May 9, 2021

Politics & News

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A Mullah Walks Into a Bar: From War-Torn Kabul to a Writers’ Room

4 min read

Habib Zahori, an Afghan war reporter, who is currently a writer for the CBS sitcom “United States of Al,” was musing the other day on what separates the gravest brutality from the highest comedy. Take, for instance, the Taliban. Funny? “The beating and the torture and the prison,” Zahori said—definitely not funny. The public shaming, though perhaps worse, was another story. “One time, during Ramadan, they caught somebody eating. They put him on the back of a donkey, and they forced him to hold this piece of bread between his teeth.” Zahori began laughing. “Why would you do that to another human being? It’s absurd!

Habib ZahoriIllustration by João Fazenda

Zahori, who has a shaved head and a beard, was taking a break from the virtual writers’ room. He sat in his home office, in Ottawa, where he lives with his wife, Paula, and their two cats, Pope Francis (“We both just love that man—as an individual, not as the head of an institution”) and Bodie. The show, which premières this week, follows an Afghan interpreter, Awalmir, who is granted refugee status and moves in with a downbeat Marine pal in Ohio.

Before Zahori was hired, the producers asked him to e-mail some Afghan jokes. These generally come in two varieties. The first are regional ad hominems, teasing Wardak Province—Afghanistan’s New Jersey. The second are dirty jokes. (From Zahori’s list: A waiter brings a man a steaming bowl of shurwa. Customer: “Excuse me, why is your thumb in my stew?” Waiter: “It’s broken, and the bonesetter told me to keep it warm.” Customer, angry: “Well, why don’t you stick it up your ass!” Waiter: “Doesn’t work. I tried that before the stew.”)

Zahori is one of four Afghan writers on the show, which is a Chuck Lorre production. Many plotlines originate from their own stories and sense of dislocation. Zahori spent a decade as a journalist, covering corruption and war for the Times, and was a fixer for foreign correspondents. Eventually, the danger became too great—assassinations, kidnappings, the random killing of friends. Canada offered him refugee status after he illegally crossed the border from Maine, carrying a bike, through knee-deep snow. He’d been in the U.S. for a Fulbright fellowship; his first stop had been the University of Oklahoma, for “cultural orientation.” “I was just standing there, and four young women are walking in these shorts,” he said. “Jean shorts. I almost had a heart attack. I had never seen women’s legs!” The incident became an episode in which Al, flustered by his first encounter with shins, flunks his driving test. (“Didn’t you once charge a bunch of Taliban?” Al: “The Taliban were wearing pants!”)

Zahori prefers comedy that is ridiculous and ironic. He loves stoner humor, especially Seth Rogen. Referential humor, the stuff of many sitcoms, is not his bag. Although the Taliban banned pop culture, some movies (“Rambo,” “The Terminator”) seeped in. And, in 1998, “Titanic.” “We all got haircuts like Leonardo DiCaprio,” Zahori said. “But we’d hide it under a turban or a hat, because the Taliban hated that haircut.” After the Americans arrived, he said, “they used to air that super-racist and problematic show called ‘24.’ In Afghanistan!” He continued, “I remember people’s dogs were named Jack Bauer.”

Hollywood is riddled with Jack Bauers. Zahori initially had reservations about writing for a mainstream American show. But the producers’ vision was kind, he said, and they were open to critique. Now he’s hoping to move to Los Angeles.

“There are definitely some traumas that are so powerful that there is absolutely no way you could use humor to dismiss it,” Zahori said. These include the horrors of the civil war, which began in 1992. His teachers warned students not to pick up toys they found along the road; often they hid bombs. Zahori’s family moved within Kabul frequently, claiming Tajik ancestry in one neighborhood, Pashtun in another. Schooling stopped. The family burned their Leninist books, but they insisted that their kids keep learning. They’d find years-old newspapers to read—news from a different world. When Zahori was sixteen, he was memorizing the Quran, preparing for a life of devotion, when a friend gave him a copy of “Les Misérables.” “I started questioning everything—everything!—that was around me,” he said. “Men and women’s relationships, poverty, religion, God.” From then on, novels consumed him. He read at night under the lights of shuttered shops. Arundhati Roy was smuggled into mosques, “The Three Musketeers” into weddings. (“I hate weddings,” he said.)

Above his desk in Ottawa, across from a framed copy of his first script, he has hung portraits of Hugo, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. He plans to add more of the people he most admires, mainly authors: Harper Lee, Malcolm X, James Baldwin. “I would die a happy person if I died surrounded by a bunch of books,” he said. Perhaps, years from now, the stacks would tip over as he read, and that would be that. “What a way to go!” he said. It made him laugh. ♦

Zach Helfand
2021-03-29 06:00:00

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