I think about Faieq Zarif often.
He was an Afghan national and an educated man who helped the U.S. military by teaching the languages and culture of his native land to deploying troops at Fort Leavenworth.
I think about him not only because he died this month of cancer, at age 53, but because there is so much thoughtless pressure right now to guard against anyone who is perceived as foreign, who speaks with an accent, whom some might leap to associate with terrorism.
Those voices of fear and isolationism would have dismissed Zarif.
Among the vast privileges of journalism are the people that reporters meet. Time in this business sharpens curiosity to a point that it invades most hours of the day. So on a brutally cold winter night several years ago, I stopped and spoke with a couple lost in Westport.
They were trying to find the office for a condo building that I was entering for a dinner party. Zarif and his wife, Hilay, were interested in living there, drawn by the vibrancy of the area and its proximity to the Plaza.
We had a 30-minute conversation. He was instantly engaging, an easygoing combination of international perspective on global news and a vibrant curiosity about Kansas City.
The Zarifs did move into those condos, eventually hosting their own gatherings. Meeting with them always was a respite from the mundane.
Zarif wanted to remain in this area, but as our military drew down from Afghanistan, he was no longer needed to help prepare soldiers in the languages of Dari and Pashto. The family moved to San Diego. He began teaching philosophy and critical thinking as an adjunct professor at San Diego City College. He’d earned his college degrees in Germany in philosophy and political science.
Keeping up with him became a matter of the occasional phone call or email and watching his Facebook account. He wrote as an Afghan and as a man who had traveled much of the world and continued to do so, especially after his diagnosis. He’d post pictures of his morning cup of coffee, noting the city and with which family or friends he was enjoying it. Berlin. Milan. Salzburg. Amsterdam.
An optimist, Zarif applied the view to his health.
“The moment I heard that they suspect cancer, the cancer was beaten in my mind and body! It doesn’t control me,” he’d said in a message to friends.
He held faith in humanity too. He believed that terrorism could be defeated and that democracy could spread to lands and cultures that were seemingly hostile to its virtues.
Zarif wrote provocatively after the death of Osama bin Laden, critical of the lack of Afghan voices in the news coverage. He provided context, emphasizing the suffering bin Laden caused in Afghanistan.
A few years later, in 2014, Zarif sent me a piece he wrote after encountering Robert Gates, the recently retired secretary of defense, who was autographing his book “Duty” for people at a Virginia Costco.
Where else but in America would that occur, he noted, his perspective “coming from a country, and being witness to a world, where secretaries (usually called ministers) of defense are either low rank military officers or former and current warlords turned generals and dictators as a result of revolutions and coup d’états or/and killed as result of such upheavals, and if alive, usually appearing with an entourage of armored vehicles and bodyguards in public.”
Our last lengthy conversation by phone was for an October 2015 column on the problems Afghan interpreters for our military were having gaining visas to enter the United States. Pentagon leadership was angry, worried that the people who had helped keep troops safe were now being targeted by terrorists. Zarif concurred.
He was always attuned to what was happening in Afghanistan. Four days before his death, he posted an article about the main Afghanistan/Pakistan border crossing, warning of the escalating violence. Two soldiers, one Pakistani and one Afghan, had been shot and killed.
Zarif died right before The Sacramento Bee, a sister McClatchy newspaper to The Star, published a series on the problems Afghans who aided U.S. troops face even after gaining entrance to the U.S.
I would have looked forward to discussing the articles with him.
His Facebook page now notes his status as “Reincarnated.” It’s a hopeful sign, as America could use more friends like Zarif. Indeed, we all could.