Gurdjieff International Review
“The Material Question”
In Afghanistan, 1977
By James Opie
In the fall of 1977, the needs of my Oriental rug business took me again to Afghanistan. By chance, the filming company engaged in producing Meetings with Remarkable Men was on location there at that time. Bill, my business partner during that period, accompanied me.
Bill, an intensely thoughtful listener, was eager to make his first trip to Asia. When we reached Afghanistan he hoped to connect with those who were making the film, especially the film’s executive-producer, Michael Currer-Briggs.
Michael Briggs had been in Jane Heap’s London groups for many years, precisely the lineage of our own leader, Annie Lou Staveley. It was he who carried the first batch of money—in cash—from London to Gurdjieff after the liberation of Paris in 1945. Mrs. Staveley’s voice conveyed special warmth whenever she spoke about him. It pleased her that a close friend was involved in a project of such importance to Jeanne de Salzmann, the primary person to whom Mrs. Staveley looked for guidance following the death of Jane Heap.
Mrs. Staveley viewed the making of this film as a significant event in the modern history of the Gurdjieff Work, in part because its appearance would lead groups under Madame de Salzmann’s guidance to think in new ways regarding direct contacts with the public. Beyond what had been conveyed by a cluster of books, up to that time the world at large had learned little about the Gurdjieff teaching. Its impact was beginning to be felt more widely in “new age” circles, but the posture of Gurdjieff groups in regard to the general public involved degrees of discretion and circumspection that approached “secrecy.”
The film, we were told, would focus on Gurdjieff’s early life, when an extraordinary capacity for inquiry stirred in him. Several Movements—exercises and dances that Gurdjieff developed and that groups did not perform publicly—were to appear toward the end of the film.
Prior to Bill’s and my departure from Oregon, Mrs. Staveley indicated to me that our trip to Afghanistan and Madame de Salzmann’s presence there, at work on the film, were quite separate matters. She cautioned me to not assume any claim to the time and attention of those associated with the film, including her friend, Mr. Briggs.
“They probably won’t countenance ‘work tourists,’” she said. What she communicated to Bill privately I didn’t hear. Senior to me in our group, he may have received different guidance from Mrs. Staveley. He later said as much. Regardless of what she said to Bill, her warnings to me fell easily on my ears. For me, this trip to Afghanistan had one objective: buying rugs. Interests above and beyond that were distinctly secondary.
Previous buying trips had clarified challenges we would face. Foreign environments often throw a person off balance, influencing elements of judgment. When every transaction occurs on unfamiliar turf, with no fixed prices, mistakes are unavoidable, no matter how hard one struggles to avert them. With luck, blunders and their awakening impact come early and involve minor sums. But it’s possible for important pieces, or promising sources of goods, to appear before a sense of the market has been secured. Challenges of this sort require a clarity of purpose permitting few distractions. Given these considerations, the lure of making contact with Mr. Briggs and Madame de Salzmann—so attractive to Bill—did not hold the same appeal for me.
Was there also some unrecognized resistance in me to being tested in Afghanistan in this other way, outside of business channels? Perhaps so. At the very least, I was aware of the possibility of a fresh encounter with a recurring conflict that most people in groups suffer: the need to balance engagements in daily life, including family responsibilities and the need to make a living, with schedules and responsibilities that serious participation in groups entail. In spite of Gurdjieff’s precept that his teaching was a “way in life,” with room for family and occupational responsibilities, finding the balance was especially challenging for me. This was due, in part, to the need to travel, and also to operate a retail store on Saturdays, which also served as a vehicle for spending time with my two children. I could only imagine that a point of balance actually existed between “work” and “life.” At that stage of life—my late thirties—the preoccupations and passions of daily life were especially strong, and my business was just getting on its feet. Yet, an indefinable spark of interest and need held me to the Work. While my own path toward harmonizing these divergent needs remained in a fog, it was quite clear to me that I had come to Afghanistan not to explore these uncertainties, which involved rather frequent conflicts, but to buy merchandise—that is, to make money.
Bill’s comments during the final leg of our flight eastward emphasized priorities that were clearer, and distinctly less governed by what Gurdjieff called “the material question.” Moments before our plane passed over rugged mountains surrounding Kabul and began its precipitous descent, Bill explained that Mrs. Staveley had entrusted something to him she had not mentioned to me: Mr. Briggs’ phone number in Kabul. From his tone of voice, I saw for the first time how important it was for Bill to contact Mr. Briggs, and, perhaps, Madame de Salzmann. I understood Bill’s priorities, and the thought passed my mind that I should feel the same way. The truth was that I did not.
After arriving, a taxi carried us to a section of Kabul known as “Shar-i-Now,” the “new city.” My main contact in Kabul’s thriving rug market, A. W. Noor Sher, maintained a multi-story shop there, close to a major Kabul landmark known to everyone as “Chicken Street.” A few hundred yards from Chicken Street, and a stone’s throw from Noor Sher’s shop, was a small hotel that was popular among foreigners of modest means, with detached rooms made of concrete, shaped to resemble yurts. Beyond the need to conserve money, the hotel’s proximity to Noor Sher made this location an ideal one.
Arriving at the hotel, Bill and I organized our rooms, freshened, and then walked to Noor Sher’s shop. As we entered the ground floor office, decorated with rugs, textiles, and antique firearms, Noor Sher—short in stature, a bit round, with dark hair and a mustache—was just beginning his afternoon prayers. He maintained this habit unswervingly and, given the presence of other people, with a surprising atmosphere of privacy. As he pulled a rug from one of his piles and pointed it toward Mecca, forming a diagonal near a corner of his desk, it was as if no one was in the room but himself.
Bill and I retired discreetly to one side and waited. After completing his rituals, Noor Sher sat with his eyes half closed for a moment before rising to welcome us with a radiant smile. I introduced my partner and questions about our families followed. “Your father . . . good? Your mother . . . good?” I responded with questions about his parents. Close on the heels of these polite inquiries, Bill asked Noor Sher if he knew of a film company named Re-Mar, on location in Kabul. Noor Sher grinned broadly. He not only knew about the filming of Meetings with Remarkable Men but knew about (and did his best to pronounce) “Michael Currer-Briggs.” He had not met Jeanne de Salzmann or the film’s director, Peter Brook, but was aware that they were in Kabul.
Still smiling, he said, “I even help casting department. Help them too much!” (Meaning, quite a lot.) Knowing many hundreds of people, Noor Sher had found several “extras” for the film. He also supplied props, including clothing and rugs.
Thus, within two hours of our arrival in Afghanistan, Bill and I heard names which we in American groups barely whispered in public. One never expected to hear “Gurdjieff” discussed casually in a rug store in the West, even if it was owned, as several were, by individuals belonging to groups. That was a different era and proscriptions against proselytizing were taken to extremes. Noor Sher’s comments made it clear that those engaged in making this film in Afghanistan were not attempting to conceal either the project or themselves. Like Afghan prayer practices, their work was totally in the open.
When we explained to Noor Sher that our luggage had not arrived on the plane with us but would, we had been assured, arrive in a day or two, Noor Sher responded with a phrase that came to his lips often: “Inshallah.” (If God wills it.) Whether he literally believed that everything, down to the arrival of luggage, depended on God’s will, I never asked him. But he said this phrase in many contexts, especially when someone expressed predictions or wishes, the fulfillment of which touched possibilities over which individuals have little control. For Noor Sher, expectations regarding the timely appearance of our luggage fell solidly into the “Inshallah” category.
Not waiting for either the airline or Allah to deliver our luggage, Noor Sher telephoned a tailor who came and measured Bill and me for pajama-like Afghan garments. When they were delivered and I tried to pay for them, Noor Sher wouldn’t hear of it.
The next morning, dressed somewhat like locals but surely standing out like sore thumbs, Bill and I began surveying the local market. Bill had already tried to contact Mr. Briggs by phone, attempting to arrange a meeting. By late afternoon he had progressed to the point of obtaining Mr. Briggs’ address.
The next morning, after more phone calls on Bill’s part to Mr. Briggs, we approached Noor Sher for precise directions. We found him in front of his shop, hands grasped behind his back in a characteristic posture, prayer beads dangling from them, standing over a pile of rugs. The merchandise belonged to an Uzbek who stood close to Noor Sher. I recognized this man, having met him during a previous trip, when he shared the narrative of his escape from Soviet Uzbekistan into Afghanistan in order to continue his theological studies in an Afghan madrassa. Once safely across the border, he found his way to Kabul where he met Noor Sher. Over a period of months, Noor Sher taught him how to support himself, both during and after the period of his studies, by dealing in carpets.
Noor Sher broke from his task long enough to give us directions to Mr. Briggs’ office, ten minutes away by foot.
At 1:00 sharp we entered Mr. Briggs’ office and saw a tall and dignified man speaking on the telephone in a polished British accent. When he hung up, Bill took the lead, conveying greetings from Mrs. Staveley. He was interrupted by a slim Afghan wearing a billowing white shirt who came into the room to speak with Mr. Briggs. After the Afghan left, Bill took up matters again, speaking about our groups, our interest in the film, and his wish to speak further with Mr. Briggs, and perhaps with Madame de Salzmann as well.
The same slim Afghan reappeared and addressed Mr. Briggs, receiving his full attention. He left again and Bill continued a few more sentences when the same man came through the door. Lifting a hand, Mr. Briggs again interrupted Bill. After the Afghan left, Mr. Briggs explained the problem.
“You may not know what an executive producer of a film does, and those occupying this post don’t always know, either. Mostly we solve problems, or try to. In this case, the man who plays Gurdjieff as a young adult, an actor from Yugoslavia, discovered that his Afghan entry visa is of a restricted type, with limits that only now are clear. He needs a special document from the Yugoslav embassy, which my assistant has been trying to obtain. The sole employee there who issues these documents is gone, and no one knows when he’ll return. Everyone wants to cooperate, but nothing can be done. Precious time passes and the Yugoslav actor must get this resolved. If he can’t, he may need to return to Yugoslavia and square things away there. Given the tight schedule, this solution is impossible, as he needs to remain here for filming. Another resolution that has been suggested is for him to disappear, hiding when he is not on one of the sets, and take his chances on being detained as he leaves the country. He’s willing to take this risk, but for me it is unacceptable.”
During these comments the slender Afghan returned once more and waited with an expectant look. He and Mr. Briggs spoke quietly for several minutes, after which Mr. Briggs appeared to relax. The visa crisis had evidently been clarified. The Afghan went his way, and Mr. Briggs focused totally on us.
He guided us through several departments near his office, including the costume section, in which Russian clothing from the Tsarist era was prominent, and then a space devoted to devising and altering props, including cages for the famous “American canary.” Mr. Briggs remarked in passing that serial attempts to paint the canaries had failed until they tried food coloring, which worked excellently.
He led us outside, past recently constructed sets, including a street scene with signage in Russian, then the workshop of Gurdjieff’s father, with copious wood shavings, and the shells of various rooms, including the young Gurdjieff’s bedroom. When I remarked that these new constructions looked convincingly old, Mr. Briggs commented that Afghan building methods make even new constructions look nearly ancient.
“This has proven to be the perfect country for our purposes,” he continued. “One reason we chose Afghanistan as a primary filming site was the availability of traditional construction skills, but there were other important factors as well. We found Afghan officials surprisingly sensitive to what we are attempting and what it means to us. In Turkey and Egypt, which we initially preferred as filming locations, the counterparts of these same gentlemen were uncooperative and even suspicious. When we spoke about an extraordinary teacher who had passed this way, they didn’t like the sound of it. Here, where every government office has a Sufi or two, they immediately understood the deep respect one has for his teacher. The Afghan government not only approves of our work but actively helps us as much as they can.”
Walking further and passing a 19th century carriage that showed rust and peeling black paint, Mr. Briggs explained that he personally had borrowed this from the Afghan government, promising that it would be refurbished before the carriage was returned.
“It won’t be used in the film after all. But a promise has been made. It’s one of these lingering items that disappear from one’s focus, and then reappear at the end of a process, at the end of an octave, if you will.”
We returned to Mr. Briggs’ office, where he introduced us to members of Re-Mar’s staff. Cheerful as these introductions were, it was clear that a distinct tension was in the air. One staff member, a sandy-haired man in his thirties who was introduced as Re-Mar’s clerk of finances, said that he would forgo lunch and return to the bank once more. My ears perked up at this hint of a problem touching on money, but I said nothing. Mr. Briggs encouraged the man to carry out his plan, and he set off.
Mr. Briggs, Bill, and I then walked to a neighborhood restaurant for lunch. On the way, Mr. Briggs spoke more about this matter of confronting—or of not confronting—the final notes in an octave.
“So often something is lost, forgotten, or disregarded at the closing phase of a complex process.” He then expanded his comments to address broader aspects of the law of octaves amid the cultural differences of Afghanistan.
“Many things take place according to different rhythms here and bring to bear different styles of communication. Only with experience did we come to see that the principles here are the same as they are everywhere. The specific causes and nature of sudden challenges, gaps, and shifting networks of expectations have their own unique flavor in each culture. The principles, the fundamental laws, are the same everywhere.”
He spoke about valuable help that Peter Brook had rendered, given his experience in diverse settings around the globe.
Seated in a quiet corner of the restaurant, Bill and I asked more detailed questions about problems they had encountered in Afghanistan. Mr. Briggs then entered into an extended narrative.
“Presently, there is, in fact, a quite pressing problem, even a crisis. We are waiting . . . and waiting . . . for a wire from London. Three weeks ago Lord Pentland sent $50,000 by an international wire transfer. There is no doubt that the money was sent. Lord Pentland is experienced with the process, having done it several times. Normally it takes a few days, five or six at the most. When a wire of this nature moves through the system, a complex identification number is re-communicated through stations along the way. This number needs to remain the same from the start of the process to the end. Unfortunately, when this recent wire from Lord Pentland reached Kabul one digit in the entire series was different. Someone along the way erred by not copying the number precisely.
“The Afghan Bank employee who oversees wire transactions takes these identification codes quite seriously. It was he who recognized that the two numbers—the control number and the actual one on the wire—were not the same, differing by a single digit. This man agrees that $50,000 was sent to us and to no one else. On a personal level, he wants to be helpful. But the system he lives by is based on precise rules, not on personal judgments. Until he sees two identical numbers in front of him, he cannot give us the money. We’re utterly stuck, and have been, for too long now.”
“Can’t someone in Europe send more money until they iron this out?” Bill asked.
“Yes and no,” Mr. Briggs said. “Lord Pentland is working earnestly—all but frantically—to do what he can, but is unable to gather another batch of money for about a week. Precious time will pass as new funds wend their way toward us. For someone to board a plane and fly it here, which has been considered, would take nearly as long. We have delayed paying actors, extras, and staff for three weeks now, a long time for any among them who are living from hand to mouth. At first, they all understood our problem and were relatively cheerful about it. When delays continued, they accepted explanations rather well. By then, Europeans in Re-Mar had dug into our own pockets to help matters, until we all scraped the bottom of the barrel. All the problems—and our broken promises—have simply grown. Here, one’s word is either gold or mud. They trusted us, and we haven’t performed as promised. Now, money-in-hand is all they will accept. In a few days, a sizeable number of actors and extras will collectively bolt the project.”
“When the next batch of money arrives, they’ll surely return,” one of us said.
“Will they? Some scenes would have to be re-shot. If we cannot use precisely the same people, in the same costumes, these scenes will be impossibly choppy, more so than several are already.”
Mr. Briggs was silent for a moment and then concluded, “It is just one of these problems that you encounter in filmmaking when far from home.”
The ensuing silence was long and the atmosphere became heavy. Mr. Briggs went on eating his lunch. Inwardly, I churned. Bill surely did, too.
“Perhaps,” I said hesitantly, “we can help.” I looked to Bill and he nodded agreement.
“I hope someone can,” Mr. Briggs said. “Delays at this point would keep us from going to Mazar-i-Sharif, for filming there. In turn, this would keep us from maintaining our schedule in England, where we have booked quite expensive studio space. The cost of all these changes could be impossible to bear.”
“In terms of timing,” I said, “you need money . . . when?”
“Well . . . today!” Mr. Briggs said. “Or extremely soon.”
We had brought close to $10,000 in American currency to Afghanistan, our entire buying fund. I had credit in Kabul, through Noor Sher, and felt certain that dealers in Mazar-i-Sharif, in the north, would hold selections until either Noor Sher or we sent them money. Given the strength of Noor Sher’s word, Bill and I could go about our business with limited funds in virtually any part of the country.
We asked if a short-term loan of $5,000 would help, adding that we would need the money back within three weeks.
“Five thousand dollars would relieve immediate pressures,” Mr. Briggs said. This would pay the actors and extras everything owed to them. That’s the main crisis. The current stage of filming here in Kabul could be completed and we could remain on-schedule in Mazar-i-Sharif. Yes, $5,000 should do it.”
“I have to emphasize that we will need the money back before we leave Afghanistan,” I said.
“Given all that Lord Pentland is doing, there is no doubt that you will be repaid within two weeks. Is that soon enough?”
Bill and I said that it was.
We had a significant portion of our funds with us but not the full amount. Returning to Mr. Briggs’ office, we made an immediate down payment. By mid-afternoon, Re-Mar’s finance clerk, whose office was located in the older section of Kabul, had received the full amount, which Bill and I rounded up to $7,000. The finance clerk presented a receipt. We all shook hands, and Bill and I were on our way.
Bill saw Mr. Briggs privately in Kabul after that first encounter and, reporting on this meeting, mentioned his wish to speak with Madame de Salzmann. By then I had become accustomed to the special importance that this goal held for Bill.
Although I did not necessarily wish to avoid such a meeting, I certainly did not feel prepared for it. On the one hand, Mrs. Staveley’s positive comments about Madame de Salzmann, repeated many times through those early years with her, made it clear that Madame’s company could be extremely beneficial. While I did not doubt that this was true, what continued to preoccupy me were rugs and the people who made and sold them—in short, business. Those working on the film, including Madame, had their work to do, I reasoned, and we had ours. I feared that we might impose ourselves, intruding where we did not belong.
Reflecting further, I was aware that some preparation was needed prior to such an encounter, and I had not made any. The only question that occurred to me touched on this matter of my occupation and its impact on my participation in groups, and vice versa. But this subject surely could not yield a real question. It was pointless to meet Madame de Salzmann merely to mouth a few confused phrases, or to ask her to solve my personal problems.
Bill arranged for us to meet Mr. Briggs again in Mazar-i-Sharif, where filming would take place four or five days hence. Until then, buying activities in Kabul totally occupied us. Dressed in our usual clothes again, our luggage having arrived, we visited many dealers and made excellent purchases before finding a car and driver to take us to “Mazar.”
Travelers have used the road north from Kabul over the Hindu Kush Mountains, which passes through Afghanistan’s most stunning scenery, for thousands of years. Bill commented that seventy or eighty years earlier Gurdjieff must have admired some of these same vistas.
We entered Mazar-i-Sharif during a light sandstorm. Except for an unattractive spiderweb of telephone and electric lines, Mazar could not have changed much in the past century. Horse-drawn taxis and carts dominated local streets, and sellers of dried fruits and handicrafts, including carpets, were prominent in the local economy. As we approached our hotel, a lone tribesman with rugs slung over his shoulders walked past us.
Bill and I settled into our hotel rooms and then found a restaurant, where we enjoyed a traditional local meal. We rested, arose early the next day, and by mid-morning were making our first contacts with dealers.
Through Bill’s efforts, one evening in Mazar was shared with Mr. Briggs. In the course of our dinner we heard more about his work with locals who were involved in the filming. I was particularly struck by his positive comments about Afghans whom he had encountered.
“Many Afghans appear to have the kind of ongoing awareness that some of us in the West labor for decades to achieve,” he said. “They possess this by birthright, or perhaps they acquire it amidst conditions here, where existence is met head-on in an environment hovering close to the brink of life and death. Endless generations of religious practices are part of the air people breathe here, including infusions from Sufi influences. These elements deposit priceless qualities deep in their natures. When an Afghan passes you on the street, although he says nothing and does not acknowledge you directly, you distinctly sense that he is aware of you. As he passes, you sense that for a moment he silently . . . holds you in his regard.”
Turning again to the subject of the film, one of us asked why, in Mr. Briggs’ understanding, this film version of Meetings was being made.
“Madame de Salzmann feels that time is running out,” he said. “Sooner or later someone with commercial motives will approach this title. It’s inevitable. Also, before long our groups will enter a new phase. There are still a number who spent relatively brief periods with Mr. Gurdjieff. Madame de Salzmann stood in a unique relationship, but others also spent prolonged periods with him. One by one, this generation is disappearing.
“Sparks coming directly from the fire of Mr. Gurdjieff and the teaching he embodied are still alive, including intense work with the Movements. As each year passes, in some ways the work becomes deeper and richer. At the same time, fewer individuals who received some of their teaching directly from Mr. Gurdjieff survive. No one was closer than Madame de Salzmann, and no one since Gurdjieff’s death has worked as she has to sustain the standards and force he gave to the work with Movements. The film is, in part, a vehicle for sharing a few of the Movements with a broader audience.
“Merely watching a film that depicts an intense quality of search and watching groups work at Movements is immeasurably far from having these experiences oneself. Nonetheless, for generations of viewers, this film will broadcast the fact that the search for answers to life’s core questions can be a fruitful endeavor for anyone who is not satisfied with themselves as they are. The film will affirm that groups of people are working in this way, guided by a new teaching. The Movements alone prove it, to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
“Altogether, it is Madame de Salzmann’s intention to communicate something in desperately short supply now: hope, grounded not in beliefs, but in an indefatigable inner search, in which a kindred community is engaged.
“The crisis in world culture that is at the root of Mr. Gurdjieff’s appearance in the West is still gaining force. As Mr. Gurdjieff attempted on a larger scale through all of his activities, this film may plant seeds that sprout over a long period of time. The need to turn in a new direction on the part of larger numbers of people will grow as the crisis deepens.”
After a rather long silence one of us asked if there were expectations of critical success after the film was released.
“It will,” he said, “go into and belong to the world at large, which means into regular commercial channels. Naturally, the film will be judged by the standards of that world, with which it has little in common. It is a very difficult undertaking, perhaps too difficult for the short time we have to make this film. While it’s easy to portray anger, hatred, and lust on the screen, as many films do with numbing effectiveness, it’s quite difficult to make the spirit of search itself a constant player.
“We could be pleasantly surprised. However, we are aware that the film has flaws. Beyond this factor, can any film that aims toward the core mysteries of human life, including its fundamental purposes, not meet with resistance? We anticipate reactions of bafflement and sniping, perhaps from within groups as well as from the film-minded world at large. We surely deserve some of the criticisms that will come.
“However it is initially greeted, the film will, we think, have a rather long life. Its impact will be incremental, over a considerable period.”
Bill asked if many of the actors and actresses were in the Work.
“Very few. In fact, almost none,” Mr. Briggs said. “Initially we spoke about having senior figures in the Work play certain roles, such as Mr. Tracol in the role of Father Giovanni. We attempted this briefly, and our experiments totally failed. We saw that what each of these senior people had was . . . their own. Nothing vital in them was acted. Unfortunately, the character of their unique gifts did not match what was needed in the film. Also, none of the senior people in the Work could take directions properly, which is essential in this kind of project.”
Bill questioned whether anyone could play the role of Gurdjieff believably.
Mr. Briggs answered, “One of the exceptional factors in the making of Meetings with Remarkable Men is that Madame de Salzmann is present for the shooting of virtually every foot of the filming process. She insists on this, from an intense interest and also due to an important role she fulfills. Capable as they are, neither of the two actors who play the part of Gurdjieff at two stages of his younger life, as well as those who perform the roles of Father Giovanni, Prince Lubovedsky, and others, can consistently convey all of the required nuances of atmosphere and intensity that their parts call for. Before they go in front of the camera, Madame de Salzmann sometimes sits with them, jointly reviewing the scene to be filmed. During these moments, some of her own energy is imparted to each of these actors, enabling them to appear in front of the camera in a more vivified state. The impact of this infusion doesn’t always ‘take.’ When it does, it doesn’t last very long. But in several scenes it lasts long enough for the camera to record what is needed.”
One of us asked if anything in the literary version of Meetings with Remarkable Men was understood in a new light, now that students of Gurdjieff were making the film version in Afghanistan.
Mr. Briggs answered, “We discovered that elements in the book that seemed most fantastic, even invented, were sometimes quite practical. For whatever this may mean, there really are clusters of people in the Gobi dessert who make use of stilts in sandstorms. On the other hand, some factors that appeared ordinary and down to earth proved to be impossible.
“More significantly, some of us thought that there might be hidden clues in Meetings, suggesting where in Asia someone might begin a more or less precise search for hidden knowledge. We found that the path Mr. Gurdjieff outlined led roughly in a circle. At the end, as the circle closed, we found ourselves again at the starting point. And we agreed that it would be the same starting point as before if we have failed to sustain a serious search within ourselves. The fundamental truths, and all the subtle and not-so-subtle barriers to truth, are within us.”
After a quiet moment, Bill changed the subject, asking if we might meet Madame de Salzmann before leaving Afghanistan. Mr. Briggs did not answer directly.
“This favor of yours is not a small thing for us. We who are making this film feel that a kindness has been extended and that some gesture from us is necessary. We spoke together regarding what form this might take. We thought that perhaps you would enjoy having ‘bit’ parts in the film, in the background of a scene in which there are unidentified Europeans, perhaps. Or, is there some other gesture you might suggest? We’re grateful but are not quite sure how to express it.”
This thoroughly threw me. What I most wanted to hear were assurances that our loan would be returned to us in the time that had been promised.
Bill knew what he wanted. “There is something you can do. I have seen Madame de Salzmann only once, in New York, at a distance. The impact of that experience lasted for some time. Is it possible to meet with her here, face to face?”
Mr. Briggs was silent for a moment before he responded.
“I will see about it,” he said. “I would like to simply say ‘yes,’ of course. But her schedule here is extremely occupied. As you might imagine, we all work to protect her. Many people in European groups are extremely eager to come here. Some even obtained Afghan visas and would board the next plane if she gave the word. But they are not being allowed to come, in part to protect Madame de Salzmann and also because, eager to help, they could get in the way. Only four people involved in the filming here are in groups. Madame wanted to keep the number that small. However, I will try to arrange a meeting. It’s a reasonable request.”
The next day we returned to our work in Mazar-i-Sharif, a market center for hundreds of towns and villages in northern Afghanistan. We drove to the ancient remains of Balkh and then to the town of Aqcha, where a local dealer invited us to inspect a large loom in his own home. His daughters and several neighbor girls—Turkomans—were singing as we entered the space where they were working. The girls’ rhythmic voices merged with the sounds of pounding tools used to compress rows of wefts. This task complete, they began tying knots in the next row, their fingers moving so quickly that neither Bill nor I could effectively photograph their work. While the other girls tucked their heads in shyness, one turned her round face toward us and slowed the action of her fingers to a crawl, showing just how the knots were tied and then cut with a curved knife. With a grin, she then returned to her normal speed, her face turned from us, her fingers a blur.
Days later we were back in Kabul, making the rounds among dealers with whom transactions lingered, and looking at piles of fresh goods in Noor Sher’s shop. From morning till night we were extremely busy. Nonetheless, I continued to think about the possibility of meeting Madame de Salzmann that Bill and Mr. Briggs had discussed. Faced with Bill’s eagerness for such a meeting, my own feelings were less than ambivalent. They were, I came to recognize, negative. Not wanting to intrude was not the real reason. I confronted an inner wall, connected with a sense of being woefully unprepared. If such a meeting was to have any value, I needed to dig deeper within myself, rising above barriers that I understood dimly, at best.
Stewing in my predicament and trying to see all of its components, I realized that the primary barrier was fear. What was there to be afraid of? To be seen as someone asleep, unfocused on his inner life, totally absorbed in his business? That seemed to sum it up. The willingness to be seen, accurately and deeply, was comprehensible to me intellectually but remained only at that level. I didn’t feel this need and turn toward it.
Nor did I speak with Bill about my resistance. Although he was a friend and contributed to both my business and personal life in important ways, the clarity of his wish to speak with “Madame” was in clear contrast to my own posture. We were on different tracks in this matter, as different as those that arose at times in the course of our business activities.
We saw Noor Sher often during those days in Kabul. I again observed, as I had during prior trips to Afghanistan, his knack for balancing generosity and shrewdness in the conduct of business. An expression of this was the artful way that he kept the social calendar of visiting dealers completely filled. Bill and I had no more than reappeared from Mazar-i-Sharif than Noor Sher, with shining, cheerful eyes, made us promise that we would come to his shop each day at noon for lunch. These lunches, with an ever-shifting assembly of guests, seated on the floor on carpets, served as a gathering point for diverse figures in Noor Sher’s business and social life. Dealers from several continents, an ambassador or other foreign dignitary, a Turkoman or Kirghiz dealer who smuggled merchandise across the Chinese or Soviet borders, family members, and friends all sat together around large trays of rice and lamb, unleavened bread, and regional delicacies. Noor Sher’s cook, a young Uzbek who was touchingly devoted to him, worked the entire morning in a back room preparing the food.
One encountered a broad spectrum of communication styles in the course of these meals, from the quietness of self-contained Afghans and other central Asians, who ate virtually in silence, to talkative visitors from the West—at times, no doubt, including myself. During that week a loquacious judge from California attended several meals. My enduring image of this rotund gentleman is his struggle to remain balanced on several cushions that were brought to the room for his comfort, as he piled up more and more verbiage in a parallel struggle to uphold a comfortable picture of himself. Seated awkwardly on his cushions, his title, “Judge,” served as a kind of life raft, to which he returned every few sentences.
A Kirghiz man appeared from a corner of the room where he had been saying his prayers and glanced at Noor Sher with a look that seemed to ask: “This American really has so much to say?” Not noticing, the judge talked on and on.
Noor Sher’s tendency to say little during these meals confirmed the notion that a person need not speak in order to be expressive. Noor Sher’s presence was itself a potent force. He listened attentively when someone spoke, with hints that, conversationally, he was sorting “the meat from the bones” with the same quiet dexterity he exercised in regard to the steaming pieces of lamb on his plate. He sometimes responded to what was said, but often merely nodded, indicating that he had listened. Usually, like his friends, he simply tended to his food.
While he did not pretend to be anything more than a rug dealer, a businessman, several times in my company Noor Sher discussed what he saw as the very heart of his religion. Although his devotion to the teachings of Mohammed was unequivocal, he saw the deepest levels of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism—indeed any deeply practiced faith—as merging, in essence, into one.
In spite of his unusual ability to fully attend to anyone in front of him, I often felt that as he focused on the other person, he kept some attention reserved for something else, something that added light to his exchanges. The prayer beads that dangled from one of his hands were not merely a cultural ornament. His fingers moved the beads in a continuing circumference.
If he spoke the word “Allah,” it was with a sense of immediacy to which I was unaccustomed, as if a higher element was there in the room, waiting for us to turn and remember its presence.
Noor Sher had learned a great deal about people in the very best way: one person at a time, without abandoning himself to judgments or the need to be liked. Although he bought and sold so many rugs that he sometimes chartered entire cargo planes to transport sold goods to Europe, he accomplished all of his buying and selling in face-to-face exchanges. The goal of most Western businessmen is to set up machines that make money and pay others to watch over them. Noor Sher touched every rug he sold and looked everyone who came to him in the eye.
Inviting those who dealt with him to his noonday meals was an essential element in a ceaseless flow of transactions that left room for a blending of business and friendship. His bountiful meals contributed to the widely shared view that he possessed, as is said, a “good hand.” He was indeed a generous man, from deep within his nature. However, less altruistic motives were also at work in his pattern of daily invitations. By keeping you close to him, Noor Sher reduced the opportunity for other dealers to develop more than token levels of familiarity. In short, he fed you. He shared his company. And he cut out the competition.
Evening dinners were approached in the same way. During most of my visits to Afghanistan Noor Sher instructed key employees and family members to invite me to a succession of evening meals. When invitations came from other dealers, Noor Sher had foreseen them and left no room.
Buying from Noor Sher lacked a feature that was nearly invariable among other Afghan dealers: intense bargaining. As a consequence, efforts to conceal interest in a rug were entirely unnecessary with him. Confronting other sellers, one learned to feign indifference and even express disdain for favored pieces, or suffer the consequences. With Noor Sher it was only necessary to keep track of appealing rugs and ask that they be set aside for further discussion. Dealing in great volumes of goods, he didn’t have time to bargain constantly and did so only with those who insisted on it. I saw him make headstrong or inexperienced dealers pay dearly for taking up his time in this way.
In the course of my previous visits, Noor Sher emphasized the need to develop an accurate sense of local wholesale prices, that is, the price at which dealers in a market will sell goods to each other. Without this knowledge, a foreign dealer is too dependent on his innate bargaining skills, which are bound to be insufficient. While there are straightforward sellers, like Noor Sher, many Afghan dealers act as if they have been offended, even deeply wounded, by offers that go well beyond what is needed to make a reasonable profit. Noor Sher pointed out that the harder a seller fights, the more a buyer in my shoes can be certain that the price he has already offered is acceptable. The fighting, however intense, is geared to “sweeten” the profit.
“If you not come to price where he has profit, dealer not work so hard, talk so strong,” he said.
Experimenting diligently, I saved money by putting his advice into practice. Frequently, I was willing to pay more for a rug than my stated “final offer.” But if the dealer became vehement in his bargaining style, Noor Sher’s counsel came back to me and I dug in my heels, refusing to offer a single afghani more. No matter how strong my interest in the piece was, and no matter how strong the itch was to increase my offer, I needed to stand firm, internally and externally. Sellers dragged their feet and kept struggling, but when I headed for the door they usually caved in.
If he spoke English, a dealer might then insist, “There is no profit for me! I make no profit!” It was interesting to watch dealers at this point, and also notice my own feelings. My emotions and mind were not one. My mind knew that I was on the right track, that my offer was sufficient. The seller was merely acting and his words meant nothing. Inside, however, there was often an urge to bend a bit further in the seller’s direction, due, in part, to the need to be liked. My mind’s job was to watch, not believing the dealer very much and not believing my own feelings, either. This was difficult and at times I failed, but by no means always. When I remembered, the benefits were tangible.
“Knowledge frees you,” Noor Sher said many times. He explained that detailed market knowledge lifts a buyer above the deceits and manipulations that sellers can employ, and above his own internal confusions.
Within Noor Sher’s own shop arriving at final figures was much simpler, but with a twist. Noor Sher, knee-deep with sellers from around Afghanistan and with buyers from around the world, was rarely on hand to provide even the most general figures. If you happened to be looking at a piece when Noor Sher passed by and were tempted to ask the price, he would say, “You like, we put aside. Later, we speak price.”
Having explored the market thoroughly, with many opportunities to become attuned to values, by the closing days of our trip I could estimate the value of most of the items Bill and I had selected from Noor Sher’s vast inventory. With older or especially attractive pieces, however, I could only guess. None of Noor Sher’s employees dared to suggest prices for any of these. Pleas for “ballpark” figures inevitably evoked the same answer . . . “Noor Sher. Talk Noor Sher.”
Bill and I waited until everything that interested us had been gathered. Then, late in our trip, Noor Sher made an appointment with us in an upper room where he was to give the price of everything, one rug at a time, and we would make our decisions. Finally the hour came when we were in that room with him. As usual, the session proceeded with minimal bargaining. I was accustomed to Noor Sher’s preference for “yes” or “no” decisions, and to his distaste for explanations for why a piece was rejected. The road you decided not to take held no interest for him at all. Likewise, prolonged hesitations were discouraged. His prices represented current wholesale levels—period. Experienced buyers were expected to know, and keep the process moving.
Sitting in the appointed room with us, Noor Sher gave the price of each piece that Bill and I had selected, and we either accepted or rejected it. Now and then a rug was placed in a “maybe” pile for further consideration. At times I simply could not pay his price and there was a little bargaining. This was never prolonged or difficult. In general, it was, in Noor Sher’s words, “Yes . . . No . . .” You bought a piece or you didn’t, but you kept moving forward.
We worked for forty minutes, proceeding through stacks of goods, when Noor Sher said abruptly, “Jim Opie, I tired giving price. You give price. I say yes . . . no.”
It was a startling demand. Each piece was unique in its tribal or geographical origin, and its age and condition. Aesthetic variables were significant and the goods belonged to Noor Sher, who was absolutely attuned to local values. Now he had turned the job of stating prices over to me.
Thus, we reversed roles, in the manner of two people engaged in a thoughtful argument who agree to trade sides. This reversal initially felt awkward but soon the ground under me solidified. One by one, I gave the price for each piece and Noor Sher responded. The flow of transactions wasn’t as smooth as when Noor Sher had the lead, but proceeded rather well.
I was aided by the presence of a shared attitude that develops in the best business relationships. Even in a highly competitive business in which consistent pricing policies are not clear cut, an interest in achieving the lowest possible price fades when both sides share an active concern for the other person’s real needs. Beyond the fact that relationships of this level feel good, both parties gradually engage in more candid exchanges, including sharing important market information, some of which leads to profits in other business dealings. This is where, materially, drawing close to Noor Sher really paid off. Respecting and granting him his requirements, I often received valuable information from him, cheerfully given.
He scheduled one of our evenings for a visit to his family compound. In spite of Bill’s wish to keep as much time open as possible for a meeting with Madame de Salzmann, Noor Sher’s dinner invitation could not be refused.
Within his home, neither of us was sorry to have accepted. After absenting himself for ten minutes to say his evening prayers, he joined us at the dinner table, where we enjoyed one of his wife’s fine meals. Toward the end of dinner, Noor Sher’s six-year-old daughter came into the room and stood near her father. Noor Sher doted on this little girl whose eyes shined like his and who clearly adored him. He waited for a break in the conversation to ask her to bring a serving of tea for all of us. Kissing him on the cheek, she smiled and set off on her task. Ten minutes later, she poured tea with exceptional care for each of us.
Sipping the day’s final cup of tea, we spoke about changes in the Afghan government, about which Noor Sher expressed deep foreboding. Left-leaning elements within Afghanistan’s political landscape were, he said, testing their strength. He said that while most politicians were “dogs of the same mountain” who did not make a real difference, if a Communist-leaning government ever came to power strong reactions would come from all the tribes of Afghanistan. For decades the tribes had been relatively weak on the national stage, compared to the central government. If leftists managed to take over, the tribes would fight. In that eventuality, Noor Sher saw the outcome for Afghanistan as disturbing and uncertain.
Conversation continued in this unhappy, prescient vein for a half hour. Our tea consumed, talk was allowed to subside. It was clearly time for Bill and me to leave. We said our good-byes and, chauffeured by one of his household servants, headed toward the Shar-i-Now district and our hotel.
The night had grown cold. The star-filled sky so reduced the urge to speak that Bill and I barely exchanged a word throughout the descent into Kabul.
At the gate of our hotel, we had no more than stepped out of Noor Sher’s vehicle than Mr. Briggs appeared, as if from nowhere. Greeting us, he expressed relief. “This was my third visit to your hotel this evening. I decided to try once more. Madame had time to see you this evening. I hope it’s not too late.”
We found a cab—no easy task in Kabul at night. Mr. Briggs sat next to the driver and directed him back into the hills, a trip that lasted no more than fifteen minutes but for me felt much longer.
Now came my own moment of truth. While questions about the balance between business and my inner life had long stewed within me, when it came to having a real question, I remained empty-handed. The further into the hills we drove, the more confused I felt.
Bill gave no evidence of inner obstacles or confusion as we left the city limits and climbed further. The road was normal for that terrain, rutted, with sharp turns that required constant shifting of gears. The cold began to bite. Above, the stars shone even more brightly. Inside me, they could not penetrate.
Mr. Briggs continued to guide the driver, and we arrived at our destination, a country home with a large gate and thick walls, a fort-like dwelling of a common type in rural Afghanistan. Mr. Briggs paid the driver. We got out and the gate was opened. Inside, an ample courtyard had been transformed into several short streets, with storefronts adorned with Russian writing. In short, we confronted several “sets” for scenes being filmed at this location. Mr. Briggs gestured for us to be very quiet as filming was going on at the moment we entered.
To our right, Peter Brook stood under bright floodlights, absorbed in directing a scene. Mr. Briggs led us to that set and introduced us to Peter Brook as “the two rug dealers from Oregon who helped us.” The look in Peter Brook’s eyes was so intense that I felt a bit paralyzed. When he shook my hand I either felt an electric shock, or imagined it. I wasn’t sure which. With that glance and handshake, he gave us all the time he could spare and returned to the action behind him, wherein Gurdjieff was entering into the fight that introduced him to a new friend, Soloviev.
Turning away from this scene, we saw Madame de Salzmann seated in the middle of the courtyard with Athol Fugard, who played Professor Skridlov, one of Gurdjieff’s friends. Standing next to Mr. Briggs and Bill, I tried to not be totally riveted to Madame. When Fugard left her side, Mr. Briggs bid Bill and me to stay put and walked toward Madame de Salzmann, speaking a few words to her. She nodded, and Mr. Briggs found another chair and placed it near her, making a triangle of three chairs. He motioned for us to join her and then withdrew.
The chairs were rearranged so that Bill was facing Madame de Salzmann more directly, with me to his right. Although I had arrived at the only question I really wished to direct to her, I felt extremely uneasy. Being to one side reduced the pressure.
Madame spared us both the task of taking the lead.
“You are from Annie Lou’s groups, from the Farm?”
Bill answered affirmatively and gave a summary of the state of things on the rural property where Mrs. Staveley’s groups worked and where she lived.
Situated to Madame de Salzmann’s left, I tried to gather myself. I sensed something about her that was both subtle and powerful in its impact. She was so very much there, within herself. I struggled to gain some inner grounding, to attend to the chaotic sensations and feelings that crowded in dense clots within me.
Madame de Salzmann, in contrast, was clearly at one with herself. She listened to Bill as he spoke about the Farm, asked a question or two, and turned her head toward me slowly, in a manner conveying a total commitment to the moment, attentive to herself as well as to me. Turning again, she spoke clearly, as if measuring each word.
“Before I met Mr. Gurdjieff, my husband and I had been searching for a path. We had found several good teachers but no one who was right for us. Then, after we had all but given up, unexpectedly, we met Mr. Gurdjieff. I saw . . . I felt something in him. His eyes, especially, were unlike anything I had ever experienced before. At once, it was clear: this is the man I wish to follow.”
She hesitated and we were all silent. Then she said, “When you first come, you just hear and repeat ideas, with limited understanding. Later the ideas begin to live in you, and you have real questions. Now, your interest is superficial. But in time, perhaps it grows.”
There was no tone of personal judgment in her remarks. They were simple and factual, and I accepted them with the equanimity with which they were spoken. Much later, others told me that this was a common experience with her. However firm Madame de Salzmann’s words, there was rarely an impression that they issued from her personality. Something more essential was engaged.
She paused. The time had come for one of us to speak. Bill broke the silence with a question in which he conveyed the hope that younger people in groups might have more access to her.
“I come to New York each year,” she said. “You could come then.”
Bill nodded and looked at her intently. Her head did not move in my direction but now it was my turn. She continued to look at Bill as, at last, I opened my mouth and spoke. My question was about . . . making money.
“From this trip to Afghanistan and from other experiences, I see that virtually my only talent, the only area in which I might make some contribution, is in the domain of making money. This ability is not very large, but it seems to be the only talent I have. Given the great depth that primarily Mr. Gurdjieff, but others also, brought to the Work—the teaching itself, Movements, composing and playing music, writing—a talent for making money is the worst gift one can have. The Work is so little about money. I feel trapped with an ability that at heart is . . . dirty.”
Madame de Salzmann did not look directly at me while responding. Perhaps she looked at Bill or perhaps beyond him. I couldn’t tell. My attention, fortified through her presence, hung on every word.
“Money, a talent for making money, is not a dirty thing. Money is the blood of society. Everything is touched by money, every relationship. No part of life is without this connection, and it brings reality to your life. When money is needed, it is no longer just . . . idea. These chairs we sit in, the tea we drink . . . there is so much in the material world that depends on money. You can learn many important things in yourself and in others from making and handling money. You see how you are, now in this situation, now in that. You are identified, and you see that this is true. The recognition that you are identified can be the beginning of an effort to work.”
She continued, “You say this talent is not so large. I had no talent at all, no natural aptitude for making money. Yet, for nearly twenty years after we were in France Mr. Gurdjieff relied very often on me. His time for doing this had passed. He would come to me and say (and here Madame turned her head to look at me) ‘I need money.’ I would have to find it. And the sums involved, you cannot imagine.”
She hesitated and then added, “Your life has a pattern. You don’t see it yet, but, little by little, it begins to appear. Seeing the pattern of your life helps very much. If you work with this talent, it develops. Later you can teach what you have learned to someone who stands where you stand now. Then, perhaps, you will go on to something else.”
Her words and the power of her atmosphere penetrated me so deeply that I felt the impact in my body.
Bill and I left Afghanistan on the same plane that carried several of the film’s actors back to Europe. Flying west, it did not occur to me that this could be my final trip to Afghanistan before it fell into such unmerited conflict and chaos. Communists did come to power and, as Noor Sher had foreseen, the country split violently. The Soviet Union invaded. Armed by the West, Afghan tribes, clans, and sects became armies that fought the Soviets. The words “mujahadeen” and “jihad” made their first appearances in western lexicons. When the Soviets abandoned their standoff in Afghanistan, the tribes did not stop killing. They turned on each other, and, as a result, more of the country was turned into rubble and a third of Kabul was destroyed. Mosques that even the Soviets had protected were leveled. The West watched from a remote and seemingly uncaring distance as the “jihad” problem moved from the back page of Western newspapers to the front page. Waiting too long to give Afghanistan any real help, or even to care, the consequences proved catastrophic, first for Afghanistan and then for the United States.
No one could have foreseen that among the virtues of the film is its sensitive depiction of an Afghanistan that had long been colorful, tranquil, and permeated by ingrained wisdom. Much of that has been shattered.
And our loan? Lord Pentland’s problematical wire had indeed been ironed out and a second batch of funds had arrived. Before leaving Kabul, we returned to the same finance office where the loan had been made and again met with the sandy-haired clerk. He gave us our choice of currencies: dollars or afghanis. A shift in the exchange rate during our trip worked slightly in our favor. Given the option, I chose afghanis, thereby accepting an unexpected profit of several hundred dollars.
Arranging with Noor Sher to have all of our goods shipped, we paid off everything we owed and said our goodbyes, leaving Afghanistan with an infusion of fresh merchandise for our business, a strengthened bond with Noor Sher and, in my own case, a reduced inner burden that amounted to another treasure, lasting far beyond the day of our return.
Jim Opie is a member of the Gurdjieff Foundation of Oregon in Portland. His writings about oriental rugs include two books: Tribal Rugs of Southern Persia (1981) and Tribal Rugs: Nomadic and Village Weavings of the Near East and Central Asia (1992). His continuing specialty in the rug field is the origin and meaning of traditional rug motifs.
The photographs by Luke Powell are © 2003 Luke Powell. His other photos of Afghanistan are available at: www.lukepowell.com.
|Copyright © 2005 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing|
Featured: Fall 2005 Issue, Vol. IX (1)
Revision: December 1, 2005