One evening in 1988, Masood Farivar, a 19-year-old Afghan soldier fighting in the jihad against the occupying Soviet Union, was huddling with 40 other grim-faced men in a fire-lit tent nestled in the side of a mountain. “So this big, tall guy with a beard walks in and starts greeting every one,” recalled Mr. Farivar. “He was wearing this fatigue vest with knives sticking out and carrying an AK-47. The rest of us were unarmed.” Mr. Farivar immediately thought the man was a spy because of his unusually accented Pashto. “I said ‘Hi’ to him, but it wasn’t until Tora Bora that we really hit it off.”
As it happens, the man was Kari Mullah, a.k.a. Carlos Mavroleon, the son of a Greek shipping tycoon, a graduate of Harvard University (class of ’82), and a former Wall Street bond trader. And thus began the absurdly charmed journey of Mr. Farivar, a sort of reverse John Walker Lindh who went from an Islamic madrasa in Pakistan and two years of war in Afghanistan to Lawrenceville School and Harvard University, where he majored in medieval European history. He now works as a reporter at Dow Jones, covering the oil market.
On Aug. 1, his literary agent, Tina Bennett of Janklow & Nesbit Associates, sold his memoir to editor Morgan Entrekin at Grove/Atlantic Inc. for $150,000. The book will recount his family history and his life in Afghanistan before he came to the U.S. in 1989, and it will describe his emotionally wrenching return to his devastated homeland in 1999. Ms. Bennett discovered him when a fellow client saw Mr. Farivar’s Village Voice article about his time at Tora Bora and urged him to contact Ms. Bennett. Mr. Entrekin, who happened to be a friend of Carlos Mavroleon, snapped up Mr. Farivar’s book proposal. “A lot of the writers I’ve published knew Carlos and fit in this subject area,” he said.
The book, which is still untitled, will be published in 2004. On a recent Monday evening, the clean-shaven Mr. Farivar, 33, wearing a rumpled red-and-white checked Oxford, khakis and a pair of black lace-ups, told his story to The Observer over iced tea at French Roast on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village. Checking his cell phone every 15 minutes or so, the collegial Mr. Farivar seemed to have come a long way since firing mortars at Russians from the bunkers of Tora Bora. As he tells it, the first of his many strokes of luck was meeting Mr. Mavroleon in the White Mountains of Eastern Afghanistan. The shipping heir had converted to Islam in the 1970’s (on a backpacking trip after leaving Eton school) and had recently come under the influence of an Islamic political leader named Khalis-who happened to be a protégé of Mr. Farivar’s grandfather, a highly respected mullah.
The two swiftly became close friends.
What happened next is, well, right out of a book. A Harvard graduate named Richard Murphy, seeking a job as a freelance war correspondent, was told by a friend to contact the globetrotting Mr. Mavroleon, who at the time was living in London. Mr. Mavroleon told him to go to Pakistan and find Mr. Farivar-and to deliver a special package to him. “Inside the package was an application to Harvard,” recalls Mr. Farivar, “with a letter of recommendation that Carlos had written on my behalf to one of his professors there. I didn’t know what to make of it. When Carlos mentioned Harvard-I had never even heard of Harvard.” Mr. Murphy helped Mr. Farivar fill out the application, write the essay and send it in.
As a teenager, Mr. Farivar had left Afghanistan with his family to escape the Soviets and eventually lived in Peshawar, Pakistan, with his uncle, who taught him English. Mr. Farivar attended a madrasa until he was 16, where he learned Arabic and studied Islam. “Gradually, the monotony and rigidity of it kind of wore out for me. It turned me off.” Mr. Farivar quit the Saudi-funded religious school and got a job as a typist at a foreign relief agency funded by Austrians.
In 1987, he joined an Islamic faction and shipped off with two cousins to join the jihad at Tora Bora, where he manned a mortar gun. “I wanted to fight for my country because everyone else was doing it,” he said. “Every time my cousin would come back from his missions, he would tell me how great it felt to be on the battlefield fighting the Russians.”
Combat was “exciting and thrilling,” he recalled. “You’re in the middle of nowhere and you’re being attacked from different directions with all sorts of weapons-missiles, rockets, mortars. I thought bombs were scary because they were unpredictable and came from out of nowhere. Usually with missiles and rockets, you can predict where they’ll land and take cover.”
During that time, Mr. Farivar earned money writing war reports for a U.S. government–funded media outlet called the Afghan Media Resource Center. With the help of a “big, fat” American he’d met, he even freelanced a piece for Soldier of Fortune magazine in 1988, about the efficacy of a new Spanish mortar being used in combat. In the spring of 1989, the Harvard admissions office took an interest in Mr. Farivar. But they felt his academic history was a bit spotty, what with the madrasas and all, and they wanted him to attend a year of high school first. Luckily for Mr. Farivar, one of the admissions officers mentioned his situation to someone at the Lawrenceville School, outside Princeton. At a cocktail party, that someone mentioned Mr. Farivar’s story to a teacher who happened to be Whitney Azoy, Lawrenceville’s Afghan expert and a former diplomat and anthropologist. Mr. Azoy championed the application with the head of admissions, one Phil Pratt.
According to Mr. Farivar, Mr. Pratt was skeptical. “What sports does he play?” he asked.
“Well, in Afghanistan there’s fighting,” replied Mr. Azoy. “There are no sports there.” (Perhaps for fear of scaring off Mr. Pratt from Mr. Farivar’s cause, he left out mention of buzkashi , the Afghan national sport, which involves hundreds of men on horses struggling over the mutilated carcass of a calf.)
Mr. Pratt pressed. “Then what extracurricular activities is he involved in?”
“Well-maybe killing Russians?”
According to Mr. Farivar, Mr. Pratt turned his application down.
But Mr. Azoy pleaded to the headmaster, Si Bunting, who, according to Mr. Farivar, eventually accepted him into the school. “I still don’t know a lot of the secrets of how I got here,” said Mr. Farivar.
He arrived at Kennedy Airport in September of 1989. When he got to the rolling green campus of Lawrenceville, Mr. Bunting was wearing a T-shirt and shorts, which was astounding to Mr. Farivar: “I had never seen a man in shorts.” Mr. Farivar recalls being fairly traumatized for the first year. The kids at Lawrenceville didn’t know what to make of him. For one thing, he was 21 years old. “There I was-I got off the plane with my big Osama bin Laden beard, my Afghan rebel hat and traditional garb. There I was with these 15-year-old kids. They were probably scared. I must have seemed very unapproachable, and I must have smelled.”
He played a little ultimate Frisbee, but he spent more time praying. Things improved once he got to Harvard. “I felt much more comfortable. I also found it easier to make friends with people.” For the first couple of years, he tried to stick closely to his Islamic traditions. He prayed five times a day and kept his beard for the first two years. “Gradually, I realized that if I really wanted to get a full experience of college life, I had to mingle.”
He joined some social clubs, shaved, drank, chased girls. “A lot of decadence and debauchery went on at these elite social clubs,” he said. He graduated in 1994 after writing his thesis on Thomas Aquinas, then worked briefly in Flagstaff, Ariz., as a travel guide at the Grand Canyon (he spent the previous summer writing about the Southwest for Let’s Go travel guides). In 1995, he moved to New York and got a job at an Associated Press–Dow Jones newswire venture, working first on the foreign-exchange and equities desks, and then the petroleum beat. “I really like the oil story,” he said. “It’s centered around my part of the world. The sheiks were all very well known to me before I got here.”
Ten years after leaving Afghanistan, he took his first trip back. “It was really heartbreaking,” he recalled. “So many people I’d known had died. The most depressing thing of all was, I did not meet a single person who did not want to leave the country.” Mr. Farivar now lives in Jersey City, to be near the Dow Jones offices, and still practices some Islamic traditions, observing Ramadan and avoiding pork. He spends most of his free time in Manhattan. “There’s nothing going on in Jersey City. Jersey City is like Afghanistan,” he said.
As for Mr. Mavroleon, he died under mysterious circumstances in Pakistan in 1998 while working as a freelance reporter and cameraman on a story about Osama bin Laden for 60 Minutes , shortly after President Clinton ordered the bombing of an Afghan terrorist camp. “He was a very passionate and pious man,” said Mr. Farivar. “He loved Afghanistan.”
On the set of Endpapers, the Off Broadway play about the machinations of the publishing world, a dingy array of cluttered cubicles and bookcases adds a bit of authenticity to the offices of the play’s fictional “mid-sized New York book publisher.”
But even more accurate are the slush piles the actors onstage flip through and mark up when they have no lines to speak: They’re real manuscripts from St. Martin’s Press, procured by the playwright, Tom McCormack, who is the former C.E.O. of the publisher. “I called my old colleagues at St. Martin’s, and they sent a van down with scores of manuscripts,” Mr. McCormack said. He admits that not all of it is scintillating reading: “Some of it is from the scholarly and reference division, so the actors may find themselves reading about 14th-century Chinese art.”
Still, the castmembers are glad to have it. At first, there were only a few manuscripts circulating among them to serve as slush. After the show had run for a couple of months, boredom set in. Shannon Burkett, who plays the assistant to the bean-counting publishing executive, Ted Giles, and who once temped as an assistant to Priscilla McGeehon, an editor at Addison-Wesley, was among the first to demand that the stage manager get more. “I was going to take the pencils off my desk and poke them in my eyes if they didn’t get me something new to read,” she said. She’d already read the biography of Christo three times.
And while the word these days is that editors don’t edit, that doesn’t mean actors playing editors don’t edit. “I was looking at all these interesting doodles and stuff that were on there,” said Bruce McCarty, who plays the heart-of-gold editor, Griff. “I said, ‘Gee, whoever this editor was at St. Martin’s was a little possessed.’ And it turned out it was Pippa [Pearthree, who plays editor Cora McCarthy] who had already had those pages.”
“I suggested that St. Martin’s send them their real slush and give the actors a reader’s fee,” said Mr. McCormack.
Mr. McCarty’s latest onstage read is a book about the World Trade Organization. “At one point, the writer said of a W.T.O. meeting in Seattle, ‘They did not have in mind such a majestic purpose as forming a constitution.’ I thought that was a funny word to use-‘majestic’-so I commented on that in my notes: ‘Maybe we should reconsider the word.'”
The book, however, has already been published.