He "could have ended up in Guantánamo Bay. Instead" he "ended up at Yale."
This is the fascinating real life story of Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, the very famous face of Taliban, the "roving ambassador" of Afghanistan in the time of one-eyed Mullah Omar.
A Talib at Yale. Like all the other of his classmates, he is learning critical reasoning, arguments, political science, philosophy, etc. Here is a memorable sentence from this article attached below: "He had been raised in a faith, buoyed at every turn by the certainty of a higher order, a purposeful universe, and now here in this shrine of critical thinking he was learning to doubt, not to believe."
Doesn't it show that changing circumstances, devoid of visible destructive wars, bombs and violence, can present a man, even with a clear Taliban background new hope in life? A peaceful environment where mind can soar, heart can flutter with every new steps toward broadening one's horizon.
Afghans were mercilessly put into bloody wars, deaths and sheer agonies by uncontrollable international and regional geopolitics, and when their usefulness ended, they were discarded to rot. Years later, they were invaded once again. This time to fight the fighters who were once on the same side in the war against the "Commies". Shakespeare would have been ecstatic living in our century! A world full of ironies and tragedies, better story plot than witches, merchants, Kings, Romeo and Hamlet.
Rahmatullah is "lucky", indeed. He is away from all the chaos and bloodsheds still raging in his native land. Perhaps, one day he and others like him can step forward in bringing non-fictitious peace to his oppressed nation.
Talib in Luce Hall
Sometimes walking up College Street, when the bells were ringing in Harkness Tower and the light on the gabled dorms and leafy quads made the whole campus seem part of some Platonic dream, he could almost forget that there were people back home who would be happy to kill him.
His formal introduction to the terrain of the Western mind came in July at the start of the summer term; most of the class of '09 would not arrive until the fall term. He was glad for the chance to get his bearings. The direction of Mecca he knew from the compass on his watch. For local attractions he had a map of the campus; he got a cellphone, a Yale e-mail account. His student ID card admitted him to lots of campus dining halls, where at first it seemed he was free to choose anything he liked as long as it was pasta. He took to drinking milk with the pasta, but milk didn't agree with him any more than pasta did, and he dropped 15 pounds over the summer. It wasn't until the fall that one of his new friends, Fahad, a Pakistani, tipped him off to the kosher meat at Slifka, the Jewish dining hall.
His room was more than he could afford, but he had his hands full with his classes: ENGL 114, Reading and Writing Argument, with Prof. Deborah Tenney; and PLSC 114, Introduction to Political Philosophy, with Prof. Peter Stillman. He got a pair of B's, and B+'s on papers. ("B positives" he thought they were called.) Because his official education ended in the fourth grade, the marks eased some of his anxiety about passing muster at Yale. He spoke English well, but it was still his fourth language after Pashto, Urdu and Persian and a headache to write even for natives. What he had to learn initially was how to learn. You didn't have to read everything the professors assigned, but you had to pay close attention to the closing minutes of class, when they recapped material likely to appear on the exam. People thought he was kidding when he asked what the difference was between a test and quiz. Dude, you're a student at Yale, and you don't know the difference between a test and a quiz?
During the summer, he made some friends, including a nice guy from Texas, but it was not until the fall that he fell in with a bunch of foreign-born undergraduates and expats with whom he could speak Pashto and Urdu. They took him to the Harvard-Yale game; he clapped, he cheered, he had a great time, albeit without any idea what was going on. His friends taught him how to play cricket. They introduced him to weight lifting at the Payne Whitney gym. When he turned 27 in November, they gave a party, only the second time in his life anyone had ever celebrated his birthday. Friendships helped assuage the ache he felt for his wife, Asyah, and their daughter, Suraya, who was 5, and their 4-year-old son, Suleman, who was born the day after 9/11. They were all living in the Pakistan border city of Quetta with his parents. His parents fled Afghanistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion and then became refugees again when the United States began bombing in October 2001. He telephoned his family at least once a week, but the pictures he sent of himself at college seemed to have gotten lost, as did the toys he had mailed, a Thomas the Tank Engine for Suleman, a fluffy stuffed dog for Suraya. Suleman couldn't understand why his father, with a single-entry United States visa, couldn't come home for a visit during the semester break.
"Daddy," he said, "tell your teacher to close his shop and let you go!"
It was largely for his children's sake that he was pursuing an education on the other side of the earth — for their future and, in some inchoate hope-filled way, for his country's future too. What he often said was that he wanted to be a bridge between the Islamic world and the West. None of the summer students in New Haven knew much about his personal circumstances; of his history they knew nothing at all. He had discussed it with the Yale admissions office, and with an administrator in the provost's office who during a dinner with him seemed concerned that he might be a spy.
He did not like to dwell on the past, much less advertise it. To avoid alarming eavesdroppers, he referred to his former compatriots as "the Tangoes." But sometimes the past had a way of finding him. At the start of the fall semester, he made his way to the Henry R. Luce Hall at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies. He had a 1 o'clock class — PLSC 145, Terrorism: Past, Present and Future, with Prof. Douglas Woodwell. It was a popular new offering; hardly a seat was open. As he stood in the back hunting for a place to sit, he realized that he had been in Luce Hall before. Four years earlier. March 2001. The university saved a seat for him that afternoon, down on the stage. He was the featured speaker, a "roving ambassador" from the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan. He was 22 years old. The newspapers said 24, but he had been misrepresenting his age for a long time. Twenty-two years old and a member of the Taliban — at that moment, in fact, the very face and voice of the regime in America. Per decree, his beard was full, his head swaddled in a turban. He was dressed in an Afghan tunic and loose-fitting pants. Neither he nor anyone else in Luce Hall that day could have foreseen the catastrophe approaching or what peculiar fate was in store for him. He could remember looking out at the faces of the Yale students in the audience. They were his age, his generation — after a fashion they were taliban, too, talib being the Arabic word for seeker or student — but they sat on the far side of an abyss, and not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined himself as one of them.
Bagori From Kohak: 1978-1994
efore Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi opened the Yale course catalog last summer, his education had been painfully unacademic; his reading list mixed the Koran and Persian poets with the grimmest primers of poverty and war. He was the sixth of seven children, born in 1978 in the Arghandab River valley village of Kohak, where his parents were born. They were Pashtuns — the dominant ethnic group of southern Afghanistan and parts of western Pakistan. For centuries the Arghandab valley had been the breadbasket of Afghanistan, famous for its grapes and pomegranates as well as for the fierce Pashtun clans that bloodied the armies of Alexander the Great and a litany of subsequent invaders. Rahmatullah arrived the year before the Soviet invasion, the most savage conflict of all. Many of the mud-brick homes and orchards of the family's village were obliterated by napalm; the whole region was salted with small, beguilingly shaped "bat mines" designed to blow the hands off children. Two of Rahmatullah's sisters were pulled alive from bomb rubble; an aunt was not so lucky, another of the estimated 1.5 million people killed during the 10-year Soviet occupation.
Rahmatullah's father, Mohammad Fazal Hashemi, had been educated in Germany. He worked as a high-ranking policeman in Kabul, the capital, and came home to Kohak during the winter. He resigned his post and, eventually, fearing for his life, fled with his family to Pakistan in the fall of 1982; Rahmatullah was almost 4.
"I still remember the trip," he told me one afternoon last fall in the Yale Commons dining hall. He had a close-cropped beard and was dressed in sneakers, khakis and a wide-collared striped shirt; the only thing that set him apart from the hundreds of other students in the dining hall was a missing lunch tray. It was the second week of Ramadan, and he was fasting.
"We were lucky to be able to run away. It's a short trip from Kandahar to Quetta in Pakistan, but the border was sealed, and we had to go the long way around, through Kabul. We weren't told where we were going because the Russians would ask the children. We changed trucks and rode with different families. In some areas it was really cold. After three or four nights we ended up on the Pakistan side. The land was very green. We went to a refugee camp in Quetta near the border called the Jungle Camp — it was the biggest in Baluchistan. One of my uncles was already there. It was terrible. The dust went up to your ankles, like snow."
By 1984, the family had found quarters in a slum of Quetta, a city with a Pashtun culture similar to Kandahar's. Mohammad Fazal Hashemi worked with one of the seven Afghan mujahedeen parties that were fighting the Soviets with the help of billions of dollars of covert American aid. When he turned 6, Rahmatullah was enrolled in a Pakistani primary school — three rooms on the ground floor of a dark brick building. He was placed in second grade in a class with about 30 other kids. The school day ran from 8 to 1. There was a blackboard and one teacher, who often left the kids alone. Fights broke out frequently.
"Many of the Pakistani Pashtuns in Quetta were Communists, and they hated the Afghan refugees. They called us bagori, which means 'escapees.' I remember in school they'd call us puppets of the Americans. I got into a lot of fights with these people. They'd say things like, 'The Russians have a missile that can hit the White House,' and I'd say, 'The Americans have a missile that can hit a dot on the back of a cow standing in the Kremlin!"'
He learned to write in Pashto, Urdu and Persian and picked up some English words. Early each morning before school, and every evening before sunset, he went to a madrassa in Quetta to receive lessons from an imam in the basics of Islam: how to pray, how to wash, how to eat. As he got older, the emphasis shifted from injunctions on manners to features of Islamic history and jurisprudence. Five times a day he broke for prayer. He tried dutifully to comply with the precepts of Islam: respecting elders, honoring parents, speaking truthfully. "Religion was a part of your life," he said. "You never thought about it."
In 1989, the Soviets withdrew in defeat from Afghanistan. Mohammad Fazal Hashemi, weary of holy-warrior politics and hypocrisy, opened a shoe shop on the outskirts of Quetta. Shortly before the end of the school year, he told his 10-year-old son that his school days were over — he needed Rahmatullah to mind the store while he worshipped at the mosque.
"Why didn't your older brothers help out?" I asked.
"That's a good question," Rahmatullah said. He was silent for a while, as if 16 years later the blow were still fresh. "Those were the best years of my life," he said at last. "When I dropped out that day, I was crying all the time. I thought I would never see school again. We were in a constant economic crisis, moving from one house to another."
At the shop he cleaned windows, brushed the shoes and battled the dust. To guard the stock against thieves during the night, his younger brother, Asadullah, would lock Rahmatullah inside behind a steel shutter. There was no electricity. He read the Persian poets Sa'di Shirazi and Rumi by candlelight, and the Pashtun Shakespeare, Rahman Baba: "An ignorant man is like a corpse." One night he woke to the sound of hammering and spied on the other side of the shutter a pair of busy legs and feet in plastic sandals. "Who is it?" he shouted, grabbing his father's knife. The sandals scrammed; Rahmatullah sat up the rest of the night, too frightened to sleep.
In 1992, Rahmatullah's father sold the shoe shop to take a job working for a United Nations demining program in Afghanistan. He reported back that Kandahar, then the country's second-largest city, had become "a city of dogs." Rahmatullah, who was now 13, enrolled in an English-language training school established for Afghan refugees by the International Rescue Committee, an American charity. He wanted to return to his old school, but the prospect of being placed in fourth grade, as administrators insisted, was too humiliating, so he stayed where he was. Learning English was considered as valuable as a high-school degree anyway. He graduated second in his class and stayed on for another year working as a substitute English-language teacher. But he was restless to see the country he had left more than a decade before. After the Soviets limped home in 1989, Afghan Communists hung on to power until April 1992, when the mujahedeen finally captured Kabul. The victory of the holy warriors quickly devolved into a civil war as brutal and unholy as anything under the Soviet occupation. From 1992 until 1995, internecine fighting killed more than 40,000 people in Kabul alone.
In the fall of 1994, a group of mullahs and madrassa students emerged in the Kandahar region as yet another of the seemingly numberless factions vying for control of Afghanistan. They were called the Taliban; they were led by an obscure one-eyed mullah and veteran jihadi who knew little about the world beyond his village. On Nov. 5, they captured the city of Kandahar, the spiritual center of the Pashtuns. Within months, they took control of roughly one-third of Afghanistan's provinces and pacified a large swath of a nation that had been convulsed by violence for nearly two decades. To one young Afghan exile, following the news from Quetta on BBC radio broadcasts, the Taliban looked like the saviors of his homeland; like thousands of other Afghan refugees hungry for a future in their own country, he was eager to be one of them.
Black Turbans in Kandahar: 1994-2000
hen Rahmatullah turned 16, two weeks after the Taliban took Kandahar, thousands of Pashtuns were having a coming-out party. The buzz of liberation was in the air; suddenly it was safe to go home.
"I went with my father to see Kandahar and our village," he recalled in the late-afternoon hush of the Commons dining hall. "The reason why the Taliban were so successful at first was they were seen as the ultimate good guys. They stabilized the country. The areas they controlled were unique for peace and security. I said to my father, 'I really want to join them."'
Four months later, Rahmatullah visited a Taliban office in Kandahar. Discouraged from military service by his parents, he offered his skills as a computer operator highly proficient in English. He was turned away: "They said I was too young." But his father had some contacts in the Taliban, and when Rahmatullah reapplied in September, adding a couple of years to his age, he was accepted. There was hardly any paperwork and no membership card. What signaled his new status was an expensive black turban bought for him by his father.
In August 1996, he took a paying job at Unicef — $130 a month, most of which he gave to his parents. He worked at Unicef until 4 p.m. and then reported to the Taliban's Office of Foreign Affairs. The work at the foreign office increased after Kabul fell to the Taliban in late September, and eventually Rahmatullah got a full-time job translating.
"There were about 35 people in the foreign office, which was in Shahre Naw, the 'new city' area of Kandahar. At first for dinner we were eating only bread. Groups of Taliban would collect rations from houses, and sometimes some of the U.N. agencies would give us rice. Everything was so informal and raw. I was excited, but I did find it difficult to adjust to the rules and to Afghan culture, especially wearing a turban. Wrapping it around your head is easy, but it's hard to wear it all the time, and I didn't like somebody imposing the requirement on me. I didn't see any religious reason for it. In the beginning I said, No, I'm not going to wear it, but one of the more senior people said, 'It's a good idea to get used to it."'
The Taliban might still be in power today but for the hospitality they extended to Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in May 1996 as the guest of Jalalabad warlords who were not members of the Taliban but quickly ingratiated himself with Mullah Omar. "I saw bin Laden after he was brought to Kandahar in 1997," Rahmatullah recalled. "He came to the foreign office with some people. He was a very tall guy. I knew him as a rich man, an Arab, but there was no reason at the time to remember his name. I heard about him again when I was taking notes during a meeting, I think it was in 1997, with the U.S. chargé d'affairs in Kandahar. U.S. officials had O.K. relations with the Taliban at that time, and they wanted to talk about four issues. The first was stopping the fighting with the Northern Alliance. The second was drugs and opium growing. The third was human rights. The fourth was Osama bin Laden. I said, 'Who?' I had to have one of the Americans repeat the name for me."
Rahmatullah heard bin Laden speak at a house in Kandahar in 1998, not long after Qaeda agents financed by bin Laden blew up two U.S. embassies, in Kenya and Tanzania, and President Clinton retaliated by launching 75 cruise missiles at what were thought to be four terrorist training camps near the eastern Afghanistan town of Khost. "He spoke against the U.S. presence in the Holy Land, and amazingly, he spoke against Saddam Hussein that day," Rahmatullah recalled.
In November 1998, bin Laden was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York for the embassy bombings. The job of translating the indictment into Pashto fell to Rahmatullah. "Many words and phrases were difficult — 'grand jury,' for example. 'Confederated.' 'Vanguard.' 'Heretics."'
As American diplomats pressed the case for extradition, the Taliban's often-invoked reason for not turning over bin Laden was that he was a guest, and under the ancient code of Pashtunwali, few responsibilities were more important than a host's obligation to his guest. Bin Laden was also reported to have curried the favor of Mullah Omar with a $3 million donation. Another factor may have been the possibility that the deaths of 224 people in far-off American embassies wouldn't seem all that notable in a country in which 40,000 people had already been killed in the rocket-riddled capital, and where war was still raging in the north and you could die if you stepped in the wrong place. Afghanistan was then, and remains today, one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. It is also one of the poorest, and has one of the lowest rates of life expectancy. The average Afghan is dead at 43.
Truth be told, Rahmatullah was beginning to wonder about some aspects of life with the Taliban. He was appointed to the position of diplomat in the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad in 1998, and when Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil became foreign minister in 2000, he made Rahmatullah a "roving ambassador." The international image of the Taliban was increasingly dominated by the Vice and Virtue busybodies who were checking the lengths of beards and thrashing women with leather straps and herding crowds into the Kabul soccer stadium to witness lashings amputations and executions. Even among ordinary people, he was increasingly reluctant to appear in his black turban. Before long he found himself wrapping on turbans of a less controversial color.
"I felt better not being distinguished," he said.
He was not a soldier, but danger was never far away. Once during Ramadan, before the Taliban took Kabul, he was on his way back to Kandahar from Herat, where he had gone to help organize the foreign office. Needing to urinate, he pulled the car to the side of the highway. He walked 30 or so paces into the bush. In Afghan fashion, he squatted in the privacy of his tunic. Between his feet he saw the urine rinsing dust off a drab metal disk. He was hunkered inches above a mine.
"That wasn't the one I was worried about," he said. "It was all the other ones I couldn't see between me and the car that I had missed walking in."
Another time, a week after he was married in August 1999, he got a ride home from the foreign office with a friend. He and his wife, Asyah, lived with Rahmatullah's parents in a four-bedroom government house with a garden out back where his father grew tomatoes and okra. Over the walkie-talkie came a report of an unknown truck parked in front of Mullah Omar's compound, about half a mile from Rahmatullah's house. A voice on the radio asked Rahmatullah and his fellow Taliban official to check it out.
"Let's go," his friend said.
"Oh, man, I'm really tired, I just want to go home," Rahmatullah said. His friend dropped him off.
"I opened the door, I said hi to my wife and then suddenly the ground shook, the lights went off, all the windows blew out. Outside I could see a giant Hiroshima-like mushroom cloud." The truck was a bomb. The explosion, believed to be the work of Iranian-backed agents, killed 40 people, including two of Mullah Omar's stepbrothers. "There were limbs all over the place, hanging from trees. Compared to this bomb, bunker busters were nothing. Some people died just from the shock wave. If we had driven over there, you wouldn't even have found pieces of us."
At the start of 1999, Rahmatullah's translation work increasingly took him abroad. Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recognized the Taliban; United Nations sanctions were looming (and were implemented that fall). The foreign office hoped to improve the Taliban's dismal international reputation. Trips to the gulf states, Switzerland, France, Holland and Denmark exposed Rahmatullah to new ways of thinking. Once in Germany, he saw the extremes to which Western companies will go to boost sales. Along the road from the Hamburg airport, he saw a giant blonde on a billboard advertising some product that was shockingly upstaged by her uncovered breasts. He and another diplomat craned for a glimpse.
At one conference he attended, the emir of Qatar surprised Rahmatullah with the gift of a brown leather Pierre Cardin attaché case. When the Taliban fell, he had to abandon much of what he owned, but he held on to the case; it was among the little huddle of luggage he took to Yale. It contained all his important papers — passport, visa, college correspondence, his English-language training institute diploma with a head shot of him as a hopeful young man. Even now, with its crisp latches and precise stitching, it gleamed in his humble room like a talisman of life beyond the village.
"Who is Pierre Cardin?" he said.
The Camel: May 2000 to October 2001
idday on May 21, 2000, Rahmatullah was holding a sign at the airport in Quetta, Pakistan: "Mr. Mick Hoober." Mick Hoober never showed up, but in his place came a hale, rangy, black-haired 56-year-old American named Mike Hoover. Close enough. Mountaineer, cameraman, filmmaker, Hoover was possibly the only member of the American news media whose life was as eventful as Rahmatullah's. He had been to both poles, all seven continents and, during the making of "The Eiger Sanction," served as Clint Eastwood's stunt double. He had one Academy Award, three wives, four children and 14 Emmys and had had many brushes with oblivion. In 1994, he was the only survivor of a ski-helicopter crash in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada that killed four people, including his second wife, Beverly Johnson (at one time the best female rock climber in the world), and Frank Wells, president of the Walt Disney Company.
In the 1980's, Hoover slipped into Afghanistan for CBS News and filmed mujahedeen battles against the Red Army. The Afghans dubbed him Shutur, or "the Camel," because he insisted on lugging his heavy camera equipment up trails in the Hindu Kush. Now, in May 2000, he was one of the few American news cameramen who had been given Taliban permission to visit Afghanistan since Clinton's attempt to kill bin Laden with cruise missiles in August 1998. Rahmatullah had been assigned to take him around as a guide and translator and show him whatever he wanted to see.
Rahmatullah had a driver, and Hoover was traveling with another filmmaker, Cindy Carpenter Spies, who was working on a documentary about Afghan women. The party set off around noon for Kandahar in an old station wagon. After they had been going for a while, the driver pulled to the side of the road. He and Rahmatullah got out. They were in the middle of nowhere, and no one was around. "I thought this was it," Spies recalls. "I thought, They're probably going to kill us right here." Hoover wasn't sure what the two Taliban were up to until they faced southeast and got down on their knees to pray.
Over the next three weeks, Hoover and Rahmatullah traveled around Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and formed a deep friendship. One night, a week or so into the trip, Hoover was sitting on the floor of the foreign office guest house in Kandahar, drinking tea as Rahmatullah and some other Taliban peeled potatoes and onions. Rahmatullah asked him a question.
"Do you believe people are related to dogs?"
Dogs are not favored in Afghan society; the question dared him to contradict common sense.
"Yes," Hoover said.
The Taliban all laughed in amazement.
"How can you possibly believe that? We are so different."
"You see only differences. I see similarities."
"Similarities! Like what?"
Hoover wanted his first example to be an intellectual bunker buster, so he thought carefully.
"Bilateral symmetry," he said. The laughter stopped, which pleased him.
"What does that mean?"
"It means dogs have eyes on either side of their nose, just like humans. Dogs have two nostrils, just like humans. They have two lungs. They have toenails. They have a heart in the center of their chest. Dog blood and human blood are indistinguishable."
Recalling the exchange not long ago, Hoover said: "Now you could hear a pin drop — and it was a dirt floor. They were starting to get uneasy. There was a dog right outside. It was scraggly and covered with sores; I think the appropriate word for it would be 'cur.' When I finished laying out how they might be genetically related to the cur outside, they went off and started talking among themselves very intently. What they were discussing and what they wanted to understand was if what I was saying was true, would it fit within the teachings of the Koran. After a long time they came to the conclusion that it would."
hen he came to the United States nine months later, Rahmatullah was no longer a translator in the narrow sense of the word. He was a diplomat, an envoy, a spokesman hoping to translate the conditions of his country into terms Americans could understand.
The trip had been Hoover's idea. He put up a lot of the money for the travel expenses and called people who could help arrange places for Rahmatullah to sleep and set up speaking gigs and interviews.
"The way to break down cultural barriers is exchange," Hoover says. "The reason Rahmatullah was called a 'roving ambassador' is because nobody would have him. Why not let him talk, let him explain, let him have his say?"
Under the United Nations sanctions at the time, high-level Taliban officials were barred from traveling abroad, but Rahmatullah was apparently a small-enough potato to get a visa. The idea that he could help improve the Taliban's public image was probably doomed from the start. As he was preparing to leave, the Taliban were resolving to blow up the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan — priceless 1,500-year-old archaeological treasures that predated Islam. The foreign minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, thought there was no point in having Rahmatullah go, but Rahmatullah had his heart set. And plans had been made, speaking engagements booked, meetings arranged at the State Department.
He flew economy class dressed in a newly purchased coat and a new pair of baggy Afghan pants. He wore a turban — taupe, not black. He carried a letter for President Bush with a message from Mullah Omar and also a gift, a small Afghan rug of bright yellows, oranges and reds.
Hoover picked him up at Los Angeles International Airport and took him to his oceanside house in Palos Verdes. Later Rahmatullah played basketball in the driveway with Hoover's wife, Amber, an experience nearly as remarkable as the Hamburg billboard.
At his first speech at Town Hall Los Angeles he was very nervous. "You don't want to make a mistake, especially if you represent the Taliban," he told me. But the West Coast swing proved to be a warm-up for the chillier reception he got in the East. At the University of Southern California, there were some softball questions and supportive audience members shouting "Allahu akbar!"
Five years later, his U.S.C. talk seems both shrewd and naïve — in some places well informed and rhetorically effective; in others disingenuous or just plain ignorant. Walking the party line on the destruction of the Buddhist statues, he allowed that the vandalism wasn't logical but that the fit of fundamentalist pique had to be seen in context. If "the world is destroying our future with economic sanctions," Rahmatullah said, "then they have no right to worry about our past." Citing the Taliban revocation of ancient tribal practices like honor killing, exchanging women as gifts and arranging marriages without a bride's permission, he insisted that the Taliban had actually enhanced the lot of women by giving them the right of "self-determination." On the question of bin Laden, he submitted that the Taliban were "confused as to what is the definition of terrorism," especially given the U.S. cruise-missile attack on Afghanistan in 1998 that missed bin Laden but killed 21 people. Was that not terrorism? "We didn't know Osama bin Laden then," he said at U.S.C. "I didn't know him; he was just a simple man." In fact, even if Rahmatullah did not "know" bin Laden, he certainly knew of him, having seen him in Kandahar in early 1997. If part of being a good Muslim means always telling the truth, as he was raised to believe, he was learning how hard it is to be virtuous and a government spokesman at the same time.
"On the East Coast the questions were much harder, especially about bin Laden and the Buddhist statues," he recalls. "The statues had just been blown up. I tried to distance myself from it, but inside I was dying. If I said I had nothing to do with it and didn't support it, I would have been in trouble back home."
In Washington he met with State Department officials. He presented the Afghan rug and Mullah Omar's message. American spokesmen dismissed the proposals in the letter as nothing new. He met with Senator Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican, who was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee. He gave interviews to The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The New York Times and appeared on "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" and "Talk of the Nation" on NPR.
When he rose to speak on "Prospects for Afghanistan" at the Atlantic Council, hecklers in the audience shouted. A gray-haired woman in the audience stood and lifted the burka she was wearing over her head. "You have imprisoned the women — it's a horror, let me tell you," she cried. Rahmatullah was caught on videotape responding: "I'm really sorry to your husband. He might have a very difficult time with you."
Unfortunately for him the exchange surfaced in Michael Moore's documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11." He appeared for about 30 seconds in the film, and it sealed his notoriety as the face of what many Americans considered to be an odious regime of terrorist-enabling male chauvinists.
Looking back, sitting in the Commons after his class on terrorism, he said that were he to do the trip over, he would be less antagonistic. "I regret the way I spoke sometimes. Now I would try to be softer. A little bit."
The most substantive debate took place at Yale on March 27, 2001. "The Taliban: Pros and Cons" was arranged and moderated by Prof. Gustav Ranis, then at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies. Ranis had recruited Prof. Harold Hongju Koh to argue the con side of the debate. Rahmatullah did not know who Koh was, and he was not impressed by what the professor had to say.
"He said, 'Women under the Taliban cannot go to doctors,' and I said, 'Do you think I cannot take my daughter to a doctor?' He said, 'Women can't walk outside without a male relative.' I said, 'My wife walks outside."'
At one point, Rahmatullah asked, "Have you ever been to Afghanistan?"
"No," Koh said.
"Well, if you were my only source of information about the Taliban, I'd hate them too!" It was a line he also used during his "Talk of the Nation" interview.
But it might have been wise to recall the words of Rahman Baba: "An ignorant man is like a corpse." What Koh may have lacked in personal experience of Afghanistan he had offset with time in the library. He had just finished serving more than two years in the Clinton administration as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. He arrived at Luce Hall with a five-inch stack of documents and reports.
In the audience that afternoon was Gardner Bovingdon, now a professor at Indiana University. "I remember three moments," he says. "The first was when Rahmatullah was talking about girls' education under the Taliban. He said, 'It's not that we refuse to let the girls study in school, it's that we haven't prepared the materials yet.' In other words, it was just a bureaucratic problem. The entire auditorium looked at him beady-eyed. The second was when he was talking about the abridgment of women's rights under the Taliban, and he said something like, 'American women don't have the right not to find images of themselves in swimsuits on the side of a bus.' Some people in the auditorium hissed. And the third one was when Rahmatullah got to the topic of the Buddhas and said, 'You people in the West, you don't care about people, you only care about statues.' Harold replied, 'What you're hearing this afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, is the sound of a diplomat hung out to dry.' My real feeling was that however clever Rahmatullah was, he had not been charged to intellectually engage what Harold Koh was saying but had been told to stay on his points and not look like a fool."
After the debate Rahmatullah offered his hand. Koh, who is now dean of Yale Law School, shook it "reluctantly," he says, though he managed a smile for a photographer from The New Haven Register.
On the flight home, Rahmatullah was optimistic that relations with the United States could be improved and that the United Nations sanctions that were punishing the people of Afghanistan could be lifted. In Kandahar, he presented what he had gleaned from his trip to Mullah Omar and a group of senior advisers. It was quickly evident that they weren't interested in his ideas.
"I nearly got into a fight with the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Mullah Saqib, who had verified the edict to demolish the Bamiyan Buddhas," he recalls. "I said, 'Why can't we have women's education?' And he said, 'We'll have it later.' I said: 'There isn't any time. Why are we waiting?' He said to me, 'I think you were really indoctrinated by America.' That really ticked me off. I wanted something good for Afghanistan. I was saying what I was saying because it was for the good of Afghanistan, not because I was being paid by the C.I.A. He was a sycophant — he didn't want to upset the conservatives."
The ensuing months did not dispel Rahmatullah's disillusionment. He seriously considered quitting the Taliban and taking up a friend's offer to work part time for CNN.
That spring and summer of 2001, from a Western perspective at least, Mullah Omar and the hard-line Taliban seemed driven by a perverse desire to pile folly upon folly. In May, having blown up the Buddhas, hounded girls from school and implemented laws and practices that in some cases violated the principles of Islam, they took a page from the Nazis and proposed that non-Muslims wear identity labels on their clothes. In July, they banished women from recreation areas, banned the use of the Internet and forbade the importation of chessboards, playing cards, musical instruments, nail polish and neckties, among other items. In August, they arrested 24 Western and Afghan aid workers on charges of "spreading Christianity" — a crime punishable by death. They continued to balk at demands to turn over Osama bin Laden. On Sept. 11, their see-no-evil charade regarding bin Laden collapsed in the inferno of the World Trade Center. Foreign Minister Muttawakil called a hasty news conference to condemn the attacks in New York and Washington, but he knew the Taliban were probably finished.
"He told us in the foreign office, 'That's it, you must go your own way now,"' Rahmatullah recalls. "We were told to fend for ourselves."
Worried that American bombing was imminent, Rahmatullah's father gathered his family together and they left Afghanistan on Sept. 22. Rahmatullah's new son, Suleman, was 10 days old. The weather was bitterly cold, and he got sick. "We arrived in Pakistan late at night," Rahmatullah recalls. "We took Suleman to the hospital in Quetta. Then I returned to Kandahar. No one knew what was happening. I felt I had to be there, but I wanted to make sure my family got out."
Two weeks later, on Oct. 7, the bombs finally came whistling out of the night sky above Kandahar. Thinking it was safer, Rahmatullah slept outdoors in a trench. The foreign office was hit. He went to survey the damage and found the place crawling with looters.
"I saw people taking away the carpets and the washing machines and the air-conditioners we had installed for guests in the guest house. I thought, Wow, I should stop them, but there was no meaning in stopping them. The whole place was looted in one day. It had taken us six years to build up the foreign office. We demined it, we cleaned it, we put in windows and rugs, we planted trees and bushes. I watered the trees. And then in one night it was bombed, and the next it was looted, and everything we did to build it up was gone."
He drove back to his family in Quetta and took up life in exile once again.
For months on end he moped around, without direction or plans. Worried for his safety, his parents didn't want him to leave the house. He followed the news from Afghanistan on the BBC for a while but then gave his radio away, discouraged, he says, that the Americans seemed to be reinstalling the warlords whose abuses had given rise to the Taliban in the first place. Rahmatullah thought that if he could live his life over, he would steer clear of politics. He would be a scientist. His main consolation was playing with his children. And books. Every day he read for hours. Curious about orbital dynamics and moon capture, he worked out a theory to explain the retrograde spin of Venus and Pluto and wrote a paper complete with pencil diagrams.
In the fall of 2003, he took a high-school equivalency exam in Quetta and was awarded a degree. In February 2004, he got a call from his old boss, the former foreign minister Mullah Muttawakil. He had been released from the American prison at Bagram Air Base and was now under house arrest in Kabul. He asked if Rahmatullah would like to return to Kabul and clear his name with the American authorities. Yes, he would, he said, and a week later in Kabul, Rahmatullah saw Muttawakil for the first time in two years.
"He was fed up with politics," he says. "He was translating Arabic. He'd lost a lot of hair."
An American woman who identified herself only as Michelle showed up at the house, along with a man who smiled a lot but didn't give his name. They all had tea together. Rahmatullah had been nervous about getting an adversarial debriefer. Somebody could put whatever he felt like in his file, and he would be on a transport to Guantánamo Bay with his head in a sack. He was thankful that Michelle seemed thoughtful and not arrogant at all. She asked if he had seen Mullah Omar recently. He had not. She asked if he knew of anyone who would pose a threat to Muttawakil, who as a moderate ex-Taliban might be in the cross hairs of extremists on both sides. He said he didn't know of anyone.
Michelle and the man returned for a second interview a few days later. Rahmatullah had no idea how much time or how many interviews it would take to "clear" his name. He passed the hours in limbo reading the Hadith, the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, and playing "chinny chockers" with Muttawakil. After 40 days, Michelle appeared for the third time. "You can go," she said.
The Karzai administration invited Rahmatullah to work for the government, but with the Northern Alliance now controlling the Afghan military, he feared for his safety in Kabul. Since the regime's collapse, Rahmatullah had stayed in touch with Mike Hoover. In the spring of 2004, he jumped when Hoover proposed the possibility of Rahmatullah's attending college in the United States. "I thought he could do a lot as a student/teacher," Hoover says. He had broached the idea with a friend, Bob Schuster, an attorney in Jackson Hole, Wyo., where Hoover lived most of the year. Schuster, who had earned his undergraduate degree at Yale in 1967, said Yale was the place they ought to try first. Schuster called the provost's office to ask how an ex-Taliban envoy with a fourth-grade education and a high-school equivalency degree might go about applying to one of the world's top universities. Yale had a nondegree program for special students. Rahmatullah should send a short bio to Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Yale. When it arrived, Shaw was intrigued and suggested that Rahmatullah come to New Haven for an interview.
Rahmatullah applied for a visa at the United States Consulate in Peshawar in July 2004. With his Taliban-era paperwork, he was referred to the embassy in Islamabad, but within a couple of weeks he received a B2 prospective-student visa. At the end of October he flew to New York. Not knowing how long he would have to wait for the Yale interview, he had arranged to stay with an Afghan family on Long Island. Finally the call came. On Dec. 11, he presented himself to Dean Shaw.
"When I first met him I was a little anxious," recalls Shaw, who last year became dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Stanford. "My perception was, 'It's the enemy!' But the interview with him was one of the most interesting I've ever had. I walked away with a sense: Whoa! This is a person to be reckoned with and who could educate us about the world."
Waiting to hear from Yale, Rahmatullah spent the holidays in Jackson Hole with Hoover. He met Bob Schuster and spoke to students at several local schools. The talks reprised the form if not the content of his lectures in America in 2001. After a talk to the young teenagers at the Jackson Hole Middle School, two boys approached Rahmatullah.
"Can we ask you a question? Have you ever been in a war?"
"Can you tell us about it? We want to be Army Rangers."
He thought for a second. "Do you guys play video games?"
"Yeah," they said, looking at him as if he had rocks for brains.
"I thought so," he said. "Let me ask you, have either of you ever killed a chicken?"
They shook their heads. They didn't know anyone who even had chickens.
"When was the last time you had to kill anything to eat?"
They were confused.
"I killed a goat before I came here," Rahmatullah said. "I hated doing it. Go kill a chicken, and pluck it, and eat it," he said softly. "And then maybe you will know a little bit about war."
A Time to Be Young: 2005-2006
The letter came in January 2005. He was in, admitted to Yale as a nondegree student, with the understanding that if he did well after a summer term and two regular freshman terms; if he could get the grades, improve his math, refine his writing, prepare for the science; if he could figure out how to pay for tuition, room, board and books; if he could endure the cultural dislocation, the difficulty of visa restrictions, the plaintive voice of his wife on the far side of the world, his little boy, Suleman, telling him to slip out of class when the teacher wasn't looking and come home; well, then he would be welcome to apply for regular degree status in the spring of 2006.
Richard Shaw said the admissions office had once had another foreigner of Rahmatullah's caliber apply for special-student status. "We lost him to Harvard," he says. "I didn't want that to happen again."
Rahmatullah returned home for a few months and then flew back to the States in June. During the break between the summer term and the start of the fall semester, he went out to Jackson Hole and visited Hoover and his new friends Paul and Tatiana Maxwell. They, with Schuster, and some other Jackson residents, had started a foundation to raise money for the cost of his education, but it was a hard sell, getting people to donate to the education of a former member of the Taliban.
When the fall term started, he made a lot of new friends. He spoke Urdu to Fahad Khan, a Pakistani junior, and Pashto with two sophomores, Ahmed Khattak, who grew up in Pakistan, and Hyder Akbar, who was born in Afghanistan but raised in the U.S. Rahmatullah didn't mention his background, but his friends put two and two together.
"Talk about a eureka moment," Fahad says. "I Googled him in late September and spent the whole night reading about him. I was shocked. I remembered him from the Michael Moore movie. When you see him, you wouldn't believe he's the same guy. He chills with us, he cracks jokes with us. He's a fundamentalist in the way he believes in the essence of religion, but he's not an extremist at all. He gives you intellectual answers versus dogmatic answers. He's very serious and disciplined about his education. He missed a class once and was horror-struck. I said, 'Dude, we miss classes all the time!' You can tell he's seen a lot just by the aura around him. But even though he's seen a lifetime of experience already, he's young. He's thirsty for the innocence of life without war, emigration, bombs, politics, danger. Everyone needs a time to be young."
Hyder and Ahmed were busy with their search engines too. Ahmed had read Rahmatullah's U.S.C. speech online in 2001, and after he met him he Googled him and turned up a transcript and Rahmatullah's picture.
"God, it's you!" he shouted when he saw Rahmatullah again.
"Shut up," Rahmatullah said. Pashtun friendships are often characterized by a certain brusqueness.
"Fahad, Hyder, Rahmatullah, me — we fight every day," Ahmed says. "We have lunch together. At 6 o'clock we meet for dinner at the Slifka Center. We sit together and eat food off one plate and talk about things. Sometimes we make fun of the Taliban. Every day we come up with something to fight about. We pretend to be only mocking, but we're genuinely angry. Friendship to a Pashtun means you have exclusive rights to abuse each other. After dinner we go back to my suite in Davenport and play foosball or stay up late playing Civilization. Rahmatullah loves the equality of how people are over here. He's very down to earth. He gets a lot of respect at Yale. If you want to test a man's character, either give him power or take it away — and see how he responds. I'm proud to be his friend."
On Craig's List, Ahmed found Rahmatullah a new room off campus, where he prefers to study. It's quieter than the library. He salvaged a desk from a pile of garbage on the sidewalk. His printer is a castoff from the Office of International Students and Scholars. He invited me over one afternoon, apologizing for not having more to offer than a handful of raisins and almonds.
"Some of what I am studying at Yale in theory I think I have already learned in practice. Theory is always distant. Theory and experience hardly ever meet. I was more confident in 2001 than I am now. I was probably a better speaker then, because everything was so new to me. Before I was meeting high-ranking people — learning how to interact, how to argue, how to make points, how to write letters. I think I'm forgetting it now. I see myself not being focused enough. It's easier to learn in practice than in theory."
He follows the news from Afghanistan every day — increasingly dismayed, as are many, by the return of the warlords, the rise of opium trafficking, the lawlessness and violence that have plagued his country all his life. Would things be better if the Taliban were still in power?
"Economically, no. In terms of security, yes. In terms of general happiness, no. In the long-term interests of the country? I don't think so. I think the radicals were taking over and doing crazy stuff. I regret when people think of the Taliban and then think of me — that feeling people have after they know I was affiliated with them is painful to me. When I read that the neo-Taliban are burning girls' schools, I am ashamed."
Many distinctions could be drawn between his old life and his life at Yale. But he had seized on one.
"You have to be reasonable to live in America," he said. "Everything here is based on reason. Even the essays you write for class. Back home you have to talk about religion and culture, and you can win any argument if you bring up the Islamic argument. You can't reason against religion. But you cannot change Afghanistan overnight. You can't bring the Enlightenment overnight."
A few weeks after our visit, aching for his family, Rahmatullah hit a low point. The semester was ending. Everyone was heading home to see his family but him. He could not leave the country on his visa with any assurance of its being renewed in time for class. The future, his vague hopes of returning to Afghanistan to work in education, seemed remote. He said to Ahmed one day, "What is the meaning of life?" and answered for himself: "Family." And then out poured reasons that he should abandon his education and go home. He was neglecting his duties as a father and husband. His children were pining for him; his wife was upset. He missed his parents. And all the young minds around him were so fresh, it was daunting sometimes, people who looked as if they were hardly paying attention in class blazed through their exams. What was he really learning? When you studied political science, you were always focused on how messed up the world was. He wished he could study the stars, but as Hoover had sensibly said, "The world doesn't need an Afghan astrophysicist." He had been raised in a faith, buoyed at every turn by the certainty of a higher order, a purposeful universe, and now here in this shrine of critical thinking he was learning to doubt, not to believe.
Everyone needs a time to be young. He spent the holidays with Hoover and the Maxwells in Jackson Hole. He ventured into the town pool. When he was 19, he nearly drowned in the Arghandab River. He had never learned how to swim, and he always wanted to. And now in landlocked Wyoming, he was getting the hang of it.
By January the crisis had ebbed. He was happy about his grades after the fall-term finals. He had a 3.33 G.P.A. He had done better than he thought in Managing the Global City and worse than he expected in Terrorism: Past, Present and Future. Make what you will of that. He felt more at ease on College Street and was really enjoying his spring courses: Reading and Writing the Modern Essay (ENGL 120), International Dimensions of Democratization (PLSC 151) and Introduction to International Relations (PLSC 111). And the toys he had sent his kids had arrived in Quetta at long last — Suleman's train and Suraya's stuffed dog. And the pictures of Dad the Talib at Yale. So they could see where he was. He had a direction and plans, and it helped to remember how fortunate he was. "In some ways I'm the luckiest person in the world," he says. "I could have ended up in Guantánamo Bay. Instead I ended up at Yale."
He planned to apply for admission as a degree-status sophomore in March or April. And in May, in'shallah, he would go home.