The University's affable and brilliant engineering dean, and the brave broken country he came from, and how America might still help heal it...
On a hot August day in 1978, a thirty-year-old electrical engineer and university professor named Zia Yamayee sits in his apartment in Kabul, Afghanistan, carefully placing $820 here and there between the pages of an electrical engineering textbook, then gluing the edges of the pages together so that if someone flips through the book, the money will not be revealed.
Soon Yamayee will leave the country, on his way to Germany to present an academic paper, and the new Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan — which after weeks of applications has granted permission for travel — only allows travelers to take $200 with them. He glues the last of the pages together. It is all the money he has. He takes up a pen and begins to write a letter to his younger brother, who is his roommate in Kabul, and to the rest of his family, which includes his parents, and a sister, and an ex-wife with whom he has four children. He searches for the right words to explain why he isn’t coming back.
In the months that follow, his family, especially his father, cannot help but feel that he has abandoned them, ab-andoned his heritage, abandoned his country. But they live some 600 miles west of Kabul, in the out-of-the-fray town of Herat, and they do not understand the brooding danger in Kabul.
Soon they will.
Yamayee, as he writes his letter in the heat, has been back home in Afghanistan for only five months, after earning both his master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering at Purdue in a mere three years. He had arrived home in March and had immediately been named head of mathematics, physics, and electrical engineering at Kabul University. In April, the pro-Soviet political groups Parcham and Khalq joined forces to stage a bloody coup, killing the Afghan leader Mohammed Daoud, who five years earlier had himself overthrown Afghanistan’s king and its constitutional democracy. Since that day Yamayee — schooled in the United States, and not only never a supporter but even quietly a detractor of the pro-Soviet parties — had been on very thin ice. Then his research paper was accepted for presentation in Germany, and Yamayee made the decision that he says now saved his life.
A few months after he leaves, government police come for his brother, who has been active in anti-Communist groups. No one ever sees him again.
Take three pieces of wood, each two feet long by three inches wide by one-eighth of an inch thick, lay them flat on top of each other, support them at each end, then step on them with one foot. They will break almost immediately.
But every engineer knows that if you construct those same three boards into a triangle-shaped beam, it will support a normal adult’s entire weight.
Zia Yamayee, now sixty years old and dean of the University’s engineering department since 1996, is a sweet, quiet, relentlessly positive, triangular beam of a man. His life and experiences are a structural element in the incomplete bridge between the United States and Afghanistan, a country roughly the size of Texas, where we are at war with terrorists and with the Taliban and with tremendous past blunders. As with most of the countries in which we have fought wars over the past half-century, Americans in general know very little about Afghanistan, and understand even less.
Landlocked in the center of Asia — bordered today by Iran to the west; Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north; China to the northeast; and Pakistan to the east and south (the border with Pakistan was drawn arbitrarily by the British in 1893 and has been contested ever since) — Afghanistan is mostly mountains, many of which rise to nearly 25,000 feet. Generally arid, only 12 percent of the land can be cultivated. There hasn’t been a reliable census in decades, but the population is estimated to be about 31 million. Many ethnic groups are represented, with four in 10 people being Pashtun, three in 10 being Tajik, and the rest being a mix of Hazara, Uzbek, Turkmen and others. But they have all shared this land for centuries, and the name, Afghanistan, simply means “land of the Afghans” (“-stan” is an Iranian suffix meaning “place”). Two main languages are spoken, Dari (Persian) and Pashto. More than 99 percent of Afghans are Muslim, with about three-quarters being Sunni and the rest Shi’a. Conflicts and drought have made Afghanistan one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries, with 40 percent unemployment and two-thirds of the population living on less than two U.S. dollars per day. The United Nations reports that more than three million Afghans are involved in the production of opium, which reached record levels in 2007. U.S. troops have been fighting in the country since late in 2001.
Afghanistan was a monarchy, ruled by King Zahir Shah, when Yamayee was born in Herat in 1948. Yamayee’s father was a schoolteacher, at a time when less than 10 percent of the population could read or write — Yamayee’s mother was illiterate, and her age is uncertain, since there was no one in her village who could write down the date she was born. Yamayee’s grandfather was a mullah, or Muslim cleric.
In the earliest example of what would be a standard occurrence, Yamayee finished first in his elementary school class, and was one of three to win a scholarship to a boarding school which trained teachers like his father. So, at age 12, he left home and traveled the 400 kilometers by bus over a high mountain pass to his new school. He didn’t see his family again for nine months.
There were 17 students sharing his dormitory room that first year, and only four of them spoke the same mother tongue, so they got along in a seventh-grade mash-up of three languages. The rules were these: graduate and you become an elementary school teacher, to be assigned somewhere in the country by the government. Graduate in the top 33 percent of the class, and you can go on to the university in Kabul to become a high school teacher. Be one of the top three graduates, and you can go on to the university and study your choice of law, medicine, or engineering.
Those were the academic rules. But there were other responsibilities for a young Afghani. When Yamayee was a child, it had been arranged that he would marry a distant cousin of his mother. One day at the end of ninth grade, Yamayee’s uncle arrived and told the 16-year-old student that they would be leaving the following day for the west, the village of his bride, and his wedding. His bride was most likely 14, but again there were no written records of her birth. She was attractive, and Yamayee remembers being “a pretty happy guy.” As was the custom, his new wife moved into the house of Yamayee’s parents, and he went back to school. By the time they split, some 10 years later, Yamayee and his young wife would have four children.
The same year Yamayee was married, in 1964, Afghanistan became a constitutional monarchy and began an all-too-brief experiment with democracy. Political parties sprang up, and a legislature was elected. The country began to look a little more like it belonged in the twentieth century rather than the seventeenth. Again Yamayee graduated first in his class. His father wanted him to study medicine, but Yamayee had neither the stomach nor the brain for it — he hated the sight of blood, and biology had never been his strength. Law held no interest for him, but understanding math and physics had always come as easily as breathing, so Yamayee chose engineering. In the autumn of 1967 he walked into his first engineering class at Kabul University, and right into another language problem.
As a child Yamayee had learned Dari (or Farsi, as the Persian language is also known), then learned Pashto in fourth grade, then began to study English and Arabic in seventh grade. By college, Yamayee knew basic English, but when the female engineering professor walked into class and began teaching in rapid-fire and technical English, Yamayee was stunned. “We had assigned seats,” he says, “and I was number 725, so I turned to 723, who told me that all the classes were taught in English! It turned out I was the only one from a little teacher-training school who hadn’t been given the special intensive three-month English class. The next class was taught by a German professor from the U.S., and I couldn’t believe anyone could write that fast or talk that fast. I almost quit right then.”
But he didn’t quit. All through that first semester, his strategy was to read ahead in the textbooks, underline the words he didn’t understand, look them up in the dictionary and memorize the meanings, and then read the books again. He barely passed. But by the time he graduated in 1972, he was, of course, number one in his class.
Graduating at the top gave him an automatic job as an instructor in electrical engineering at Kabul University, and that in turn led to a scholarship to study in the U.S. The school of engineering at Purdue had been among the group of U.S. universities that helped create the engineering school in Kabul, so it was to Indiana that Yamayee came in 1974.
He was prepared for the schooling in America, but was quickly confused by many of the local customs and strange foods.
“I remember being on the plane coming to the States,” Yamayee says, “and they told me they were serving hot dogs. I knew the word ‘hot’ and I knew the word ‘dog,’ but together? I was not excited to eat that animal at any temperature! I was very relieved when I learned what a hot dog was...” He moved into a dorm room with an American roommate, so he could refine his English. By the spring of 1978 he was a newly minted doctor of engineering, proud to return home. By the end of that summer he was alone in Germany, applying for immigration to the United States, Canada, and Australia.
On December 27, 1979, more than 100,000 Soviet troops marched and flew into Afghanistan. The Soviet-backed Afghan government was in danger of falling to a populist uprising led by the rebel fighters known as the Mujaheedin, and Moscow moved to shore up the regime. Ten years later, the Soviet troops were forced to leave the country, having lost the war to the Mujaheedin, who were backed and funded by the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia. As many as 1.5 million Afghans were dead, five million were refugees, and buried under the land of the Afghans was one unexploded mine for every man, woman, and child in the country. The Mujaheedin had split into 10 competing groups, and soon the fighting between them destroyed Kabul, the only Afghan city that had survived the Soviet occupation. Yamayee watched his country slip into war and chaos from Palo Alto, California. The U.S. had accepted his request for immigration, and he had three job offers within a month of arriving in America. He worked on managing the flow and maintenance of utility power grids, on battery storage technology and even did some early solar power studies. In 1981, Yamayee took a job that brought him to Portland for the first time, working with the utilities of the Columbia River basin to perform regional electricity resource planning.
His family in Herat had no phone, so his only occasional contact with them was through an uncle who went to Iran and Pakistan on business, and would call from his travels. Yamayee wrote letters, and sent money through contacts in Iran. “I couldn’t speak to most of my family directly for years,” he says, “and now everyone has a cell phone. My son called just last night. My daughter lives in a village with no running water, but she has a cell phone!”
With a few years of industry experience under his belt, Yamayee felt confident to return to teaching. In 1983 he became an associate professor at Clarkson University, a small college in upstate New York. The school and the students he loved, the frigid winters and the 130-mile drive to the nearest sizable airport he did not. After two years, he was ready to move on. He had became a U.S. citizen, and he had also seen his father for the first time since he’d left Afghanistan — his father was on a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, and Yamayee joined him for two weeks. It would be nearly a decade before he would see him again.
Yamayee’s next stop was Gonzaga University. He had been a little hesitant to take the job, after hearing that it was a Jesuit school and being concerned that everyone on campus would try to convert the Muslim engineer, as had so many other people during his years in America. But he soon discovered that Gonzaga, like the University of Portland, is a place of welcoming and accepting people. He earned a full professorship by 1987, and was ready to settle into a quiet life in Spokane, when he got a call from the University of New Orleans offering him the chairmanship of the electrical engineering department. He wasn’t especially interested, but then Louisiana Power and Light Company offered to sponsor all of his research, and it became a Big Easy decision. A year later, he was back at Gonzaga as the new dean of engineering — the previous dean had returned to the faculty, and Yamayee’s phone rang off the hook with engineering colleagues encouraging him to try for the job.