A Stranger in Zion

Salt Lake City Weekly | January 28, 2007
Najibullah Niazi was talking with his friend Hashim when two Uzbeks came into Hashim’s grocery store in the northern Afghanistan town of Mazar-e-Sharif. They wanted to know the whereabouts of a 21-year-old interpreter and friend of Hashim’s.

One of the Uzbeks had a Kalashnikov on his shoulder and a cartridge belt around his waist, the other carried a pistol. They worked for a warlord who had ordered his men to find five translators accused of taking Western journalists to restricted areas three years earlier in 2001. Unbeknownst to the Uzbeks, Niazi, one of the interpreters they sought, was sitting right in front of them.

When the Uzbeks asked Hashim if he knew where his friend was, he glanced at Niazi. The Uzbeks had visited the grocer before asking about him.

“I shook my head slightly,” Niazi recalls. “Needles were sticking into my hands and legs. I wasn’t feeling my knees.”

Hashim told the Uzbeks he hadn’t seen the young interpreter and they went away.

“My mouth wouldn’t open,” Niazi says. “I wasn’t able to thank him. I’d had guns pointed at me many times in checkpoints and not been scared. But they really wanted to kill me.”

Several documentaries aired in the United States and Europe in 2002 accused Northern Alliance warlords of human-rights abuses. Those accusations dogged warlords standing for elections in the October 2004 presidential vote. One of the warlords was angry enough to go after translators who’d helped journalists.

“I heard he found one,” Niazi says. “Nobody knows what happened to him. Three others escaped from the country.”

Niazi was working at the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP)’s office in Mazar. After the visit at Hashim’s, he secured an administrative clerk post in the WFP’s Kabul office. For a year in Afghanistan’s capital, Niazi thought he was safe. But then, the warlord—whom Niazi still dares not name—was made a deputy in the Ministry of Defense.

“I saw his bodyguards everywhere,” Niazi says.

Desperate to leave the country, Niazi eventually told his story to the very man he’d taken to meet the warlord four years before, Salt Lake City-based writer and radio producer Scott Carrier.

Although they only shared 20 days together in the aftermath of the American bombing of Taliban strongholds, Carrier and Niazi left permanent marks on each other’s lives.

For 49-year-old Carrier, the long feature he wrote about his Afghanistan experience was one of the most successful of his career. Published in Harper’s Magazine, it was selected by editor Ian Frazier for the 2003 edition of The Best American Travel Writing.

“People read it; they remembered it,” Carrier says. “A lot of the reason it worked was Najib,” he adds, describing Niazi as an Afghan Huck Finn.

Not only did the young Afghan get Carrier into places he otherwise wouldn’t have entered, Carrier also placed him in the story. His gentle charisma and engaging personality elevated Carrier’s piece above the observations of an American adrift in the detritus of war.

But for Niazi, the long-term consequence of helping an American journalist was facing exile or an uncertain fate at the hands of the warlord and his men.

“I don’t blame Scott,” Niazi says. “My looks, my personality created the problem. If I hadn’t been so friendly, they [the warlord] wouldn’t have remembered me.”

With the rise of parachute journalism, the role of local translators, drivers and fixers in countries like Afghanistan has become increasingly important and controversial in recent years. News bureaus depend on fixers like Niazi to do everything from guiding and translating for Western journalists flown in for a story, to researching and even reporting in areas where international journalists fear to tread. Work for foreign journalists of the daredevil type, like Carrier, has put media translators, who work for daily rates, in a perilous position. In 2004, nine translators and drivers were killed in Iraq alone.

The danger doesn’t end once the journalist has filed his copy and flown the next plane out. With news stories available on the Internet, translators and the people journalists talk to are so vulnerable to reprisals, it’s hard to understand why they’d even associate with foreign media personnel.

Carrier knows this better than most. He believes a story he did for Esquire magazine on the Kashmir may have gotten some field workers he talked to hurt or even killed.

“If I worked for The New York Times, writing something the world needs to know about, that’s one thing,” he says. “But who reads Esquire magazine?”

Before 9/11, Carrier says, “people would come up, asking for help. If you’re a reporter from the U.S., they think the U.S. will help, and they’d risk the safety of their own family to have a chance to tell America the truth. It was heartbreaking. I knew America didn’t care at all.”

When it came to Niazi, however, one American did care—deeply.

“People recognize hope,” Carrier says, “and they see it in Najib.”


The sound of a Russian gunship lumbering across the Afghan landscape is, Niazi says, a guttural “tuk-tuk-tuk.”

The closer the helicopter got, he recalls, the more his ears vibrated like loud speakers.

Niazi was born in Kabul in 1984. Russia had invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and waged a disastrous nine-year campaign to support the Marxist government against Mujahedeen insurgents. Niazi’s parents moved to Mazar shortly after his birth. He was the third of five boys and three girls.

Life in Mazar under the Russians was good, Niazi remembers. There were monthly ration coupons and it wasn’t necessary to work hard to meet basic needs. Villages outside Mazar, however, where the Mujahedeen frequented, were constantly bombed by the Russians.

While Niazi’s father was studying geology at a Russian university, his wife and children went to live with relatives in a village three days’ walk from the city. Next to a nearby river, the villagers dug trenches to escape shrapnel. Women and children took three-hour shifts on house roofs to listen for jets. If they heard anything, they rang a cowbell.

“I always wanted to ring the bell and make everybody run,” Niazi recalls. “It was fun to see who gets to the holes first. But the women wore long dresses and the kids fell down. Nobody picked them up. They couldn’t see them at night. Many died; some, like my brother, broke their arms.”

When the last Russians left Mazar in 1988, all that remained were their burned-out tanks. The victorious Mujahedeen expelled all government officials from their posts. That was the price for associating with the Russians. Niazi’s family went back to their relatives’ village for two years before the Mujahedeen allowed them to return. Niazi’s father taught at the local university for $10 a month. A meal costs 10,000 Afghanis or 5 to 10 cents.

Niazi’s family is Pashtun, the majority tribe in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. He grew up speaking Pashtu and Dari, the two local languages, and later learned Uzbek and Urdu. Rather than go to school, which he loathed, Niazi, then age 12, told his father he could provide for the family if given the chance.

He sold fuel on the street, then worked as an assistant on one of the unlicensed buses clogging Mazar’s dangerous, dust-baked streets.

In 1997, Taliban soldiers attacked Mazar, attempting to wrest control from a local warlord. Fighting raged for three days before all the Taliban were killed.

Body parts of Taliban fighters torn apart by rocket-propelled grenades lay in the streets. Some corpses were naked from the waist down. Soldiers tore off their black cotton trousers because the Taliban kept their money and documents in the front pockets underneath a cloth wrapped round their waists. A mud of blood and dust matted the faces of the dead.

A year later, Niazi says, the Taliban returned to Mazar and dragged thousands of boys and men from their homes and slaughtered them in revenge.

“The Taliban were expected to be nice,” Niazi says. “They weren’t.”

Life under the Taliban was harsh. “You had to go to prayer five times a day at the mosque,” he says. “Attendance was checked by the mullah. Anytime you missed, it was reported to the district governor and you were beaten with cables.” But Niazi was too smart to get into trouble. “I was never in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

In what was once a volleyball stadium, Niazi watched masked doctors amputate the hands of criminals. Taliban soldiers carried the hands round for onlookers to see, then hung them from the city’s gates.

Women were not allowed to show any part of their body or face. Prostitution carried the death penalty. Niazi recalls one woman in a burkha making a hole in the center of a stadium, sitting in it and then being stoned to death.

“When the Taliban removed the stones from the hole, I saw a blue burkha with blood on it,” Niazi says. “Two old women came to take her out. They weren’t strong enough. They were pulling her just like you pull a bag of wheat. It was the first time I felt sorry for a dead person.”


At the age of 14, Niazi set up a small shop selling biscuits and cigarettes across the street from the U.N.’s World Food Programme office. He warmed his feet on a metal ammo box, inside which were coals, and kept his knees covered by a rug. When he took cigarettes in for U.N. drivers, he saw the offices had heaters and clean cups. A vacancy for a U.N. messenger came up. His friends warned him off.

“Working with non-Muslims would change me, they said,” he recalls.

When Niazi interviewed with the office head, a British woman, the U.N.’s national administration officer, a local, interpreted. He asked the youth a question.

“How old should I tell her you are?”

“Which age would be convenient for her so I get the job?” Niazi replied.

The man added a year to Niazi’s age, and the woman laughed.

“She knew anyway,” Niazi sighs.

Niazi was given a contract, which the national administrator translated for him. He earned a $180 monthly salary, which he took home to his father. The young man quickly picked up English from listening to his colleagues. Carrier says Niazi has an amazing ear for languages.

A year later, he became the receptionist, earning $250 a month. “I was yelling at messengers. They were not like me. They were not telling me, ‘I have a contract.’”

And then, back in the United States, the planes flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“Our offices were evacuated,” Niazi says. “We were paid three months salary in advance. If the situation is good, the office reopens, then we get our jobs back. If not, look elsewhere.”

In November 2001, an American bombing offensive sent the Taliban fleeing from the country. American and European journalists appeared on the streets of Mazar.

Niazi was playing football with friends from the neighborhood when they told him people who spoke English were very lucky. “You could make $100 a day [working for journalists], which is a lot of money. I didn’t think it dangerous. I thought I would sit at a desk and [the] journalist [would] ask questions and you translate them.”

Niazi improved his English by watching American films. “My favorites are action with fun. I give you an example, White Chicks, Rush Hour. I’m a big fan of Bad Boys,” he says, singing the theme song.

He frequented the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for two days, looking for a journalist to approach. By then everyone who spoke English in Mazar was doing the same. “The number of translators increased, not the number of journalists,” he says. “The price dropped to $70 a day.”

One day, he saw a crowd around a white man with blue eyes. Niazi watched him for 20 minutes. The man told the people to go away in English but nobody was translating for him. Niazi thought the man might give him access to the well-guarded Barat hotel, where journalists resided.

Niazi asked the man—who turned out to be Scott Carrier—if he needed a translator. Carrier told him he didn’t have money for a translator. Niazi said money wasn’t important as long as he was good company. Carrier asked him to get rid of the crowd.

“It was easy,” Niazi says. “I knew how to deal with a crowd from the U.N. when we were distributing food. Everybody left in five minutes. I am teasing these people that the American will think Afghans so cheap, they have never seen somebody from America before. I just try to touch their emotional points, and they left.”


On assignment for Esquire in 1996, Carrier was waiting to interview Subcommander Marcos in Chiapas, Mexico, when he met a young woman from Oregon.

“I was from Esquire, and she’d read Chomsky and was ready to devote her life to helping the poor.” The article wasn’t published by Esquire, but he recorded this encounter in his book Running With Antelope. The woman, whom he called Sarah, was in Chiapas as an eyewitness of the government’s response to the revolution.

“She belittled me, my writing as corrupt bullshit,” he says. “She picked up a guitar and played Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song.’ I just fell apart.”

There’s a touch of craziness in the long distance stare of Carrier’s deep blue eyes. The 50-year-old grips himself around the waist, rocking slightly, when answering questions.

“Esquire wanted me to go to really fucked up places, not war zones,” he says. “They wanted blood and guts stories in between ads for $3,000 wrist watches.”

Esquire wasn’t interested in his proposal to go to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. Luxury goods were the last thing on most people’s minds in the months after the attack. Overnight, Carrier says, Esquire’s market, temporarily at least, evaporated. “But they did get me a press card,” he says. With $3,000, he had enough for a ticket to Uzbekistan plus expenses.

“I was really lucky,” he says. “I arrived at the border [with Afghanistan] the morning the Uzbek military allowed one boat across with four journalists.” One, he suspected, was a spy. “The way it happened was too smooth.”

British journalists, in particular, have a reputation for working for the U.K.’s intelligence community. Carrier, often the oddball while pursuing stories alongside journalists writing for daily newspapers, also found himself sometimes suspected of spying.

What marked the trip to Afghanistan, however, were not accusations of espionage, but was, rather, an internal malaise.

“I didn’t care whether I lived or died,” he says. He won’t discuss the reasons why.


“I used Najib in the story, even though it’s against the rules,” Carrier says about his Afghan feature for Harper’s, available online at HearingVoices.com.

Putting a translator into a story, he says, “is considered bad form.” But neglecting the translator’s role, he argues, does a disservice to readers. “You need a guide in a foreign culture; otherwise you don’t see a lot of stuff. Without context, there’s no meaning.”

When Niazi first approached him, Carrier thought he was a girl. Afghan men had shaven their beards to celebrate the Taliban’s vanquishing. Niazi, with his luminous green eyes, had no beard, so instead he shaved his head.

The way the then-17-year-old got rid of the crowd impressed Carrier. “He’s like a world citizen, he has a sense of himself, a confidence.”

Carrier describes Afghans as hard-baked cookies. In Muslim culture, he says, God knows and owns everything. “Whether you die or live is God’s will. In the Koran, the Sharia laws are specific on everything—cutting your hair, brushing your teeth. It’s all there in the Koran, and that produces a rigid culture.”

Niazi’s tribe, the Pashtuns, has its own code of behavior. “It’s based on two things, hospitality and revenge,” Carrier says. “Once they take you in, they will sacrifice everything to protect you. But it’s also the responsibility of men in a family to revenge a killing. If not in their lifetime, then in the next generation. They will not forget, and Americans don’t understand that.”

Carrier saw firsthand the Pashtunwalli code, as it’s called, in the way Niazi kept his word. At first, when Niazi approached him to be his interpreter, the American thought he wanted to get into the hotel and then take the highest-bidding journalist. He offered to pay Niazi $25 a day, less than half the going rate.

“Listen, I told him, I’m Pashtun, don’t fear that,” Niazi says. “I promise you now, if somebody pays me $1,000, I will not go with him. I will stay with you until you’re out of the country.” Later, when a French TV producer approached Niazi over breakfast with an offer of $100-a-day, Carrier heard Niazi turn it down.

Niazi thought other translators were paid more because they entered war zones. But his expectation Carrier would stay in town proved false. Carrier wanted to find the Taliban, to meet legendary Northern Alliance General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord so evil, according to Carrier’s Harper’s piece, he wasn’t above tying a man to a tank tread to see him “squashed into mincemeat.” When Carrier sat next to Dostum, the delirious feeling of tempting danger had him struggling not to run his fingers through the warlord’s thick salt-and-pepper hair.

They missed a shoot-out between Taliban and Northern Alliance soliders by 10 minutes. “I felt in danger many times,” Niazi says. “But I never expressed it to Scott.”

Carrier put his trust in the youth. “Some things he wouldn’t tell me,” he says. “Some things he avoided, wouldn’t talk about. In Kabul, I’d ask him, ‘Can we go here?’ ‘No, it’s not safe,’ and he can’t tell me why. I had to believe him.”

Amid such trust, however, certain boundaries were not breached. Carrier’s then-atheism proved a barrier when he asked Niazi about his mother. The youth refused to answer the infidel. Another flashpoint which caused Niazi to quit temporarily, Carrier says, occurred when he asked Niazi if, hypothetically, he would kill his own sister if she shamed her family with a man. The boy explains in Carrier’s story that such behavior by his sister would warrant her death by one of his family’s men. He then tells a disbelieving Carrier he would kill her should the task fall to him.

Niazi says his views have since changed. “If they [the family] are brave enough to tolerate, to move, to start a new life, I think that’s better.”

In Kabul, Niazi asked Carrier for a salary advance and bought a TV and DVD player for his family. They hadn’t had a TV in years. Niazi carried it up a mountain and through a tunnel. Carrier took pity on him and carried it the last part of the journey.

“Najib, I don’t know if I hired you, or you hired me,” Carrier told him.

Niazi drove Carrier to the border city of Hiratan and got him a boat to Uzbekistan. “I said, ‘See you again,’” Niazi says. “I was feeling bad being alone. I liked feeling important.”


“The only way I’ll help you,” Niazi says Carrier told him, “is if you’re willing to study.”

In May 2006, Niazi e-mailed Carrier he needed to talk to him. Carrier sent him back his cell-phone number, and they talked for an hour. Carrier’s proposal was simple: Get $6,000 together for school fees and living expenses. Meanwhile, in Utah, Carrier talked to people he knew at Utah Valley State College (UVSC) to see if Niazi could study there.

“I still have two translators writing, asking for help,” Carrier says. “I won’t do it. They’d make it here as a laborer or refugee. I don’t have the money. Niazi was different.

“He was in a dead end [in Afghanistan],” Carrier says. “Either way, I wanted to get him out. I can’t say for sure he would have been killed if he stayed, but it seemed like a definite possibility.” It was time to settle accounts, and Carrier felt he owed the youth something. For the journalist, his one-time translator has a higher purpose, a higher calling. “Either he’ll follow [that calling] or deny it.”

UVSC Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Bill Cobb, along with Integrated Studies Director Scott Abbott, sent Niazi a letter offering him a course in business administration. With that, he successfully applied for a student visa. Studying, Niazi says, “is the basis if you want to be anybody.” He hopes to get his master’s in eight years, and then plans on returning to his country. “I want to help them with the knowledge I get here. … I owe both Scotts and Bill [Cobb] for saving my life.”

But matters got complicated once Niazi landed in Salt Lake City on Dec. 10, 2006. Carrier misread Niazi’s fees. While local students pay $2,200 per semester, international students pay $5,180. Niazi puts his head in his hands while talking about it.

“I don’t want to go back,” he says. “I’m frightened to go back. They know I left the country, everybody does.”

For now, along with this financial crisis, he must also deal with the culture shock of seeing bare-legged girls walk by and restrain his incredulity over the sight of tattoos.

In some ways, he feels at home. “Salt Lake City looks like my country. It has four seasons, the same mountains full of snow.” As a Muslim, he might also find similarities between his customs and those of Utah’s dominant religion. Muslims, like Mormons, don’t drink and, when it comes to polygamy, Niazi’s father has a second wife.

The slippery slope of Western vices concerns him. He won’t drink coffee. “A year later, it would be drugs,” he predicts. If the 22-year-old virgin went out with an American girl, he says he wouldn’t mind her drinking coffee, but draws the line on cigarettes and alcohol.

Despite surface similarities, Niazi suffers from homesickness, Carrier says. He sits up all night conversing with his Mazar friends on the Internet.

While working in Afghanistan, Carrier asked Niazi what America could do for his country. He talked about education. He told the journalist of how his father, educated by the Russians, dissuaded members of his brothers’ village from taking revenge against another village over a cousin’s death.

But Carrier says education must travel two ways. He mentions talking to an Arab business owner about Saddam Hussein’s execution. It was clear, Carrier says, that the execution was an insult to Islam. “They were so freaked out they couldn’t celebrate the Eid holiday. Their kids were having nightmares.”

Niazi went to Sandy where a goat was slaughtered for Eid. Carrier asked him to get more reactions to the execution, but when he came back, he said nothing. “He’s very cautious about speaking his mind,” Carrier says. “In his country, you get killed for that.”

For Carrier, the failure of American policy in the Middle East is, in part, a failure of communication. “We don’t understand their culture, and they don’t ours.”

Bringing people like Niazi here, educating them in school and also in American culture is, “the best thing we can do. If Najib becomes fluent in our culture, he will be able to converse with anybody and be like this very rare thing we need a lot of—people who can talk to both cultures and interpret.”

UVSC’s Abbott hopes Niazi will inject a new note into the conservative campus’ debates on America’s war efforts in Iraq and beyond.

Niazi looks forward to the sight of his nation’s flag hanging next to Old Glory in the line of emblems decorating one corridor of the UVSC campus. The U.S. flag hangs first, followed in the alphabetical line-up by Argentina. Every student of a nationality new to UVSC brings their flag to the wall.

This causes, at best, mixed emotion for Niazi. “Afghanistan is always the first named because of the alphabet,” he says. “But in terms of civilization and development, it’s always last, and that makes me sad.”

Those interested in contributing to Najibullah Niazi’s educational funds, may attend a fund-raiser at Ken Sanders’ Rare Books, 268 S. 200 East on Friday, January 26, at 7 p.m.

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