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With The World Around Him Exploding After 9/11, Zalmai Yawar Was Suddenly A Valuable Commodity - As A Translator For The Journalists Who Were Flooding His Homeland. Now He's An Ordinary Amherst College Student Who Also Happens To Be Among Those Responsible For Just How Much Many Of Us Know About Afghan Culture.

October 24, 2004

There is a memorial on the Amherst College campus on which the names of Amherst men who "gallantly" fought and died in two world wars are engraved. It's on a small hill overlooking the baseball field. And in the distance, on a warm summer day, lush leaves cover the trees of the Holyoke Range. Sitting on a bench, Zalmai Yawar points to the mountains a few miles away. They are roughly the same distance as the hills that overlook his boyhood home in Kabul, Afghanistan. But on this day, in this bucolic setting, he uses them as a reference to describe where the mortar rounds came from that would periodically crash into his neighborhood when he was a teenager in the early 1990s. Those were the years following the overthrow of the government by the mujahideen, Muslim resistance fighters.

Yawar, who turned 29 this summer, came of age during the Soviet-dominated regime in Afghanistan, which he looks back on mostly as a time of peace and stability in Kabul. But then, for four years, he saw ruinous armies literally come and go as the front lines of seven competing mujahideen factions moved, sometimes a few blocks at a time, around his city. After that, Yawar survived another five years under the stultifying terror of the Taliban, fundamentalist Islamic leaders who emerged in Afghanistan in 1994.

In November 2001, foreign correspondents flooded into his city in the midst of another regime change, this one supported by American air power, and Yawar, who had refined his English skills during the years of turmoil, found a niche as an interpreter for journalists desperate to understand the country's shifting political and cultural landscape. On the day that Andrew Maykuth of The Philadelphia Inquirer hired him after a 10-minute interview at the gates of Kabul's dilapidated Inter-Continental Hotel, Yawar joined what is the growing and often haphazard cadre of interpreters, fixers, drivers, and reporting assistants who are conduits of information for a curious public and, in some cases, the lifelines for reporters thrust into unfamiliar territory.

"These guys are one of the best-kept secrets in journalism," says Barbie Zelizer of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. The interpreters are "instrumental for reporters being able to get their job done."

But interpreters also must toe a delicate line - between simply interpreting the language and explaining the culture, free of their own biases and opinions, and becoming an actual source of news for the reporter who's hired them and possibly shaping how a story is written or broadcast.

Zelizer, whose latest co-edited book, Reporting War: Journalism in Wartime, is being released this month, says interpreters present as many problems for journalists as they do benefits. In some instances, she says, reporters rely so heavily on interpreters that the latter "undermine the news organization's authority to be independent, to be autonomous, to be professional." She also says, "It's not in journalism's best interest for the public to realize how dependent the story is on an interpreter.

"The problem, she says, is not so much with the practice of hiring people to navigate and explain unfamiliar territory; it's more with readers' expectations as consumers of the news. Many Americans have the unrealistic idea that every foreign story they read, hear, or see is a complete, accurate, and unbiased presentation. But news organizations have come to rely more than ever on locals for functions as basic as translation, landing interviews, finding electricity for laptops and satellite phones, and tracking down food in a desolate outpost.

Many correspondents acknowledge that their interpreters sometimes come to the job with personal agendas, political axes to grind, and worldviews foreign to American sensibilities. But with images and words from around the world filling our news pages and airwaves, guarding against those pitfalls is increasingly difficult.

"It's kind of like the maid," Zelizer says of why news organizations are reluctant to say just how heavily they rely on outside help in foreign countries. "You want your house to be clean; you want it to look like it always looks clean. But you don't want anybody seeing the maid coming in and that you're paying dirt-cheap wages."

The view of Afghanistan that Yawar gave various journalists at the Inquirer, The New York Times, National Public Radio, and the Voice of America was shaped by his life. He condemns the mujahideen. The shrapnel from one of those mortar rounds from over the mountains sent him to the hospital in 1993 (the hospital itself came under attack while he was there) for four days and left two large scars on his body and a gunpowder burn in his eye. The reporters he worked for acknowledged his personal viewpoints but also treasured Yawar, says NPR's Scott Simon, because of his honesty, storytelling abilities, and physical courage.

"Reporters kill over two things: a great driver and a great interpreter," says NPR's Jacki Lyden. "Zalmai was one of my best interpreters ever." In return for his help, Lyden and Simon were instrumental in getting Yawar to come to the United States to further his education. He now attends Amherst College, where he is a junior.

Over the past year, it became obvious to Yawar how little the students he goes to class with know about Afghanistan. "Americans live in a country that is a shell, and they don't care what is going on in the rest of the world," he says. "September 11th made them more curious; it kind of broke that shell, and now they think, We have to be watchful; we have to look at who does what and why." He recalls one classmate asking him in the dining commons how he felt about Afghanistan having been responsible for the 9/11 attacks. "Name me one Afghan who was on one of those flights," he responded. He has noticed that people have a glorified view of the mujahideen in this country. Yawar asserts that they are every bit as bad as the Taliban. "A yellow dog is the brother of a jackal" goes an Afghan expression, meaning that you can't compare two evils.

When he relates the horrors he's seen - starting as a teenager, when he and his uncle happened upon a group of mujahideen fighters hanging three men on a makeshift platform - he struggles to make sense of what he witnessed. "It is like I am talking about a movie," he says. Under the Taliban, he would see people accused of stealing, their faces blackened by their captors, paraded in the back of pickup trucks. They would then be taken to a stadium for public amputations. Yawar can recall seeing severed yellowing hands hanging from a lamppost in downtown Kabul. Yawar himself was beaten with a metal cable for parting his hair on the side. When he tells these stories, people "look at me and they are stunned, literally; they can't believe that those are the things that were happening."

He was surprised to meet atheists in Amherst, something he never encountered in his home country. He took a course on ancient Israel that required him to read the Old Testament, and he came to realize that in some parts of Afghanistan, "people still live in a biblical world," where grievances between men may be redressed by bartering female family members.

Academics have been a challenge for him while friendships he has formed have been important. One of his first friends, a student from California, spent four hours on an early October evening teaching Yawar the proper way to throw a Frisbee.

These days, he follows the news from home through Afghan Online Press (, but he doesn't visit it too often, because he winds up depressed. "You don't hear anything that will make you happy," he says. When he talks about inviting friends to visit him in Afghanistan someday, they say, "`Zalmai, that's a really nice offer,' but they are scared, like I am inviting them to a really nasty, dangerous place. . . . They think most people in Afghanistan hate Americans."

The Inquirer's Maykuth entered Kabul with the Northern Alliance troops on November 13, 2001, just two months after 19 men had turned four commercial airliners into improvised cruise missiles aimed at US targets. The alliance consisted of remnant mujahideen forces, never defeated by the Taliban and holed up in the mountainous north. The nephew of one of the generals translated for Maykuth while he reported from behind the Northern Alliance lines. This had some advantages for Maykuth, helping him to know where the action would be before it happened. "He knew all of the commanders," Maykuth says of that first interpreter. But once in the Afghan capital, journalists needed something more.

As Yawar, who had worked for international organizations while he was a student at Kabul University, tells the story, his father, a psychology professor, encouraged him to go to the hotel where newly arrived journalists were gathering. When one man rejected Maykuth's offer of $30 for half a day as an interpreter, Yawar chimed in with his willingness to take that wage. Maykuth quickly recognized Yawar's value, someone who spoke both major languages of Afghanistan, Pashto and Dari. And, says Maykuth now, "he's a chatterbox." Yawar did much more than translate. He helped shape Maykuth's understanding of recent Afghan history, and he drew Maykuth's attention to human-interest stories.

"You can have a terrific translator," but that is just one measure of a good interpreter, says deputy New York Times foreign editor Ethan Bronner. Equally valued are knowledge and aggressiveness in pursuit of a story. "So you need all of these things, just as you do in a correspondent," says Bronner. "Everything you look for in a good journalist you look for in a good interpreter."

Yawar, says Maykuth, "was loaded with all sorts of colorful historical stories. . . . You'd be driving along in the countryside, and Zalmai would be telling stories about these places that you'd be seeing. You'd cross-check on that stuff, but without him telling you, you wouldn't be aware of it in the first place."

Maykuth kept using Yawar, even though an official of the newly established foreign ministry refused at first to issue Yawar credentials to attend press conferences and official interviews. "If you like it or if you hate it, this is my interpreter," Yawar recalls Maykuth telling this person. Maykuth trusted Yawar's instincts and his honesty. "Afghanistan politics is a complex matrix in which ethnic and clan affiliations tell only part of the story," Maykuth would later write in one Inquirer article. "The shifting allegiances, complicated rivalries, and fuzzy alliances confound outsiders."

Maykuth, who was based in Africa for six years and reported extensively from Latin America in the 1980s, says he knows the dangers that interpreters face are multiplying. He recalls riding with Yawar in a convoy when the lead truck struck a land mine. It blew off a wheel, but no one was badly hurt. Their car broke from the stalled convoy to continue down the road. "Zalmai was totally uncomplaining in that kind of a situation," Maykuth says.

In March, a 29-year-old interpreter was gunned down in front of his Baghdad home along with his 60-year-old mother and 4-year-old daughter. According to a report by a watchdog group, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the assassins then threatened his widow, an interpreter for Knight Ridder, in a note citing verses from the Koran and stating that people who work with infidels should be killed. The note warned that her "turn will come soon, God willing."

A tally kept by Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based watchdog group, says that 14 media assistants - a category that includes interpreters, drivers, and fixers (people who act as go-betweens) - have been killed so far worldwide this year. Interpreters are soft targets, because their lives are intertwined with the societies they are reporting on, says Voice of America senior correspondent Laurie Kassman, who had been working with Selwan Abdelghani Medhi al-Niemi, the murdered 29-year-old interpreter, on the day he died. Like Yawar, he had shown an active interest in helping to tell the stories, often carrying a tape recorder into crowds where a Westerner would feel unsafe and alerting reporters to interesting angles. This sort of enterprise, however, carries risks. "In the eyes of some people," interpreters are collaborating with the enemy, says veteran Voice of America correspondent Gary Thomas.

NPR'S SCOTT SIMON has worked with dozens of interpreters. Several became close friends. He has also encountered people of meager skills and a woman in Ethiopia who he soon realized was doing the government's bidding instead of relating the facts. The instances in which interpreters purposely skew a story are rare, says Simon, but the risks are exemplified by the different ways the media reported the death of a zoo animal in Afghanistan. Yawar was waiting for Simon and producer Peter Breslow when they arrived from the airport at the house that NPR had rented in Kabul. Instead of unpacking and setting up their equipment, as they usually do, they headed straight to the zoo on a tip from Yawar.

The story was about a lion named Marjan who had been injured years before but had just died. Different reports beamed around the world contained subtle but significant discrepancies. CNN, for example, reported that the lion was "lame, toothless, and blind in one eye after a member of the Taliban hurled a grenade at him." Simon reported that it wasn't the Taliban but the brother of a "mujahideen warlord" who had thrown the fateful grenade in the early 1990s. "Marjan bit down on the iron pineapple and was blinded by the bomb," Simon reported on January 28, 2002.

The mujahideen - a coalition of convenience among more than half a dozen so-called warlords who drove the Russians out of Afghanistan and then finally overran Kabul in April 1992 - and the Taliban are adversaries. So the question of who did what to an international icon like a lion was extremely political. Marjan was cast as a symbol of survival through extreme adversity. "Marjan's battle scars and will to survive mirrored Afghanistan itself," NPR's Bob Edwards said in his introduction to Simon's piece.

Yawar, looking back, says he was shocked to hear an interpreter for a newspaper reporter spin the zookeeper's words to the mujahideen's benefit. Yawar says he was offended by the distortion of the truth. This episode became Simon's introduction to the man whom he would come to depend on in the next weeks.

"Immediately I was put in touch with his capacity to be a good reporter, to be fair and balanced," Simon says. "This is a man who was beaten by the Taliban and has no love of the Taliban, but it was important to him to get the story right."

Other news officials extol the virtues of ethical interpreters. "Generally, there are enough professional fixers and interpreters around that I don't have the sense these are people with an agenda," says Bronner of The New York Times. "You can sense when you choose them who's a journalist in his bones who is trying to get the story rather than pushing an agenda."

Yawar formed a rapport with the reporters, in part through his knowledge of American culture and colloquialisms gained from novels, history books, and movies. He's a big Clint Eastwood fan. "I trusted him completely," says the Voice of America's Thomas. Yawar "would tell me bad things as well as good; he didn't try to color things that he told me; he wouldn't try to present them in a certain light, which is unusual in a place like Afghanistan, where there is a desire not to offend."

YAWAR WAS EXPECTING to dislike the foreign press in 2001. His exposure to Western journalists, up to that point, had come through CNN and the BBC. "Before knowing them, I thought they were irresponsible people who would go someplace to make a story and not have any sensitivity," he says. But he came to like the reporters on a personal level and to appreciate what he considered their unflinching impulses to find good stories and to tell them. "And they liked me because I had my blunt opinions, and I think I was fair," he says.

By the time Yawar started working for NPR's Jacki Lyden in December 2001, he had already worked with Maykuth and for David Rohde and Amy Waldman of The New York Times, who had paid him a daily rate of $70, a cut above the $50 NPR was offering. But Lyden enticed him with longer-term employment and the opportunity to get his voice on the radio. He became one of the regular interpreters who showed up at 8 o'clock every morning to stand by in case he was needed for the day's events. In the next months, Yawar would work with NPR's Simon, Mike Shuster, Michael Sullivan, John Burnett, Ivan Watson, and Renee Montagne. He helped with breaking news but specialized in figuring out what about Afghan culture would most interest American listeners. "I was not only interpreting," Yawar says, "but I was teaching the reporters about my culture and why things were the way they were."

With Lyden, he interviewed musicians, attended a once and now again popular TV quiz show, went to a newly reopened school for girls, and talked to an entrepreneur who had identified a market for Christmas trees among the Westerners. "With Zalmai, who has such a lively mind," says Lyden, "I'd ask him in the morning what the buzz was in Kabul, and go from there."

Lyden regularly sought out a variety of sources and would subject information she gathered to a triangulation process with other local English speakers. "Interpreters rarely shape stories," she says. "But they certainly are an indispensable part of the process."

Former Boston Globe foreign editor and editorial page editor H. D. S. Greenway, who now writes a column for the newspaper, echoes Lyden's sentiment. "Journalism couldn't exist without translators," he says. "They're absolutely necessary," often as much for their cultural skills as for their ability as translators.

Even in a country where a reporter does speak the language, Lyden adds, "local interpreters need to point out who is who, why so-and-so is no longer important, and a myriad of other details, like the fact that the person you just spoke to is completely lying to you."

Echoing Barbie Selizer's view from academia, Lyden says the extent to which foreign correspondents rely on their interpreters is rarely acknowledged: "Reporters like to take all the credit, and newspapers are generally rather embarrassed by all this, behaving as if their reporters just magically plopped down, knew all the relevant people, and had spent their entire life studying Romanian or whatever." The fact is, Lyden adds, "they are really filtering through other people."

Bronner says that under new disclosure rules at the Times, interpreters like Yawar and other local assistants who contribute to reporting in the field are more likely to be credited with a tag line or even a co-byline. At the Globe, foreign editor James F. Smith says translators are routinely given a reporting credit if they provide actual reporting for an article.

AT ONE POINT as their relationship strengthened, Yawar shared with Lyden his ambition to go abroad for a richer education. He had earned a bachelor's degree from Kabul University during the Taliban era, but the library, faculty, and labs were so inadequate that he didn't learn much. "We can do better than that," Lyden told him.

Simon, whom Lyden has known since they were both reporters in Chicago, helped Yawar apply to Chicago's Roosevelt University, which accepted him, but without a full scholarship. Simon then turned to a longtime friend and Amherst College trustee, novelist Scott Turow, and Amherst accepted Yawar on full scholarship, based largely on an 18-page essay he had written called "Zalmai's Tales." He entered as a sophomore in September 2003.

Last year, he studied anthropology, history, and religion in addition to geology, which he is majoring in to further his goal of helping rebuild Afghanistan's bridges as a civil engineer. This summer, he traveled to Wisconsin with a professor and six other geology students. They explored quarries where 500-million-year-old fossils from the Cambrian period had been found. On the trip, they sometimes listened to NPR, but it's not, Yawar says, his favorite station. "They don't play enough pop music."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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