ironically, of stability.

The sorry state of Egypt's transition reveals a central problem with the generals' administration of the country. They come up with ideas with the help of a domestic intelligence apparatus that is more brutal than shrewd, toss them out into the public square, gauge how people react, and adjust accordingly. This is terribly destabilizing because rather than doing what is right, they try to situate everything they do in that sweet spot of public opinion. When the fortunes of the revolutionary groups were high, the SCAF responded to their demands. Now, the officers are dialed into that mythical, great "silent majority" that they believe is opposed to the protests.

In a Dec. 19 press conference, Maj. Gen. Adel Emara sought to reinforce that point when he argued that the people on Qasr al-Aini Street did not represent the uprising that toppled Mubarak and that the protesters, not the military, had instigated the violence. Emara was correct on the first point but clearly departed from the facts on the second. The officers seem to be convinced that they have the pulse of the Egyptian people, but the problem is that if this majority is actually silent, how can the officers know what these people are thinking? Indeed, they don't know.

The three-round parliamentary elections -- a marathon process that began in November and will not end until January 2012 -- represents another source of friction. The officers may have felt vindicated by the large and mostly trouble-free first round, but when they woke up to the fact that Egyptians seem to want to invest the parliament with a strong popular mandate, they had second thoughts about the wisdom of their "silent majority." That's why Maj. Gen. Mukhtar al-Mulla told a group of foreign journalists on Dec. 7 that despite the strong turnout, the parliament will not actually be able to "impose anything" on the Egyptian state.

It's unclear how the military will justify this position, but watch out. Such statements put it on a collision course with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has dominated the parliamentary elections. Whatever happened on Qasr al-Aini Street and Tahrir over the weekend will ultimately pale in significance to the coming struggle between the military and the Brothers, who believe that they, not the military, enjoy a popular mandate.

The revolutionaries have much to answer for as well. With all the creativity and energy that went into bringing Mubarak down and is currently going into plans to transform Egyptian society, there has also been much narcissism and revolutionary navel-gazing. The instigators of Mubarak's fall have seemed to be more focused on burnishing their revolutionary cred on Twitter and Facebook -- which are not accessible to the vast majority of Egyptians -- than doing the hard work of political organizing. For months, the revolutionaries have largely spurned the political process that began after Mubarak's ouster. After they were trounced in the March 19 constitutional referendum, many tuned out and began searching for ways to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was January 25.

But they have largely failed to do so. The 17 "Fridays of …" over the spring and summer reflected political goals less than a "I protest, therefore I am" sensibility. It culminated with a two-week sit-in at Tahrir Square that -- because it brought Cairo to a halt and deteriorated into a carnival of self-congratulation rather than a serious political statement -- did much damage to the revolutionaries in the eyes of sympathetic Egyptians. All through the spring and summer, while the revolutionaries were imagining themselves as a permanent revolution against the military, the hated felool ("remnants" of the old regime), or anyone who dared disagree with them, the Muslim Brothers were hard at work, taking advantage of the greatest political opportunity they have had since a schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna founded the group in December 1928.

If the revolutionaries and their supporters are now stunned that the Islamists -- both the Brotherhood and the Salafists -- are set to dominate post-uprising Egypt, they must take a hard look at what they have done, or not done, over the last 11 months. Indeed, their ability to read Egyptian public sentiment is as bad as that of the military, and a good deal more myopic.

The Muslim Brothers are just about the only ones who have played post-Mubarak Egypt well. Although they did not instigate the uprising, they understood how events were unfolding and helped hasten the demise of a regime they reviled. Additionally, unlike the revolutionaries, the Brothers shrewdly put themselves in a position to prevail. It is not the revolutionaries who scare the military -- it is the Brotherhood, which is capable of displacing the officers as the source of authority and legitimacy in the political system.

Now that the Brothers are poised to dominate parliament, what will be their approach to politics? So far, they have adopted a pragmatic path in an effort to persuade Egyptians and the international community that they can be good stewards of Egypt. For example, the Brothers have reached out to business leaders in Egypt and abroad to solicit their advice on managing the economy and have evinced a decidedly moderate public posture on questions related to minority rights, women, and tourism. This makes sense, given the organization's worldview and historical political strategy, which has always been that time is on its side.

But one should not expect the Muslim Brotherhood to wait forever. Huge protests on July 8 and Nov. 18 demonstrated its political power, while at the same time heightening tensions and polarizing the public. It is hard to believe that with Egypt now within their grasp, the Brothers will settle to lead from behind and pass up the chance to realize their historical goal of ruling the country. If the Islamists cannot resist the temptation to rule and govern, they are heading for a mighty showdown with the SCAF.

The optimistic view is that Egyptians are deep in the throes of a wrenching national debate that will take many years to work out, but is nevertheless healthy. It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to make that case. To be sure, Egypt is a cacophony of ideas, projects, initiatives, and manifestos. Yet there is no moral leadership to give the best of ideas national political meaning and content. Egypt's would-be wise men have tried -- but pro-democracy stalwart Mohamed ElBaradei could not do it during the uprising, and Essam Sharaf was not strong enough politically to withstand the competing demands of the revolutionaries, officers, and Islamists as prime minister. It remains to be seen whether other Egyptian leaders such Amr Moussa, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, or Khairat El Shater can be that person, but they are all divisive personalities who may do more to undermine social cohesion than repair it.

The result of all this is Tahrir's Frankenstein monster where there is no leadership, no moral force, no common cause, and no sense of decency. Egyptians are in trouble, and there is not much anyone can do to help them. After these spasms of violence you often hear from Egyptians, "This is not Egypt." It is time for them to prove it.