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An Afghan in Muncie, Ind.: Enrolling in U.S. Life 101

A translator leaves Kabul to become a college freshman in Indiana. Lesson 1: 'Everything is regulated here.'

September 28, 2009|David Zucchino

MUNCIE, IND. — Khalid Fazly arrived on U.S. soil last month carrying his mother's homemade cookies, a prayer rug, dried dates and thousands in $100 bills tucked into his trousers.

He was pretty certain he was prepared for America.

Except for a car trip to Pakistan, Fazly had never been outside Afghanistan. Now he almost certainly is the only freshman at Indiana's Ball State University who has been threatened with death by the Taliban, survived insurgent ambushes and braved roadside bombs.

In Afghanistan, Fazly worked as a translator and "fixer," or problem-solver. His fluent English and engaging personality helped Western reporters, including those from The Times, negotiate Afghanistan's treacherous politics and strict customs.

Now Fazly sits in English classes with students from China, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, a 26-year-old occasionally overwhelmed by his immersion in American culture. He's still inquisitive and extroverted but also hesitant and uncertain at times.

Take American women, for instance. So far they confound him.

"They wear very short skirts, which I didn't expect to see right on the street," Fazly said as he walked past coeds one recent day. Like most young men in Afghanistan, where the sexes are strictly segregated, Fazly has had little contact with unmarried women other than his five sisters.

And then there are American drivers. They're so polite. They stop for pedestrians. They don't park on the sidewalk or drive the wrong way on one-way streets, as drivers do in Kabul.

"Everything is regulated here," Fazly said. "They have rules for everything. In Kabul, you can drive any way you like."

And don't get him started on tipping or taxes.

On the other hand, he said, it's refreshing not to worry about car bombs and kidnappings.

Just before he left Kabul in late August, Fazly said, he received two phone calls from a man who claimed to represent the Taliban. He accused the translator of being a spy because he worked for Americans. If he didn't stop, he would be killed.

Fazly ignored the threat. He even voted in Afghanistan's national elections, despite Taliban threats to cut off the finger of anyone spotted with the purple ink stains used to identify voters. He arrived in Muncie, Ind., with a faint stain still visible on his forefinger.

In Afghanistan, reporters relied on Fazly's street savvy and carefully calibrated sense of risk. He got journalists close enough to danger to get the story, but not so close that they were harmed.

The day before New York Times reporter David Rohde was kidnapped in November, Fazly advised him not to take a trip to meet with a Taliban commander. Rohde went anyway and was seized in Fazly's home province, Logar, which the translator considered so dangerous that he didn't go there himself.

"He was right," said Rohde, whose newspaper reported that he escaped in June.

And now that Fazly is out of Kabul, he worries about friends left behind. Sultan Munadi, another interpreter, was killed Sept. 9 during a commando raid that rescued kidnapped New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell.

Only a handful of Afghan applicants are granted U.S. student visas -- 338 in 2008, the last year for which figures are available, according to the Institute of International Education. India sent 94,000 students to America that year. Of the 500 international students at Ball State this academic year, four are Afghans.

Fazly was persuaded to apply by Kenneth Holland, dean of the school's international program, who had employed the translator when he traveled to Afghanistan in 2006.

Holland said he was impressed by Fazly's intelligence, industriousness and sense of humor. An Afghan policeman once ordered Fazly, who was driving Holland through the countryside, to ask the American whether Fazly had kidnapped him. Fazly dutifully asked Holland in English, then informed the officer, in Dari, that, no, the American says he has not been kidnapped.

Fazly was reluctant to give up his lucrative work with Western reporters -- the source of the $100 bills, which now are safe in a Muncie bank account. But he decided he could build a more productive life with a U.S. education.

In class, Fazly is more fluent in English and more outspoken than most of the other international students. In Writing 151, he easily spouted off terms like "dependent clause" and "conditional tense."

"Give someone else a chance, Khalid," professor Jamila Jones said after Fazly rattled off several answers.

She did, however, point out one problem with Fazly: "He does have a tendency to be a little late."

He promised to be more prompt; he was still on Afghan time, he said, where appointment times are mere suggestions.

Because his only new friends so far are international students, he wants to get to know more Americans, whom he considers friendly and helpful.

"They're very nice people, but they don't come forward too much," he said. "In Afghanistan, when people don't know you, they will approach you and ask you about yourself."

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