And Then What Happened?
From Scott Carrier
I met Najibullah Niazi in November of 2001 in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. He told me he was 19 but really he was only 17 years old, and he was my interpreter and guide for the three weeks I was there, until my money ran out. The story of those three weeks begins my new book, Prisoner of Zion. The book ends with Najibullah coming to America–or to Orem, Utah, in 2007. We got him accepted as a student at Utah Valley University, where I’d just taken a job as a professor. So Najib was learning to be a student, and I was learning to be a teacher, among Mormons. He was studying business, but I forced him to take a class on Dadaism from my friend, poet Alex Caldiero. This excerpt is from the chapter “Najibullah in America:”
Anyway, I told Najib to take Alex’s Dada class and I’d help him write the paper he’d have to turn in for the final exam. When the time arrived for him to write the paper I told him, “Let’s go for a drive up into the mountains.” My plan was to teach him how to write like he talks, or would like to talk. We drove up Provo Canyon, following the Provo River, past the turn off to the Sundance Ski Resort, up to the Heber Valley, a place they call “Little Switzerland.”
“Take out a pen and some paper and tell me, “Who were the Dadaists?” I said.
Najib put his notebook in his lap and sucked his pen and said, “The Dadaists were artists in Europe who thought art had too many rules and was boring, so they moved to Zurich in Switzerland where there were no rules about art.”
“Excellent,” I said. “Write that down, just what you said.”
It took him about five minutes and when he read it back he’d completely changed the wording and it made no sense at all–exactly what my other students would do. They’d tell me a story and it would be fine and I’d tell them to write down what they just said and then they’d mess it all up by trying to make it sound proper.
“Look down at the river,” I said. “Do you see any places where you could jump from rock to rock and make it across to the other side?”
“No,” he said, “there is too much water.”
“Well, imagine there is a place like that. I want you to think about writing as like jumping from rock to rock. Can you swim?”
“Not very well.”
“Good. If you fall, you’ll drown. In order to jump to a rock you must answer my question honestly in your own voice, not the voice of someone else. If you try to answer in someone else’s voice, you’ll fall into the river and drown. Do you understand?”
“You’ve jumped to the first rock by telling me who the Dadaists were, now jump again and tell me, ‘What did the Dadaists do?’”
“They sat in coffee shops and talked about new ways to make art.”
“Did they come up with anything?”
“They said art should have no rules. Whatever was pleasing to them, they called it art.”
“So what was pleasing to them?”
“The one called Duchamp took a toilet and turned it upside down to make people see it for its shape, not what it does.”
“And what do you think about that?”
“But what I think doesn’t matter,” he said.
“So now you’re in the middle of the stream and you’re just going to stay there?” I asked. “Will I have to call your father and tell him you were last seen in the middle of a river contemplating Dada? In order to keep going you have to say what you think, now, jump!”
“Back home we were given assignments and the teacher told us, ‘This is what I want you to write,’ and we just followed instructions. If we wrote what we thought we would get beaten up by the teacher.”
“Do you think Alex is going to beat you up?” I asked.
“No. He told us to write what we think. He said that’s what he wants to know.”
“Then go for it. What did you think about the upside down toilet?”
“For me, it worked, because a toilet is a very dirty thing, the most dirty thing, but when I saw the picture of it I didn’t see it as a toilet. I saw it as a beautiful shape. Duchamp was trying to show there is more than one way to see the same thing, and for me that blew my mind.”
“Very good,” I said, “write that down, everything you just said.”
“Starting where?” he asked.
“Starting back at the beginning.”
It took a while, lunch in a café in Heber, to get everything down the way he said it, the way he put the pieces together.
On the way home I said, “You’re still out in the river. You’ve got a couple more rocks before you get to the other side, and this next jump is the hardest one of all. You’ve told me who the Dadaists were, what they did, and what you think about it, now tell me if learning this stuff made any difference in your life or changed the way you see yourself and the world around you.”
“For me, when Alex talked about the Dadaists I thought he was talking about my friends here at school. The Dadaists liked to hang out and take drugs and go crazy and then they would sleep with each other. This is what my friends do even though it is against the rules of their society. They used to believe in those rules but now they don’t. They want there to be no rules.”
“And how does that make you feel?” I asked.
“How does it make me feel?” he asked.
“Yes, do you have feelings? Do you know what they are?”
I asked this as a joke but when I said it I thought about Najib walking through a street filled with dead bodies and wondered if I was being too harsh.
“It is fun and scary at the same time,” he said.
“Yes, good,” I said, “and what’s the word for that kind of feeling–fun and scary at the same time?”
He thought about it for a while, maybe five miles, and then said, “I don’t know.”
“This is the last rock,” I said. “You make this one, you’re across the river to the other side. Think about it. What’s the word to describe those feelings?”
He thought some more and couldn’t come up with it, so I told him.
“Freedom,” I said. “Fun and scary at the same time is called freedom, and that’s what America is all about.” I gave him the ending, just as many others have done for me in the past.
Later in the story I make Najib read Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye, and then write papers on them. I helped him with the papers. I just kept asking him, ‘and then what happened,’ then I made him write down what he said. Even though he’d grown up in a tribal society, first under Soviet occupation then through a civil war where 13,000 people were killed, he completely identified with both Huck and Holden. He thought America in the 1800s is exactly like Afghanistan today, and that his trip to America was like Huck going down the river. And he shared (a Pastun-variety) existential angst with Holden. Plus, he was able to write about these things in a captivating style, thus proving that universities do work, where war does not. You can listen to more of this story on Hearing Voices.