Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Confessions of a Mullah Warrior

by Masood Farivar

From an Afghan with deep roots in his nation’s history, a courageous and evocative memoir of fleeing the Soviet invasion, coming of age in a madrassa in Pakistan, fighting the Russians with the mujahideen, and moving to America.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 336
  • Publication Date February 16, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4454-6
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $15.00

About The Book

Masood Farivar was ten years old when his childhood in peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan was shattered by the Soviet invasion of 1979. Although he was born into a long line of religious and political leaders who had shaped his nation’s history for centuries, Farivar fled to Pakistan with his family and came of age in a madrassa for refugees. At eighteen, he defied his parents and returned home to join the jihad, fighting beside not only the Afghan mujahideen but also Arab and Pakistani volunteers. When the Soviets withdrew, Farivar moved to America and attended the prestigious Lawrenceville School and Harvard, and ultimately became a journalist in New York.

At a time when the war in Afghanistan is the focus of renewed attention, and its outcome is more crucial than ever to our own security, Farivar draws on his unique experience as a native Afghan, a former mujahideen fighter, and a longtime U.S. resident to provide unprecedented insight into the ongoing collision between Islam and the West. This is a visceral, clear-eyed, and illuminating memoir from an indispensable new voice on the world stage.


“In this earnest bildungsroman, Farivar tells the remarkable tale of how he went from Afghan refugee to resistance fighter to Harvard University student. . . . The book succeeds in its in depth exploration of the radicalization of young Muslim men in the 1980s—and Farivar’s path away from extremism.” —Publishers Weekly

“This invaluable memoir shows the other, non-American side of the Middle Eastern coin. . . . Farivar humanizes the experience for us.” —Library Journal

“[An] eye-opening chronicle of cultural exchange.” —Kirkus Reviews


Chapter One

Every child who is born is born with a sound nature; it is the parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Magian. —Prophet Muhammad

Summer 1974 or 1975—“Agha, Agha,” I said excitedly, “look, there’s a fish in the river.”

It was a late summer afternoon and I was tugging at Agha’s shirttail and tiptoeing over a creaky wooden footbridge, exhilarated and frightened by the rush of the muddy Alishang River twenty feet below. Agha was Sufi Ramazan, my father’s father and a beloved, gray-bearded elder of our ancestral village of Islamabad in eastern Afghanistan in the province of Laghman. While my cousins called him by the more formal Baba Jee, I for some reason had adopted the term my father and uncles preferred for him: Agha, or Dad.

Ever since he’d given me my name and chanted the azan, the Islamic call to prayer—Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, God is great, God is great—into my ears as an infant, Grandpa Agha had taken a special liking to me, the only son of his oldest son.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Agha had decided to introduce me to our ancestral homeland, a world away from my birthplace of Sheberghan in the north. I was happy to get away from Sheberghan for an adventure-filled cross-country trip, but as I clutched Grandpa’s shirttail and insisted that I’d spotted a fish in the river, he responded with words that still ring in my ears: “It’s a piece of wood, you silly. Now walk carefully or you’ll be swimming with the wood.”

I was five or six. Agha was pushing seventy and quite fit for his age. He sported a long, neatly trimmed gray beard and a white silk turban. As a district governor in the north of Kabul, he’d earned a reputation for meting out harsh punishments to criminals, but he was kind and gentle with children.

Safely across the river, I let go of Agha and began waltzing through a vast, chest-high field of sugarcane. The village, a cluster of a hundred or so adjoining mud huts and a handful of more sturdily built two-story compounds, lay beyond the field. The sugarcane distracted me. Until Grandpa told me what it was, I thought it was a fatter, thicker variety of nay, a species of bamboo used to make calligraphy pens. When I learned what it was, I started pulling at some of the stalks but they were taller than I and much more stubborn and wouldn’t succumb to my efforts. Agha, finding me straining and sweating, pulled out his pocket-knife and cut several canes. I remember proudly carrying the canes over my shoulder and following Agha to one of the compounds to spend the night in a cool room.

Only a few other memories from that visit to Islamabad and other villages in our ancestral province of Laghman have stayed with me: meeting old relatives who wore traditional clothes and spoke in a village dialect I could hardly understand; throwing rocks at sheep and cattle; enjoying local delicacies that I associated with the home of my ancestors—corn bread, fried cheese, brown sugar rocks. And one final image: standing next to a cluster of tombs as Agha lifted his wiry hands in prayer. It wasn’t the first time he and I had stopped along our journey to pray for the dead, but these little dirt mounds of tombs weren’t ordinary—they belonged to ancestors of ours who had brought Islam to eastern Afghanistan, their history closely tied to that of the country.

* * *

I was born and raised in the town of Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan, a very different place from Islamabad. Once a bustling Silk Road trading post, Sheberghan fell on hard times after Genghis Khan’s army sacked it in the thirteenth century. While I was growing up in the 1970s, it was something of a backwater town, despite a multiethnic population of some ten thousand. Native Uzbeks predominated, but there were large pockets of Tajiks, Pashtuns, Turkomens, and even nomadic Arabs.

To the other townsfolk, we were Laghmanis—shrewd, industrious, enterprising, and educated. There were so many Laghmanis in Sheberghan that one large neighborhood was informally known as Laghmani Street. Many were close relatives of ours. Grandpa Agha and Grandma Bibi lived there with their three sons, my father, Uncle Khan Agha, and Uncle Agha Shirin. My mother had an older brother and a younger sister as well as two cousins. I knew what to call these close family members, but many others were related to us through blood and family ties so complicated that I sometimes wondered why I called a certain relative a kaakaa, a paternal uncle, rather than a maamaa, a maternal uncle, or a khaala, a maternal aunt, rather than ’ama, a paternal aunt.

To get answers I’d sometimes turn to Ama Koko, my mother’s feisty, slightly hunched maternal aunt. Widowed at a young age and childless, Ama Koko never remarried and instead divided her time between her three brothers and their four dozen children. Whenever she visited us, she’d spend much of her time reading the Koran or the book of Hafez, both of which she’d taught to my mother and her siblings. Like many others in the family, I’d occasionally ask her to consult Hafez to divulge my luck. She would open the book at random and start reading at the first verse her eye fell on. The fourteenth-century Persian verses didn’t make much sense to me, but Ama Koko always found a way of putting them in terms a child could understand: “Khwaja Hafez sees fabulous fortune in your future.”

When I wasn’t asking her to read my luck, I’d pester her with questions about our extended family. A great storyteller, she was open to answering any question except the one that hung over her like a dark cloud: how she’d lost her young husband, the son of a powerful khan near Islamabad, in a tribal feud on the day after their wedding. Everything else was fair game.

“So Ama Koko, where were you born?” I’d start.


Charikar is a small town north of Kabul.

“Charikar? What were you doing in Charikar?”

“My father was a government officer there.”

“What was your father’s name?”

“Jalilur Rahman.”

“What was your grandfather’s name?”

“Jamilur Rahman.”

“So how are you related to Father?”

“Don’t you know?” she’d say, irritated. “Your father is my niece’s husband. Don’t you see?”

“No, I mean how else are you related?”

“Well, your father is my mother’s step-cousin’s son. He is also my sister-in-law’s son-in-law . . .”

The interrogation would go on and on, sometimes for an hour or more. By her next visit to our house, I’d forget many of the names and subject her to the same battery of questions. But she could never go back more than three generations in the family genealogy.

Years later I came across an old family manuscript that filled in the holes in Ama Koko’s narrative. Titled Sifat-naamah-I Darwish Khan-I Ghazi, or The Hagiography of Darwish Khan Ghazi, the hundred-page manuscript opens in 1582, the year Darwish Khan, a middle-aged, fanatical general, led an army from central Asia to the regions surrounding Islamabad, the last non-Muslim pocket of Afghanistan. Accompanying Darwish Khan at the head of the army was his octogenarian spiritual advisor and prayer leader, Sultan Quli, my fourteenth forefather. Sultan Quli was no ordinary mullah. He was the grandson of Khwaja Ubaidullah Ahrar, one of the eminent religious figures of his time and the leader of the Sufi brotherhood known as the Naqshbandiyyah.

Sufism was more than an esoteric spiritual pursuit at the time; it was a way of life for millions and a vehicle by which Islam spread through central and south Asia. Among the many mystical brotherhoods, the Naqshbandiyyah boasted by far the largest following, but what set it apart from other Sufi fraternities was not simply the brotherhood’s practice of the “silent prayer” but, more importantly, its close ties to the ruling authorities—first the dynasty founded by Timur in the fourteenth century and later Babur’s Moghul empire. Ahrar and his descendents served as powerful, behind-the-scenes advisors of both dynasties. As the late German scholar Annemarie Schimmel put it, Ahrar believed that “to serve the world it is necessary to exercise political power” and to bring political rulers under control so that God’s law can be carried out in every aspect of life.

The task facing Darwish Khan’s army was daunting: conquer and convert some of the Hindu Kush’s toughest and most fiercely independent denizens. Darwish Khan did not hesitate to remind his troops what they were fighting for. As he put it, they were part of a battle between God—the One and the Omnipotent—and the gods and idols of the infidels. As the holy warriors took up position on the bank of the Alishang River, native Pashtun tribesmen began to mobilize. While the infidels sacrificed goats to their gods Pandad, Sharwee, and Laamandee, Darwish Khan summoned Allah’s help, assuring his troops that “a man needs courage, not a saber by his side.” His army likely took his words seriously, as it was believed that Darwish Khan possessed extraordinary powers, an example of which was the ability to gallop headlong into an encroaching army, slicing dozens of infidels in half “like cucumbers.”

A total of sixty-six valleys were conquered and converted, but the expedition wasn’t a complete success. While the native Pashtuns submitted to the new faith, another, non-Pashtun tribe, living in adjacent valleys, tenaciously resisted conversion. Originally hailing from the Kandahar region, they had fled north to the Hindu Kush some seven hundred years earlier and spoke in strange tongues, worshipped idols, and sang and danced around their dead. Legend had it that they were descendents of Alexander the Great’s army, which explained why many of them had blue eyes and blond hair. The Afghans called the region Kufristan or Kafiristan—the “land of unbelief” or the “land of infidels.” For the next three centuries, Kafiristan served as a constant reminder that Darwish Khan’s mission to bring Islam to the heathens remained unfulfilled.

As for Darwish Khan and Sultan Quli’s descendents and the remnants of the army, they settled on the bank of the Alishang and christened the encampment Islamabad, or City of Islam, and built ties with the newly converted Pashtuns. They intermarried with them, acquired land along the Alishang, and built a thriving settlement in the heart of the Pashtun belt. While many lived off the land, the direct descendents of Sultan Quli continued the religious profession of their ancestors, maintaining mosques, running Koran schools, and appointing prayer leaders and preachers across the region. Religion also ensured that every male in the family, and more than a few females, were literate in the midst of an illiterate society. Seeing it as a source of power, they passed it down to their children, generation after generation.

Meanwhile, in matters both important and banal, tribal ways often prevailed despite the injunctions of Islamic law. Murders went largely unpunished. Few, if any, thieves had their hands chopped off. Women only occasionally received the legal right to inherit property promised to them by the new, egalitarian religion. Much to the shock of Islamabad’s piety, some desperate tribesmen traded their wives for cattle. People lived their lives according to the guiding principles of Pashtunwali—the way of the Pashtun. Its main tenets required showing hospitality to all, providing shelter for those in need, and retaliating against those who have wronged you. Pashtunwali made no distinction between rich and poor, landlord and peasant. A khan who looked the wrong way at a peasant’s wife could be dragged through the mud, his face blackened, his house burned down, and his family banished. A peasant who stole money could simply pay it back instead of having his hand cut off in accordance with Islam dictates. Everyone, regardless of wealth, was expected to provide lavish hospitality to guests. Khoday dih ghareeb krhee, chaah dih bih ghayratah krhee went one proverb: God made you poor, but who took away your honor?

Darwish Khan’s wish for Islamic conversion came to pass in the nineteenth century, due to a fortuitous turn of events. In 1893 the British, who had made two futile attempts to conquer Afghanistan, drew a new border between Afghanistan and British India that came to be known as the Durand Line, named after its architect, Sir Mortimer Durand. Their goal: transform the unruly land of the Afghans—Yaghistan, or the “land of insolence”—into a docile buffer state between Czarist Russia and British India.

The Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman Khan, whom the British had christened the “Iron Amir” because of his ruthless and authoritarian rule, saw this as an opportunity to enlarge his domain. While not a religious fanatic, he quashed an uprising by the minority Shiite Hazaras of central Afghanistan in an effort to rally tribesmen to join his motley army in a jihad against the infidels of Kafiristan. Many panicked Kafirs embraced Islam outright, while other tribal leaders offered to pay tribute to the amir to avert war. This was a tactic they had used for centuries to fight off the spread of Islam, but the amir demanded complete and unconditional conversion.

The campaign to pacify Kafiristan was short-lived but violent. Hundreds were killed while thousands more crossed into the neighboring Chitral region of modern Pakistan, where their Kafir offspring live to this day. When the jihad was over, some sixty thousand infidels had embraced Islam and pledged their allegiance to the amir. With the valley subdued, the amir dispatched an army of mullahs to instruct the converts in the ways of Islam. None other than my maternal great-grandfather, Jalilur Rahman Khan, led a troop of mullahs into the valley, with specially trained barbers circumcising men both young and old in accordance with Islamic tradition. My paternal great-grandfather, also involved in the campaign, took into marriage a young girl from the area. She was one of the many women who were taken as spoils of war from the region, which the warriors renamed Nooristan, or the “land of light.”

By the time of Nooristan’s conquest, little of Islamabad’s past power and prestige was left. In fact, the seat of Islam in eastern Afghanistan had declined into a poor hamlet, overshadowed by the fast-growing Moghul-era frontier town of Jalalabad to the southeast. One by one, the men of Islamabad started leaving in search of economic opportunity elsewhere. Many joined the Iron Amir’s bureaucracy, some his military. Grandpa Agha started out as a county clerk before moving on to serve as a district chief in several provinces. His older brother became a provincial police chief in northern Afghanistan. One of the men to strike gold was Grandpa Baba, my maternal grandfather, who was born in 1895. When he was five, he lost his father and was raised along with his two younger brothers and younger sister by his mother and their maternal uncle. He was a mullah who spent most of the first two decades of the last century working as a mirza north of Kabul. Mirza is an ancient Turkic regal title that had only recently come to designate anyone who was either a scribe or a notary. In an attempt to consolidate his power, the amir went beyond his southern tribal base to build a modern state bureaucracy, commissioning a professional army and centralizing the government. Starting with my greatgrandfather Jalilur Rahman, men in my family whose predecessors had for ten generations borne the clerical title mullah now were calling themselves mirzas. It wasn’t that these men were abandoning religion. On the contrary, our family maintained two mosques in Islamabad and pilgrims continued to visit the shrine of Darwish Khan and other pioneers. Yet after three centuries of enjoying the power and prestige that came with their position as men of religion and learning, they realized becoming mirzas was a way into the lucrative new world of government service.

As Grandpa Baba mastered the art of official letter writing and penmanship (his apprenticeship required developing a distinct handwriting style—straight alifs, curvy baas, loopy seens—for the entire Arabic alphabet), he seemed destined to follow in his uncle’s footsteps. Then, in early 1919, King Habiburrahman Khan was assassinated in his sleep during a hunting expedition near Jalalabad. While the dead monarch’s religiously conservative brother and twenty-seven-year-old liberal son jockeyed for possession of the throne, my great-uncle packed up his family and moved back to the secure environs of Islamabad.

Prince Amanullah Khan assumed the throne with the support of the reformist, anticolonialist Young Afghans, who modeled themselves after their Turkish counterparts, and Amanullah soon dispatched a letter to the British viceroy of India declaring Afghanistan’s independence. When the British demurred, he did what Afghan rulers had always done when faced with a foreign adversary: he rallied the tribes for a jihad. There followed a series of what Western historians would call “inconclusive skirmishes,” fought mostly by southeastern tribesmen, descendents of men converted by Darwish Khan’s army. Grandpa Baba spent much of the 1920s as a midlevel district administrator in Laghman. The decade marked one of the most turbulent periods in modern Afghan history, as the young king’s effort to transform Afghanistan into a modern secular state, modeled on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Turkey, was met with stiff opposition from an alliance of the religious establishment and Pashtun tribes.

By 1929, the liberal regime of King Amanullah was teetering, and Grandpa Baba found himself in the improbable position of defending a monarch who was being accused of heresy. A religiously inspired Tajik movement had overthrown the king, and Grandpa, as a government official and a member of the religious establishment in the Pashtun belt, had sided with a Pashtun general who eventually restored the monarchy. Leaving his post in the Alishang district, Grandpa retired to Islamabad where he reinforced the village’s defenses, waiting for months on an enemy force that never materialized. His effort didn’t go unrecognized, however. Having struck up a friendship with Mohammad Gul Khan Mohmand, the leader of the Mohmand Pashtuns, one of the tribes fighting the Tajik insurgency, Baba soon found himself in the upper echelons of power as he followed Mohmand to northern Afghanistan.

Running as a surrogate father and son team—Mohmand never sired a son; Grandpa grew up without his father—they governed one of Afghanistan’s five administrative regions through much of the 1930s. Mohmand bore the grandiose title of chief executive of the Northern Territories. Grandpa, with his less illustrious title of fourth director, was second in command. Their style of government was ruthless. Justice was swiftly delivered, if only to quash dissent and secure the government’s hold on power. To many non-Pashtuns in the north, Mohmand, a self-styled Pashtun nationalist, came to embody the dictatorial rule of the government.

While Mohmand took quarters in the governor’s mansion, Grandpa Baba acquired the residence of the former chief executive, an imposing, turn-of-the-century structure of more than two dozen rooms with arched doorways, guesthouses, servants’ quarters, stables, and a two-acre pomegranate garden with a large pool surrounded by tall birch trees. Soon Grandpa’s clan—his mother, younger sister, two brothers, five wives, and their children—moved in. My mother and her three dozen siblings and cousins grew up behind the sheltered walls of the compound, where they were attended by a retinue of servants, cooks, and maids. Theirs was the life of the ruling aristocracy.

Adee, Mother’s slight, soft-spoken, octogenarian grandmother, was the family’s matriarch. With a taste for long black robes and soft linen headdresses, she was a spiritual healer of sorts who attracted a large following from the city. Her son, my grandfather, ran the day-to-day affairs of the household, and while deeply pious, he allowed a liberal atmosphere to flourish within the compound. The adults prayed five times a day, but the children were never forced to join them. Growing up, they developed different degrees of piety. Some, like my mother, were rigidly observant (her own mother came from a clerical background); others, especially the boys, rarely prayed, meekly avoiding Grandpa Baba’s stern gaze during the five daily calls to prayer.

For a man of his position and generation, Grandpa was remarkably liberal, which inevitably led to some interesting contradictions. He had a deep sense of justice and fairness and did not play favorites among his five wives. He was pious yet never forced his children to pray. Religion was a matter between them and their God. In social and cultural matters he was open-minded, yet he strictly enforced pardah, which assured that nonblood male friends and guests never saw the faces of his womenfolk. He allowed his daughters to attend school, first fully covered and then, when the government made the burka voluntary, with their faces (although not their heads) uncovered. The daughters, out of respect as much as fear, would always hide their short, Western-style skirts and stockings by changing into baggy white cotton pants and linen headdresses before entering Grandpa’s room. Once, in Kabul, he was persuaded to venture into the banquet hall where one of his younger daughters was having her wedding reception. Horrified by the sight of so many bare legs, including those of his own daughters, he barged out, cursing them all to hell.

In 1961, when Mother was thirteen, the first girls’ school opened in Mazar-I Sharif. This was a bold act, considering that it had been the opening of a girls’ school in Kabul during the 1920s that led to King Amanullah’s downfall. Rabiah-I Balkhi Lycee for Girls presented a major dilemma to Grandpa, who as a respected member of society had to consider the social implications of exposing his sheltered daughters to the outside world. However, he valued education and, after consulting his two younger brothers, decided that all the girls in the family would go to school. A tutor was hired, and after a year of studying, they took entrance exams and enrolled in different grades. Mother was placed in the fifth grade, but by all accounts she was an unenthusiastic student drawn more to knitting sweaters than solving math problems. So by the time she was in the ninth grade, when Father’s family proposed, she was happy to take his hand.

Father was my mother’s second cousin, and his journey to northern Afghanistan had charted an improbable course. Unlike Mother, he was born in Islamabad, where his path to become a qadi, an Islamic judge, seemed a clear one. His father was a senior government administrator, his mother the daughter of a prominent mullah from the powerful Safi tribe. Although Grandpa Agha himself had chosen public service over a career in religion, he took pride in his clerical pedigree and wanted his three sons to pursue a religious path. While Grandpa served in remote provincial outposts, the family stayed behind in Islamabad, where Father studied first at the family mosque, then later at the local primary school. Along the way he developed a voracious appetite for reading. Years later he recounted how he spent a long winter devouring the bulky Thousand and One Nights, and any other classics he could get his hands on, by the glow of a kerosene lamp.

After sixth grade Father was sent to Kabul to attend the Darul Ulum-I Hanafi, Afghanistan’s top state-run madrassah, or religious seminary, and a stepping stone to entering the College of Islamic Law at Kabul University. It was distinctly modern in amenities and curriculum, offering classes in both secular and traditional religious subjects.

The madrassah was originally developed during the eleventh century, a full two centuries before its European counterpart, as an institution of religious learning that trained students in Islamic law and jurisprudence. While European colleges would evolve into secular institutions of higher learning, the madrassah retained its religious mission. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the madrassah’s strictly religious curriculum and conservative intellectual outlook were called into question by a growing number of Islamic reformists. Recognizing the central role the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment played in the West’s march to progress and prosperity, these modernist thinkers argued that only by embracing European sciences could the Islamic world hope to regain its ancient glory. The ensuing decades-long clash between the conservative religious establishment and the reformists produced little change in the madrassah curriculum, but it did lead Westernized governments such as Turkey and Persia to open modern secular schools.

In Afghanistan this clash led to the establishment of the country’s first secular public high schools in the first and second decades of the twentieth century. Yet young King Amanullah’s radical efforts to reshape Afghanistan in the image of Kemal Atatürk’s Turkey backfired. Less than ten years into his reign, an alliance of conservative mullahs and southern tribesmen forced him into exile in 1929. Amanullah’s successor, Nadir Khan, a reform-minded, pragmatic prince and former army general, recognized the limitations of his conservative society. While reopening the public schools, his government established new madrassahs where modern sciences were taught alongside traditional religious sciences, much like the madrassah my father attended.

Father’s education was innovative, especially in its teaching of contemporary spoken Arabic. Young, sophisticated, and friendly Iraqi and Egyptian teachers introduced colloquial Arabic into a curriculum that had emphasized classical Arabic for hundreds of years. Classical Arabic grammar had developed on the basis of the Koran and pre-Islamic bedouin poetry, and its usefulness was limited to unraveling the messages of the Koran and the Hadith, or the sayings of Muhammad. Students learned to say, “Potipher’s wife tore Joseph’s shirt from behind,” but could not share their enthusiasm for their mother’s eggplant dish. The Arabic that Father learned in madrassah was, by contrast, a living, spoken language.

As much as Father loved to read, he was drawn even more to the sciences: the thrill generated by solving algebraic problems; the allure of the intricacies of human anatomy; the awe inspired by invisible atoms. This would inevitably lead to complications. While in the ninth grade, Father committed one of the most sacrilegious acts imaginable in a madrassah. Following instructions in his chemistry textbook, he distilled alcohol using simple household pots and pans. The successful experiment, which he secretly shared with more than a few classmates, deepened his passion for science and led him to drift away from the madrassah altogether. Kabul at the time was a charming, well-to-do city with tree-lined boulevards, tranquil neighborhoods, and thriving restaurants and teahouses frequented by the country’s growing, largely Western educated, secular elite.

In Kabul, Father spent his weekends and short holiday breaks from school at the home of his uncle, who was the chief justice of the supreme court and a close friend of the madrassah’s president. Uncle Insaf exhorted Father to excel in his religious studies, but Father was more interested in tutoring the justice’s young, studious son in physics. It was an ideal arrangement, as Father didn’t particularly fit in with Kabul’s clean-shaven men who wore Western-style clothes and spoke with the refined accent of educated elites. He was torn between a desire to embrace Kabul’s liberal culture and an awareness that he was forbidden by his father to do so. Feeling alienated, he would return to his dorm room every night and lie in bed, quietly imitating the Kabul accent he badly wanted to pick up, and painfully conscious he’d have to live with his facial hair for the rest of his life.

Then opportunity knocked: a science school recently founded by the University of Wyoming in Kabul was taking applications. Father took the placement test and scored ninety-nine out of a hundred points. He dropped out of the madrassah, despite his father’s refusal to give his blessing, and enrolled at the American Technical School. There he spent the four happiest years of his life. He shaved off his beard, stopped praying, quickly learned English, and immersed himself in mechanical engineering. Although his friends playfully called him maulana, which means “supermullah,” the title of a distinguished man of religious learning, he socialized at teahouses and befriended worldly university students.

After graduation he took a job as an engineer with the state-run Oil and Gas Exploration Company, spending the next several years working the fields near Sheberghan before winning a scholarship to study petroleum engineering in Soviet Armenia and Azerbaijan.

When Father returned to Afghanistan in 1966, he was thirty-three, well past the marriage age. It was time for him to settle down. At the urging of his parents, he agreed to an arranged marriage to his first cousin’s daughter. Theirs was a grand wedding, paid for by Father’s family. Payment for the ceremony was the only cost Grandpa Baba exacted. To him the custom of paying a bride price, which was common in northern Afghanistan, was an abomination; it was also un-Islamic. He expected, though, that the would-be groom would honor his family, so instead of pledging a large amount of cash and prime real estate, Father’s family threw a weeklong party, complete with separate bands of male and female musicians—for male and female guests—to which hundreds of friends and relatives were invited. Father and Mother then moved to Sheberghan, bringing along several trunks and a young Uzbek servant named Girau.

In Sheberghan, they lived on the oil and gas company’s campus, a sprawling development of offices and residential neighborhoods complete with green, manicured lawns, running water, electricity, and central heating—amenities unheard of in most of Afghanistan.

In many respects, however, Sheberghan was like any other small provincial capital: quiet, dusty, low-key, timeless. This was where Afghanistan’s national ring road, built by the Americans and the Soviets in the 1950s and 1960s, ended before branching off west and north to the Amu Darya River. The main street was lined by handsome one- and two-story concrete homes, but for the most part Sheberghan consisted of flat-topped and domed mud huts and windy dirt roads that produced dust storms in the summer and turned into mud in the winter.