Back in Afghanistan, the Mujaheedin factions had formed a kind of loose coalition government, a sort of warlords’ round table, and by 1993 Yamayee felt it might be safe enough and feasible enough to visit his family for the first time in 15 years. It was still too dangerous to reach Herat overland from Kabul, so he decided to go to Iran, and from there into Afghanistan. But first he had to get a visa for Iran, not an easy task for an American. He contacted an Iranian friend he knew from his Palo Alto days, who helped him work through the Swiss embassy. Eventually he found himself on a bus bouncing through eastern Iran on the way to the Afghan border. Yamayee’s family met him there, and after an overdue and tearful reunion, they began the 115-kilometer journey to Herat. “It used to take an hour-and-a-half on a paved road in the 1970s,” Yamayee remembers. “It took us five hours. You could barely tell that the road had ever been paved. The countryside and the villages I knew so well were all leveled. Almost every field had a sign reading ‘Caution: mines.’ It was incredibly sad.”
His family urged him to move back, even though they were proud of his accomplishments in America. Yamayee hadn’t completely ruled it out, but during the course of his visit he realized that it wasn’t to be.
“I had been gone for 15 years,” he says, “and I had changed. So had they. I decided finally that the United States is my home. I couldn’t live in Afghanistan. I’ve become too used to speaking my mind, and there are a lot of things you can’t say in that society. And, while I’m still a Muslim, I don’t pray five times a day or fast during Ramadan. And my Islamic ethics aren’t geared to revenge. Justice without forgiveness means there will always be hatred.” He decided to do what he could from a distance, including buying a house for his children and giving financial help to his parents.
Yamayee returned to Afghanistan in the summer of 1995, when the Taliban, who were taking control of the country region by region, were on the outskirts of Herat. A month after Yamayee left, they took over the city. The people of Herat saw them as an odd kind of home-grown foreign invaders, who didn’t speak the local language and knew little more about the area than the Russians who preceded them. Once again, Yamayee’s family had to lie low and hope.
Zia went back one more time during Taliban rule, just before September 11. He remembers being stopped again and again at checkpoints and interrogated by young Taliban fighters who checked to make sure there were no weapons in the car, and that no music was being played — and who always demanded to know why his beard was not properly lengthy. Under Taliban law a man’s beard must exceed his grasp, protruding from his clenched fist when it is held at his chin — just one of the many rules under the strictest application of Islamic Sharia law ever seen in the modern Muslim world. Usually, when Yamayee produced his U.S. passport, bearing a Taliban visa stamp, he was quickly allowed to go on. But once, Yamayee remembers, the Taliban guard was illiterate, and couldn’t read the visa stamp. The moment grew heated and potentially dangerous — the Taliban are not known for flexibility or forgiveness — but Yamayee’s endlessly upbeat nature prevailed. After many questions and much discussion about why and where and who, the Taliban guard at last looked disdainfully at Yamayee and, with a wave of his hand, said, “O well, you are just an old man, go!” — a line which, as Yamayee notes cheerfully, has now been adopted for steady use by his wife Marlene Moore, long the University’s able dean of arts and sciences, and now the first Father Joe Powers Distinguished Professor of Biology on The Bluff.
The couple met in Yamayee’s first deans’ meeting, in June of 1996, and were married a year later. “I was drawn to his warmth, the attention he pays to people, to his gratitude for the good in life. He is such a positive person,” she says. “Although I have to laugh at his total inability to fix anything electrical around the house — he claims he is a specialist in theory, not execution. So I fix everything around the house while he ponders the theory. But we laugh that our marriage, as a friend says, is the only good thing that ever came out of a deans’ meeting...”
Tom Nelson, the veteran and much-respected dean of engineering on The Bluff, retired in 1996, and the University looked far and wide for his successor. Yamayee found himself interested — he had loved Portland when he lived there before, he was intrigued by the University’s rising reputation, and he was interested in a challenge. Once hired, he set to work streamlining and fine-tuning an engineering school that he felt had too many programs and too few faculty. Programs went from nine to five, faculty went from 17 to 21, and in 2009 the University’s school of engineering boasts one of the nation’s highest licensing exam pass rates, a ranking in the national top forty, and a campus-record $12 million gift from engineering alumnus Donald Shiley ’51 and his wife Darlene for renovation and expansion of engineering hall, now renamed Shiley Hall. The demand for engineering specialties, says the University’s affable dean, is cyclical — when he first came to America electrical engineering was the hot ticket. A decade ago it was computer engineering, then mechanical took the forefront (perhaps the first true mechanical engineer was a 12th century Iraqi named al-Jazari, who, in building machines to pump water for ancient Turkish kings, invented the connecting rod and the crankshaft to convert reciprocating motion to rotating motion, which is the basis of the modern engine). Today, mechanical has peaked and electrical is coming back, with civil engineering (which includes environmental engineering at the University) close behind.
“The principles of engineering haven’t changed so much over the years, but the engineering student is different,” Yamayee says. “The level of interest in sustainability and in being better stewards of the earth has increased dramatically. I hope with that change will come some progress in engineering’s weakness, which is involving women and minorities. The profession is 83 percent male, and we’re actually losing women in the profession after several years of gains. It’s a puzzle to me, because the whole essence of the profession is creative solutions to serious problems, and what could be more pressing now than creative solutions to massive world-wide problems? Perhaps engineering is not seen as a discipline that helps people, but that’s not true! And engineering today is very team-oriented and international — look at the Boeing Dreamliner, which was designed in eighteen different countries.” Perhaps engineering needs its own TV show to give it the shine that medicine and even law have.
After Yamayee’s difficult 2001 trip (his visa didn’t allow him to re-enter Iran once he had been in Afghanistan, so to get back to the U.S. he had to take a taxi 480 kilometers from Herat to Kandahar, then another taxi 160 kilometers to the Pakistan border, then a bus to Karachi, then planes to the Philippines, to Japan, and to Portland), the Taliban were eventually removed from power, Yamayee’s granddaughters could once again go to a real school (instead of hiding in a teacher’s home to get their lessons), and his niece could return to college, from which all women had been banned. Yamayee returned to Afghanistan in 2003, 2006 and 2008. On his most recent visit, the infrastructure was improved — roads, water and electricity were in better repair — but the Taliban were resurgent, travel by land was once again dangerous, violence was everywhere, and chaos could be felt rising like a storm over the mountains. President Barack Obama has vowed to send more American troops to the country, and war seems to be an endless future for Afghanistan.
“The U.S. has done a lot for the country,” says Yamayee, “but it was a tragedy that in 1989, when the Soviets left, the West abandoned the Afghans. The Cold War had been won, so the West just left the mess behind and said to the Afghans, ‘You figure it out.’ The young people, including my children, have known very little other than war for their whole lives.
“I still have hope, but we can not abandon Afghanistan this time. I remember being asked during my visit in 2001, ‘Where is the rest of the world? Why have they left us to be ruled by the Taliban?’ We can’t do that again. I think the West is finally beginning to realize how important Afghanistan is, but now Pakistan complicates everything. I just don’t know if the West can make the right moves. I do know we are still needed there. I always have hope.”
It is another moment that can make all the difference.
“It is difficult for Americans to really know a place so distant and so unlike us as Afghanistan,” he says — but there is a quiet cheerful man at the University of Portland who is a perfectly engineered beam in that bridge between nations and people. How to heal a generation of war in a place we barely know? Begin by knowing the man.
Todd Schwartz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Oregon writer who has written many superb profiles of alumni in these pages. See www.up.edu/portlandmag.