I’m not sure I’ve been quite so moved by a book as I was upon completing Making Friends Among the Taliban: A Peacemaker’s Journey in Afghanistan, by Jonathan P. Larson. In this remarkable true story of U.S. aid-worker Dan Terry’s life – and death – in remote Afghanistan over the course of 30 some years, author and life-long friend Larson weaves his incredible tale as told primarily through the stories of Terry’s Afghan friends. I found the story utterly captivating, inspiring, humbling, and almost other-worldly. Could living one’s entire life dangerously, fearlessly – but joyfully, and even playfully – with Muslims in the mountains of Afghanistan really be what it looked like to follow Christ into the world? The thought literally took my breath away.
I had the great privilege of speaking to Jonathan Larson (pictured, at left) this week via Skype about his book. Our conversation was another moving experience, taking me to a world far, far away, but right into the middle of my heart as well. Our exchange follows. Don’t forget to visit the Patheos Book Club for more about this book, including an excerpt, a study guide, and a DVD documentary.
Jonathan, tell us about your book and what inspired you to make this arduous journey to Afghanistan to capture your friend’s story?
Making Friends Among The Taliban is the story of Dan Terry, a remarkable Christian, who went to live his life, basically 30 years, in the Hindu Kush mountains. He left behind an absolutely compelling trail…and it was in search of this trail that I went to Afghanistan last year.
Dan was killed two years ago and that was the trigger that set me on the trail of this story. And the most compelling aspect of the story is that it is not told by Western colleagues or peers of Dan, but for the most part, these stories come from Afghan Muslims who were Dan’s friends during those decades of living in the Hindu Kush.
My own personal story has meandered from India through North America and Europe, and then lingered quite a long time in various parts of Africa. So it’s a kind of a nomadic life I’ve lived, and in a way that prepared me to write a story like this, to understand at least a little bit of it’s charm, its beauty but also its compelling truth.
How does Dan’s life show us how to live out our Christian faith in a multi-faith world … and even among those who are perceived as our “enemies?”
Dan’s story is apt for our time because he went to live out his Christian faith at the interface with Islam, and in a context where open conversation about his faith would have put him and his friends in jeopardy. So this required that Dan make his witness without the usual tools or access that one might think would be necessary for doing that. And those tools that were available to him were, of course, the tools of expressing a compassion, a sort of selfless devotion to others, which was in and of itself a kind of provocation. That is, it demanded some kind of accounting — where do such things come from? I think that’s the power of Dan’s witness in the Hindu Kush. He didn’t feel the need to articulate his faith in the usual ways, but he left behind a kind of fragrance, an aroma, that people found quite extraordinary.
In your book, you say that it was often said of Dan that he was more Afghan than the Afghans. What do you mean by that?
One of the most telling statements made by Dan’s Afghan friends was this: Dan was more Afghan than the Afghans and he was more Muslim that the Muslims.
Confronted with such an astonishing assertion, I invited them to give me some accounting of this – how could this be? They said, well, with regard to his Afghan nature, all the things Afghans hold dear – loyalty, being a person of your word, expressing generous hospitality, the welcome of others – in all these things, Dan surpassed all others. That’s what they said. Then I said, well what about this Muslim-ness? How would you give an account of that especially since he never went for hajj and didn’t bind himself to the obligations and duties of prayer and fasting that you observe? Well, they said that’s true, but in all the major values we hold as a faith – compassion for those who are weak, seeking justice for those to whom it has been denied, in matters of honesty and openness — in all of these central values which we think of as the core of our faith, in them, Dan surpassed us there too. And I found that extraordinary.
How did the researching and writing of this book about Dan’s life in Afghanistan change you? What did you learn in the process?
What changed in me as I listened to these accounts was that I came to see the beauty and the goodness of a part of the world that has been dismissed as almost brutal and beyond the pale. But I could see glimmering out to me the great charm, the great beauty, the goodness, the nobility of the people and their history. Even among the Taliban, who had become a despised group around the world and especially in the West. Dan insisted, and I could see, that there is honor, there is concern, and there is also conscience among many. And we have carried a kind of caricature of what these societies are like, and especially a group like the Taliban, that is far off the mark. And that has come to be a great stumbling block to us in the West and will not help us when we sit down to make an agreement about the future to end this war. We will have to get beyond these caricatures to do that successfully.
As I was reading the book and some of the dangerously bold moves Dan Terry made, there were several times I thought, this guy is crazy! Indeed, we soon learn Dan’s local nickname was “pagal,” which means crazy in Afghan. I wondered, what kind of an effect does such a “crazy” life have on one’s family?
Dan’s three daughters, who are scattered in various parts of North America now, are about the healthiest creatures I know. They have embarked on vigorous engagement both at the level of raising their families and in their communities. They have robust confidence in themselves. There’s none of this post-traumatic- anything going on with them. And I’ve really scratched my head about this. How did they survive unscathed in the chaotic turbulence of their lives? And it must surely be in part that both Dan and his wife Seija were in pursuit of noble and good things, and did so transparently and openly. And this kept all the haunting spirits at bay, so that no one in the family suffered the consequences that so often follow. It is really extraordinary.
How does the particular way Dan worked and lived in Afghanistan model a contemporary way of being a “missionary” in the world? And would he even have called himself that?
Dan’s central calling as a Christian was to be a bridge-builder. And the beauty, even the ease, with which Dan navigated the divisions and the boundaries between ethnic groups, between faith groups, even between denominational groups, has left people almost speechless because he was so extraordinary at doing that. He hardly knew what it was to label somebody. It didn’t matter with Dan. He could step into whatever world or situation that was, and in complete honesty, use the language and terms of that world in engaging people. That was true in Dari and Pashtu, in the case of Sunnis and Shias there, were he lived in the Hindu Kush. It was true of Catholics and all the other stripes of Christians that were around him. They all expressed astonishment and almost believed he must be one of them in order to explain why he felt so at ease with them.
I think we live in a world where ideology, political persuasion and religious affiliation can be such high walls between us that we become captive of these divisions. It’s Dan Terry’s suggestion, from his story, that we need to lay aside those labels and return to this fundamental thing, that we are, in the end, all of us, humans who search for the good and the noble. And that makes us kin at some very deep level. And laying hold of that will allow entente, understanding, and growing peace and even friendship between us in surprising places.
What was it about Dan’s Christian faith that allowed him to “lose” himself in the other?
I think the secret of Dan’s capacity to do this must certainly have arisen from the notion in Christian theology of incarnation — the understanding that finally God occupied that space next to us as a neighbor in a way that we might fully understand and see what Heaven’s dream and purpose for us might be. Somehow that crept into Dan’s makeup as a person, and so he went from place to place, home to home, settlement to settlement, country to country engaging all these people, and somewhere deep inside he is replicating this movement in our faith that we describe as incarnation. He’s being love in fleshly form, present to us. I think that’s the heart of it.
What do you hope people take away from this remarkable story?
Here’s what I hope for in the telling of this story. At one level, let’s not be daunted by the conflicts and divisions or even the estrangements of our personal lives, our family lives, our community lives. These are far less risky that the kinds of estrangements that Dan set out in Christian faith to bridge. And that Dan could do this successfully in that remote and dangerous setting ought to give all of us some hope that we ought not to abandon our calling as Christians to seek common ground with those from whom we have been estranged. Whether that’s politically, or even within our churches, theologically … there are so many causes and reasons why we feel distant from one another. Dan’s story says, no, don’t let that rule you, because there is something bigger present than that which will permit those bonds to be renewed.
In the larger picture, I don’t know if this story would ever come into the hand of Pentagon generals or people at the State Department – Hillary Clinton or others – but they should know that there is a story that lies alongside the conventions of the geo-politics we have practiced, in Afghanistan and in many other places. There is a winsome and compelling story left here that tells us there is an alternative to those things that have brought us such grief, and have visited pain and suffering on such a huge part of the world. I know that Dan himself would say he didn’t aspire to move planetary politics, he would just say, “Let me build a clinic in this next village here and reach some understanding with the elders there. That would be sufficient for me. I will be content with that.”
I think he might be long-suffering in saying “Well, if you want to tell the story and aspire to great things, that’s your deal, that’s not mine.” So I’ll do it on his behalf, even though I know he would probably chortle in the background and tell me I ought to keep a clear eye about all these things. But let me dream a little, that’s what I would say.
Visit the Patheos Book Club for more conversation and resources from Making Friends Among the Taliban.