In the trenches

Last modified: 4/8/2012 12:00:00 AM
I almost didn't pick up Fahim Speaks, by Fahim Fazli with Michael Moffett. Ever since the winter of 1990, when I watched Siege of Firebase Gloria with an enthusiastic crowd of Marines (one of whom I had recently married) in a small apartment, I have shied away from war stories. But this column is about what you might like to read, so I tried Fahim Speaks, and I'm glad I did.

Moffett, head of NHTI's Sports Management Department and a retired lieutenant colonel, was working as a Marine Corps historian in Afghanistan when he met Fahim Fazli. Moffett writes in the book's introduction: 'I realized that he epitomized what so many Americans yearn to see - an immigrant-refugee from an Islamic culture unafraid to express a deep love for and commitment to his adopted homeland.'

Fahim grew up in Kabul. Because of his parents' affiliation with anti-communists, his mother, elder brother and two sisters fled to America in 1979. Fahim and his brother were taunted as 'sons of Reagan,' and left Afghanistan with their father four years later. The beginning of Fahim Speaks is the story of Afghanistan's troubled politics, Fahim's rocky relationship with his parents, the pain of family separation and refugee life.

It's also about Fahim's dream of acting. Despite his family's objections and casting stereotypes that earn him terrorist roles, he pursues his goal. I found all of this interesting but was sometimes confused because the book skips back and forth between Hollywood and Fahim's boyhood. His reflections range from war to relationships, including his arranged Afghan marriages, both of which were short and disastrous.

So far, it is a typical memoir, except for the geo-political details - a coming-of-age/reconciling-family-hopes-and-personal-dreams story. Then Fahim tells his wife that his comfortable career and coveted Screen Actors Guild membership isn't enough. He's 40 years old, finally happy, has a young daughter, but one night he sees a commercial seeking military interpreters.

Fahim trains with Mission Essential Personnel and joins a Marine Corps unit preparing to deploy. The risks are clear when he is issued a uniform nametag that says 'Hollywood' so his family won't be targeted. But Fahim revels in a new sense of purpose.

In the last four chapters of Fahim Speaks, readers hear what it's like to live and work with Marines in the field in Afghanistan. Fahim clearly admires and respects them, and his unit quickly realizes that he is an incredible asset. From conversations about what religions share to simple suggestions to defuse tensions (such as feeding watch dogs protecting civilians, instead of shooting them), Fahim smoothes the way for the Marines and builds important local relationships.

His success makes him a Taliban target. An elder tells him, 'The Talibs know about the translator called 'Hollywood.' . . . They know that when you move on from a village, the people you leave behind are happy with Americans. . . . They really hate Hollywood. They want him dead.'

Despite the danger, Fahim embraces every challenge. I was struck that a person who grew up with so much personal and political turmoil and violence in a chronically broken country could be such an empathetic, open-minded, big-hearted guy.

Fahim teaches the Marines about tribal relationships, the significance of revenge in Afghan culture, and ways America can help Afghan women. He also tells Afghans why they should trust and cooperate with Americans, and he counsels both sides to listen carefully to each other and to work together against systemic corruption that stymies both the U.S. effort and local Afghans. There are IEDs and attacks, but also positive breakthroughs.

The young Marines Fahim works with eagerly learn about Afghan culture and want to do the right things to work well with locals. His unit's leaders are smart and engaged at every level, and trust their translators' advice. Fahim also mentions things that didn't go smoothly, but this book describes American engagement in the war on terror at its best. Fahim returns home with a well-earned sense that he's made a difference for both his countries.

Who knew? I like a good war story, even if it occasionally lapses into Marine jargon.

Great Northern Express

The Great Northern Express, a memoir by Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher, details his 20,000-mile book tour right after completing radiation treatment for prostate cancer - in a 20-year-old Chevy Celebrity with 280,000 miles, which he dubs The Loser Cruiser.

Mosher is observant, wise, open and very funny. His stories from the road trip and reflections on 40 years in the Northeast Kingdom and on beating cancer make excellent reading. Be prepared to laugh out loud.

A journalist's poems

Longtime journalist and University of New Hampshire professor Andrew Merton's first poetry collection, Evidence that We Are Descended from Chairs, is full of humor and warmth even in poems that mostly deal with the struggles that come with being human.

In 'Floater,' Merton writes:

It happens as you get older -

something breaks loose from a retina.

Simple so far. A few lines later that 'dark speck' becomes

a dancer

enjoying her last moments on the stage.

The poem 'Dice' begins by quoting Einstein, 'God does not play dice.' Merton writes playfully,

Not, at least,

since that day in the garden

when He rolled snake-eyes.

No wasted words, my English-teacher grandmother would say. Just right.

(Email Deb Baker at

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