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The many states of Habib Zahori

The Afghan-Canadian writer of United States of Al on war reporting, comedy and sneaking into Canada on a bicycle

By: /
28 April, 2021
United States of Al writer Habib Zahori in Kabul. Photo by Haris Kakar.

As a child in Kabul, Habib Zahori and his brother sold green onions to earn money. Their mother saved the green parts of the onions for the family to eat, and the boys sold the white parts.

The household had 10 children between Zahori’s siblings and cousins. His father was an engineer but was out of work when civil war paralyzed the Afghan capital. Zahori and the other children in the house made kites from plastic grocery bags and flew them on the roof. Occasionally, a child fell off the roof and broke a hand or leg, but this never deterred the other children.

Heights weren’t the only danger. When the Taliban, an Islamist militia and political movement, took control of Kabul and much of Afghanistan, kite-flying was banned. If Taliban police saw the kites, they would chase the children off the roofs and through the streets. “The reasoning was, there are angels flying around, and when you fly kites, you disturb them,” Zahori says. “It was ridiculous, of course.”

When Zahori grew too old to fly kites, he acceded to Taliban demands for piety, shaved his head and grew a beard. He began memorizing the Qur’an.

At 16, a friend gave him a copy of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, about a 19th-century anti-monarchist uprising in France. “I hope I don’t sound like I’m bragging, but I’m an avid reader,” he says in a telephone interview from his home in Ottawa, where he has settled after leaving Afghanistan in 2014.

Today, Zahori’s life experiences have become guiding material for a new sitcom created by Chuck Lorre, producer of other comedies such as Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. United States of Al, which premiered on CBS earlier this month, follows an Afghan interpreter named Awalmir or “Al” and his friendship with an American marine. Zahori is a writer on the show.

Cast of United States of Al. Photo courtesy of CBS.

Zahori never worked with U.S. marines. However, like the title character on the show, his life took a turn as a result of the American-led invasion in 2001 and the subsequent arrival of thousands of foreigners — not only soldiers, but also reporters.

Zahori’s family had pressured him to study medicine and become a doctor. He hated medical school. Upon graduating, he learned he could make far more money as a “fixer” — a combination translator, guide, researcher and protector — for foreign journalists.

He had a knack for the job, which involved connecting journalists with sources, finding stories and explaining cultural nuances to foreigners who often didn’t really understand his country or its people. “He couldn’t just tell you what the person was saying. He could tell you the thing that they didn’t say. He could explain the gaps in people’s answers,” says Teru Kuwayama, a photojournalist who covered the American war in Afghanistan.

Zahori repurposed his parents’ shed as a storage unit where journalists left their equipment in between missions to the field. The shed contained helmets, tourniquets, ceramic body plates, flashlights, ropes, battery sets, duct tape, hard-shelled Pelican cases, tubes of epoxy and waterproof rafting bags.

“He very rapidly went from being a translator to being the translator,” says Kuwayama. “He was the go-to guy for the biggest names in journalism covering the war. All of the reporters and reporting organizations that you think of as the best and the brightest shared one thing — and that was Habib.”

Muscular, with broad shoulders and thick, bushy eyebrows set above soft brown eyes, Zahori could be intimidating, says Kuwayama. “Then you would be surprised to hear him talk to you in this gentle voice and ask about literature.”

Some foreign reporters mistreated their Afghan colleagues, but Zahori’s partnerships were professional and often friendly. Once, he drove six hours through mountain and desert with Dexter Filkins, now a staff writer with The New Yorker, constantly scanning their surroundings for armed men. To ease the tension, Zahori sang all the lyrics of “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash.

Still, Zahori had to deal with Americans who disrespected other locals. In a village in eastern Afghanistan, he accompanied one photographer on assignment for the Boston Globe. She insisted on photographing a poppy harvester who was prepared to give away his six-year-old daughter to a drug trafficker to settle a debt.

“She was so adamant to photograph the father,” says Zahori. “He kept saying he didn’t want to be photographed.”

The man grew angry, and Zahori had to urgently get the Americans in the vehicle and leave.

Soon, Zahori moved from “fixing” for other journalists to writing stories himself for the New York Times. Being any sort of fixer or journalist in Afghanistan is risky. The Taliban resent locals who work with foreigners. Warlords and other powerful men resent those who criticize them or expose their misdeeds. Zahori’s higher profile meant even more danger. He knew he could be killed. He knew he was putting his family at risk. Each morning before he left the house, he kissed his mother’s hand.

* * *

In the first season of The United States of Al, the title character moves from Afghanistan to Columbus, Ohio. The material largely comes from Zahori’s experience arriving in America in 2014 on a Fulbright scholarship. His plane first touched down in New York City.

“I was coming from a warzone where everything there is tension, and everywhere is a checkpoint or blast wall,” he says, “and I get to J.F.K., and I look around, and the first thing that comes to mind is like, ‘Oh my God, this place is so easy to bomb. There’s no security at this airport.’”

There were other surprises — at the airport, there were moving sidewalks, and at the Airbnb where he spent his first night, there was a house pet named Mr. Cat that wore a bowtie.

Zahori was destined for the University of Denver to pursue a master’s degree in international history. When he got there, a journalist friend took him to IKEA for more culture shock. “I saw young women just like sleeping — just testing the beds. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is too much.’ They were just like lying down, their eyes closed. They were testing it. They were flipping on their sides.”

Initially, he struggled with his university courses. On the first day of classes, a professor instructed students to use the Chicago Manual of Style when formatting footnotes. Zahori had no idea what he was talking about. “I was so overwhelmed that I wanted to cry,” he says, “because I had had an amazing job with very prestigious roles for the New York Times. I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’”

Zahori persevered. He got help from the university library’s writing centre and finished his degree.

He had already bought a ticket back to Kabul when he learned that the Taliban had kidnapped his father. The family mobilized their tribal connections and got his father released, but Zahori could not safely return home. His American visa was soon to expire. He looked at a map of America’s northern border and considered his options.

“You know what?” he said to a friend. “I’m going to Canada.”

* * * *

“Before sunrise one morning in January 2016, Habib Zahori bicycled across the border from Maine to New Brunswick.”

Before sunrise one morning in January 2016, Zahori bicycled across the border from Maine to New Brunswick. He rode a yellow bicycle with one gear and dysfunctional brakes. The bike was too small for him. He wore a green winter coat from H&M, a toque and checkered scarf, winter boots from Afghanistan and a backpack containing $3,000 in cash, his passport, MacBook, Kindle and copies of Moby Dick and Crime and Punishment.

“There was this gentleman driving a tractor,” he remembers. “I said, ‘I want to go to Woodstock. He said, ‘Just bike this way.’”

Zahori pedaled down the highway. His cheeks and nose were miserably cold, and he balled up his fingers inside his thin gloves. After almost an hour on the bike, border police spotted him coming down a hill and turned on their sirens. They parked the car and waited for him to arrive. When Zahori reached them, they handcuffed him, emptied his pockets and drove him to a detention centre. “Very nice guys,” says Zahori, perfectly serious.

The detention room had a toilet, water fountain, bed and small window. Zahori was fed a hot meal that included potatoes and green beans (he is vegetarian). Two officers from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the RCMP gave him the number for a lawyer, then questioned him for 30 minutes.

“A couple of hours later they came back and said, ‘We ran your name into all our databases, and we didn’t find anything, and we don’t think you’re a security threat to Canadians, so what do you want?’” recalls Zahori.

He told them he was claiming asylum. The police took his fingerprints. Around three o’clock in the morning, they called him a taxi and gave him the name of a motel, where, exhausted, he slept for two days.

Judith Tod, a retired Baptist minister, heard about Zahori’s crossing from her daughter, who shared a mutual friend with Zahori in the United States. Tod had previously taken in a woman from Bangladesh and chaired a committee that brought Syrian refugees to her town of Wolfville, Nova Scotia. She offered Zahori a room in her basement.  

Zahori caught a bus to Halifax. When he arrived at the Halifax bus depot, he recognized Tod by her white hair and pink jacket.

“Never in my life could I have imagined that there would be this chapter,” says Tod of meeting Zahori. “He didn’t know what was going to happen to him. My goal was to keep life on as even a keel as possible.”

Tod, who is in her 70s, hosted Zahori for approximately three months. She told him she lived alone because she didn’t want to be a burden to her adult children. “Oh, I’m nothing if I’m not a son,” replied Zahori, as she recalls. “I have responsibilities for my parents. I want those responsibilities.”

Tod treated Zahori like her own son, often worried he would catch a cold. She once discouraged him from walking downtown in the rain, and after he took the walk anyway, he grumbled, “I know, Judith, I’ve got a cold. I know I shouldn’t have gone out.”

She introduced Zahori to her church friends and took him to a music night at a friend’s house. “We would pass around the shaker or the bell,” she says, adding: “He didn’t ever go to another one.”

Zahori often stayed up late in the basement, writing a novel inspired by his life experience. He tried reading parts of it to Tod. “I’ve heard the first few chapters, but then it got really harsh what was happening, and I told him, ‘I just can’t,’” says Tod. “It lives in my mind.”

Zahori bought a one-way ticket to Toronto for his refugee hearing, where his claim was accepted. He then moved to Ottawa to live with a friend of Tod.

After leaving, he continued to treat Tod like a mother. He offered to send her a bit of money if she ever needed it. In Ottawa, his friend introduced him to Paula, a policy analyst with Library and Archives Canada who is from St. Thomas, Ontario. They fell in love. They married.

“Neither my wife nor myself are party people,” Zahori says. “We are very content with what we can get in Ottawa.”

Paula wears the H&M coat Zahori wore when he cycled across the border. In their conversations, Zahori occasionally still mixes up words in English—in search of a fast-food restaurant, he recently asked her for directions to “Queen Dairy.”

The couple is now expecting a child.

* * *

Last year, a Canadian photographer in Kabul sent Zahori a Facebook message connecting him with CBS showrunners who were doing research for episodes of The United States of Al. After several conversations, they offered Zahori a 20-week contract with Warner Bros.

“I accepted the job with a lot of caution.”

“I accepted the job with a lot of caution,” says Zahori.

He worried they might create another show like 24 or Homeland, portraying an Afghan character as a person needing to be rescued by an American.

When the show’s trailer was released last month, it received a lot of criticism on social media because the lead character, Al, is not played by an Afghan actor but rather by Adhir Kalyan, a South African of Indian descent.

“I get their suspicion. I get that they are hurt,” says Zahori of the critics. “But sitcom is a special form of show-making, and you have to be trained to be able to perform in multi-camera sitcoms. They didn’t find a good fit [among Afghan actors], and this person had the chops.”

Zahori says the producers genuinely want to make a show that is not Islamophobic or racist. “I’m not afraid of being associated with this show,” Zahori says.

They held a screening of two episodes for members of the Afghan community on Zoom. One attendee was Joseph Azam, an Afghan lawyer in Oakland. He says, at worst, the episodes made him cringe because they were so predictable.

“Look, there’s nothing offensive,” says Azam. “I think what happened with the trailer is it sort of highlighted in a really truncated fashion all of the things that people would be concerned about. It highlights that it’s not an Afghan actor. It highlights this big strong marine and this slight brown man, and who’s saving who? That’s why people teed off on it.”

The writers’ room includes four other Afghans. Zahori has become the guiding voice of Al.

“He almost is like Al to all of us,” says Hila Hamidi, a writer’s assistant on the show. “Habib will just hop right into his story that usually starts off very funny, and then there’s like a turning point, and most of the time it turns into tragedy. The whole room gets swallowed in grief of some sort.”

The writers’ room has a charged dynamic, even online, says Hamidi. Writers will be pitching ideas left and right, but they go quiet when they realize Zahori has something to say. Everybody can tell when he gets an idea, she says. “You just see this big fat smile spread across Habib’s face.”

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