Author to speak at WU on Afghan leader

| Staff Reporter

Marcela Grad, the author of a new book on the Afghan leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, will make her case at Washington University tomorrow for Massoud’s legacy, his importance for students and what lessons the world can learn from his life and death.

Grad’s book, “Massoud: An Intimate Portrait of the Legendary Afghan Leader,” crafts a multifaceted depiction of Massoud through stories drawn from interviews with Afghans and others around the world who knew him personally. Grad, who conducted more than 500 interviews over four years, said she chose this method because it helps her get at the complexity of Massoud’s character and story.

“I decided to choose storytelling, to collect stories from the Afghans and from people around the world who knew Massoud. I felt like the story of Massoud is so profound that only through stories could I get at it. I would be able to get into Massoud’s soul in a more real way,” she said. “I found out in the process that Massoud had produced a profound impact in many others.”

Grad, born in Argentina and a graduate of Webster University, did not learn of Massoud until after his assassination. Her interest in Massoud originates from the first time she ever saw his likeness in the French music video “Ponfilly.”

“I saw this man’s eyes and I knew that I had to do something about this man,” Grad said.

While Massoud, a middle-class ethnic Tajik who abandoned his studies in engineering and architecture to lead successful military campaigns against the Soviets and the Taliban, is not very well known in the United States, Grad stressed that his story is universal.

“The qualities of Massoud and the Afghans are something that humanity can benefit from. This man was incredibly open-minded and incredibly interested in the West and in everything. This is a man that, in 23 years of war, never lost tranquility. This is a man that read poetry to his people. There are so many things about him and his behavior and his life that I feel can benefit humanity,” she said.

A highly educated man who enjoyed poetry and also had close ties with people in the West, Massoud’s personal charisma and tolerant politics attracted a popular following in Afghanistan, where the government now lists him as a national hero.

Grad’s portrait of Massoud is of a renaissance man who embodies many of the dualities shaping the world today—he was a patriot and nationalist who maintained warm ties with the West; a man steeped in Islamic mysticism and literature who advocated women’s rights; and a skilled military commander who spent his last night alive discussing poetry with Massoud Khalili, the son of Afghanistan’s foremost poet.

Despite his popularity, or its being perceived as a threat, Massoud was assassinated by suicide bombers on Sept. 9, 2001, two days before the 9/11 terror attacks. Just before his death, he was in France warning Western governments about the threat posed by al-Qaeda.

“Massoud and the Afghans were fighting intolerance long before us. They fought for preserving their traditions. [The Soviets] were invading their country. This war was going on much before the 11th of September,” Grad said.

While the focus of her book is Massoud, Grad also said she wants to help educate the West about Afghanistan.

“I really emphasize the idea of listening [to the Afghans]. I listened for four years. One thing that called my attention was the great subtlety and poetry of their story. I interviewed a commander who fought for years with Massoud. He never had a childhood or adolescence; he had to fight for his country from very early on,” she said. “My impression, coming from South America, was that I did not see this man destroyed. On the contrary: His inner self was intact. He suffered a lot. There is something that is in these people that is like a rock—they’re very strong. This person was not destroyed internally.”

“I think this book is not just for Westerners,” she added. “It’s also for people in the East. Massoud represents something in this search for answers—what Islam really is, how to pursue peace in the world.”

While she is trying to spread Massoud’s message as far as she can, Grad particularly hopes to reach students, for whom his message, she feels, is especially relevant.

“I really want to reach people at Wash. U., students particularly. This perspective of Massoud is really relevant for the youth,” Grad said. “I’m really looking forward to the [students’] questions. I’m hoping that they understand that I had an experience with [the Afghans]. I’m talking as a Western woman who had an experience with them, and talked to them and listened to them. Their message and their struggle and their story [are] something that inspired me and that I hope will inspire others.”

Grad, who sees Massoud as a symbolic figure of humanity, believes he will be remembered for centuries to come.

“He’s not a man for one day, or for one decade. He transcends religion, he transcends politics. It’s a universal story. It reaches people of all traditions.”

Grad will be speaking tomorrow at 4 p.m. in the Danforth University Center.

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