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The Agent Who Might Have Saved Hamid Hayat

For 35 years, James Wedick had been a star at the FBI. When his former colleagues prosecuted a suspected terrorist, he came to the side of the defense and was branded a traitor. Here`s what he wasn`t allowed to say in court.

May 28, 2006|Mark Arax

Some reporters took note that the government was already backing away from details leaked the day before. In a revised affidavit, the U.S. Attorney had removed any mention of hospitals and supermarkets as potential targets. Also deleted was the assertion that Hamid Hayat's grandfather in Pakistan, a prominent Muslim cleric, was friendly with a man who ran a terrorist camp in Afghanistan. As it turned out, his friend was actually a different man who shared the same last name--Rehman--with the terrorist. It was the Pakistani equivalent of Jones or Johnson.

"Bureaucratic errors," the Justice Department called them, though it hardly mattered to the TV news crews stampeding into Lodi and chasing down everything Muslim: S. Khan's auto repair shop. The Pak India market. The Jehovah Witnesses hall-turned-mosque. And the tiny lair on the side of a wood shed where Hamid Hayat had fed his growing hatred of America.

How was it that the FBI had chosen to focus on Lodi? How did it even come to be that a few thousand Pakistani immigrants found themselves living amid the "Grape American Dream," a town built by German wheat farmers from the Dakotas whose descendants still resided in neat brick-and-stucco houses lined with oak trees and azaleas and who every Tuesday still grabbed a bowl of creamy borscht soup for $2.89 at Richmaid's?

It was a familiar story, really. Like the Chinese and Japanese and Mexicans before them, the peasant farmers of the great Indus valley had migrated to California in the early 1900s to work the land. They had grown cotton, wheat and sugar cane, and though the soil back home was fertile and the water plentiful, they were caught at the bottom of a strict caste system. They traveled thousands of miles only to land smack dab on the same old line of latitude--the Punjab sun was the valley sun--and find a new caste system where each group was pitted against the other to keep wages in the fields low.

Umer Hayat was 18 years old, a village boy with few prospects, when he left Pakistan in 1976. He had nothing to show a future wife. No family farm. No learning beyond the eighth grade. Like his father and grandfather, he could have married a girl from the village, but he had a different idea. He would come to Lodi, become a naturalized U.S. citizen and use his paper status to attract a city girl back in Pakistan. It worked in a way he never imagined: She was the daughter of Qari Saeed-ur-Rehman, the revered Muslim scholar who operated a religious school, or madrassa, in Rawalpindi. The citizenship paper clutched by the young suitor--the chance for his daughter and his future grandchildren to prosper in the U.S.--was all the assurance the old man needed.

That Umer Hayat ended up squandering this opportunity may have been his one true crime. It wasn't so much what he had chosen to do with his own life. After all, he had found a job outside the fields and the canneries, driving a beige ice cream van with Homer Simpson painted on the back, learning Spanish and giving himself the name "Mike" to better serve the neighborhood kids. And it wasn't so much the strong ties he kept to Pakistan. He was like so many other immigrants who made their way to America as adults, never quite accepting the country as their own, still looking backward and intending one day to return home. Rather, the problem was his insistence that his four children, each one born in the U.S., do the same.

Keeping America outside the door of the little yellow wooden house proved a monumental task. Because the public schools didn't segregate boys from girls and there were no classrooms at the mosque to send his daughters, he insisted they drop out at 13. He fretted most about his oldest boy, Hamid, and wanted badly for him to become a Muslim scholar like his father-in-law. Toward that goal, he yanked him out of school in the sixth grade and sent him to Pakistan to live with his grandparents. The boy was there for more than a decade and memorized the entire Koran. But once he returned home, he was too lazy to secure a job as a cleric-in-training at the Lodi mosque. So he lived with his father and sick mother and 11 other relatives, sleeping all day and waking up to eat six McDonald's fish burgers and watch big-time wrestling and the Pakistani national cricket team on satellite TV. Late at night, all by himself, he'd head down Highway 99 to nowhere. "I'm a speeder," he boasted. "Seventy miles per hour, man."

Caught between two lands, he kept a scrapbook in his room with articles he clipped from a Pakistani newspaper that harangued the United States and "Bush the Worm." He had no friends to speak of, and no Pakistani girls in the U.S. would give him a second look. His nose would bleed at the most inopportune times, and he was convinced that a black-magic curse by an enemy had jinxed his love life. Maybe things would change if he could quit smoking and drink less tea and save more money from his job packing cherries.

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