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Chip Brown’s Account of a Taliban at Yale

I do love this country. There is a certain greatness in America that is still with us (in spite of all that is wrong now and has been wrong in the past), a real, admirable quality that is always turning up if one has the eyes to see it. Courage and generosity, and being able to laugh at oneself and admit one’s mistakes, these are, I think, the words that best describe our country’s greatness. These qualities are easy to discern in the big events of the country’s history, in the survival of the early Atlantic seaboard colonies, the settling and the winning of the West, the making room in our public lives, alongside of the white males, first for women, then for Blacks, and now for all those who come to our shores from nearly every corner of the earth. These are generally recognized instances of greatness in our country’s history, but there are also innumerable individual instances of greatness, demonstrated by the actions of individual Americans and resulting from an inner sense of what is the right thing to do, and not from an outer awareness of convention, or tradition, or from fear of risk taking, or from a need to be well thought of, well remunerated, and the like. Americans have always reached out to people, whoever they are and wherever they be, disregarding whatever the particular circumstances and prejudices there might be surrounding these people and that might have stopped a lesser person from becoming involved, and have instead welcomed that “other” into their lives and hearts and homes.
In the instance before us the American with a “great soul” is Mike Hoover and the “other” to whom he reached out is Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, now 28 years old and a freshman at Yale, but a former roving Ambassador for the Taliban. Chip Brown in today’s NYTimes tells us this fascinating story. In what follows below I will be taking whole passages from Chip’s account.

In May of 2000, when he first met Rahmatullah at the airport in Quetta, Pakistan, Mike Hoover was a “hale, rangy, black-haired 56-year-old, mountaineer, cameraman, filmmaker, and 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.”

Typical? Well maybe not, but certainly American with a not untypical American story.

“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.”

Chip’s account in the Times makes it clear that Mike Hoover recognized the worth of this young man, and brought him to Yale via Jackson Hole, Wyoming where he, Mike, now lives.

So who is Rahmatullah, the “other” in this story? Two anecdotes in Chet’s account are particularly revealing of the young man’s character, qualities that Mike and Yale probably recognized in turn.

Waiting to hear from Yale, Rahmatullah spent the holidays in Jackson Hole with Hoover. [While there] he spoke to students at several local schools…. 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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

And then a bit later the writer has this to say:

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.”

Well, I thought, what about that, “you have to be reasonable to live in America. Everything here is based on reason.”
And then, “you can’t bring the Enlightenment to Afghanistan overnight.”

Well, I’d like to believe that, not that you can’t bring reason to Afghanistan, but that everything here is based on reason. My own activities, such as reading books purchased through Amazon’s used book network, downloading newspaper and magazine articles from the Web, through it all constantly on the outlook for new ideas that I can then write about and share with my email correspondents, highly reasonable activity all that? I’d like to think so, and I’d certainly rather be called a reasonable man than a born again. But, “you have to be reasonable to live in America,” probably not.

So I wouldn’t agree with Rahmatullah that it’s the place of reason in our lives that is our most striking characteristic. (Nor was it probably that noticeable in France during the Enlightenment, followed as that was by the least reasonable period of their history.) In fact I don’t know many people whom I would characterize in that manner. I do know a lot of people for whom money, not reason, is most important. But I also know many Americans who are fundamentally good, who are extraordinarily generous with their time and money, who are quick to reach out and help others who have much less than they. It’s not so much by the place of reason as it is by the place of generosity in our lives that I would judge the greatness of our country. And right along with that generosity, and an inseparable part of it, is the American’s ability to look to the worth of the man or woman underneath whatever might be the clothes he or she is wearing, the color of that person’s skin, the social or economic class to which the person might belong. I would say that people in general, no less than Americans, may be called great souled or magnanimous when in their dealings with others they disregard the external factors of others’ lives and see them and relate to them for what they are underneath. Only for the scientist, perhaps, are externals all important. Most of us try to go directly to the essence of things beyond the externals, or at least we would like to think we do. For when the externals, one’s social position, one’s bank account, one’s golf game are all important, well then we’re in big trouble. And most important we are much less the man or woman that we could be. Up until now I’d like to think that America’s times of greatness have overshadowed the instances of its littleness. For some of us they have, and for others they haven’t, and today we find ourselves divided because of our differences in this regard. I think it was one an instance of greatness that had Mike Hoover bring Rahmatullah to Jackson Hole, and another one when Yale University accepted Rahmatullah as a freshman at the college.