05.19.12

From Terror Suspect to College Graduate

A decade ago, he was sitting behind bars, accused of plotting against the U.S. government. Today, after a long struggle, he is a graduate of Trinity College in Connecticut.

He will be graduating this Sunday from Trinity College in Connecticut. He is not a very good student. His GPA is only 2.7. Once he was even threatened with expulsion because he had been quarrelling with his wife and had missed classes. He surprised me a few days ago by saying that he wanted to give a speech at his graduation ceremony. Would I read the draft he had written?

There was a further surprise. In what he had sent me, there was mention of his incarceration, in a federal prison in upstate New York, a few months after the events of 9/11. He was suspected of being a terrorist. I had known of this, but I had also found him taciturn and secretive; I was surprised that he was prepared to stand in his blue and gold robes at graduation and read aloud about having been put behind bars.

I will call him Khalid Farooq. He is 34 years old, and grew up in Abbotabad in Pakistan. He arrived in the U.S. on Sept. 5, 2001. Over the year that I have now known him, Khalid had mentioned his arrests—the first only a few days after the September attacks—but the details I was now reading were new to me. He had written that one early morning in 2002, he was taken out of his apartment and asked to sit in a car. Then, one of the Joint Terrorism Task Force officers came back and pulled Khalid out. He wanted to take pictures of him being handcuffed. Khalid was ordered to hold his head up.

My heart sank when I read Khalid’s prose because it seemed that each paragraph could arouse the suspicion of those who followed the rules of grammar: “I used to get a quartz of milk, and bread tost for breakfast. Quartz orange juice and rice with chicken and French fries for lunch and same for dinner. After spending six months, I was let free.” Why would the young men and women holding office in student government at Khalid’s college accept a speech written in faulty English?

The truth is that Khalid’s essays had made me curious. Instead of asking him to correct his grammar, I suggested that he share more details. (Rule No. 16 of Strunk and White: “Use definite, specific, concrete language. Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.”) When I read what came next, I realized that Khalid was also bringing news from the other side of the class divide.

“My dear colleagues, every day once we left our class, you went to library to complete a project or a paper, I drove to Domino’s to deliver pizza. Over the weekend, while driving, I would see many of you having breakfast at the Goldberg’s Bakery, in West Hartford. During all this time, I had worked tirelessly, to the brinks of insanity.”

When I asked Khalid why he wanted to present the speech, he answered that he wanted his fellow students to know how difficult it had been for him. And then, perhaps realizing that this motive was somehow inadequate or didn’t do enough for others, he added that his speech would teach others the virtues of persistence. Sounding very much like an American, he said, “I didn’t give up.”

I was surprised that he was prepared to stand in his blue and gold robes at graduation and read aloud about having been put behind bars.

Each year there are countless speeches delivered at graduation ceremonies, and most use words like the ones that Khalid had been careful to include in his draft: ideals, education, struggle, persistence, success. Later, he sent an email informing me that the mantra hadn’t worked. His speech hadn’t been selected. I’m sure he was disappointed but I hoped Khalid got to lighten his load—of secrecy, but also of injustice—by writing about his imprisonment and his struggle to make ends meet in this new society.

I had met Khalid after I had done a book-reading at his college. He had waited to talk to me. Later, I stopped at his work and talked to him at length. Khalid is small. I have seen him in his Domino’s uniform, which grants him a kind of invisibility, and now I’m curious how he’ll look during the graduation ceremony.

If Khalid had got the chance to give his speech, his audience would have been conscious, I think, of what is left unsaid in many such conventional speeches. And I, listening to him, would have been aware of what he was leaving out from the account he was sharing with his fellow students and teachers.

After his stint in prison, the federal authorities picked up Khalid several times and asked for his help. If he said no, Khalid feared he would be deported. In the fall of 2004, he was taken to Afghanistan for a few months to help U.S. interrogators when they spoke to suspects whose only language was Pashto or Hindko. It was tough work, Khalid said, translating what a man was saying when his nails were being pulled out.