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Opinion: How 'The Godfather' Sparked Imagination In Afghanistan

Mario Puzo is the author of <em>The Godfather</em>.
David F. Smith
Mario Puzo is the author of The Godfather.

It's hard to forecast the influence a work of art may have. Fifty years ago, Mario Puzo wrote a book in his basement after his first two novels had won splendid reviews but sold poorly.

In 1969, The Godfather was published.

One of the more than 30 million copies sold wound up in a pile of books on the street in Kabul, Afghanistan, in the mid-1990s. All Western literature, from Cervantes to Shakespeare to, well, Puzo, had been removed from the library during Afghanistan's civil war. Afghans would buy the books to burn the pages for heat, then tie the covers around their feet as makeshift shoes.

A young student named Zalmai Yawar saw a copy of The Godfather and placed it in a heap of books he hauled off in his arms for about 8 cents. Zalmai says that because it was a paperback, it wouldn't make good shoes, so he decided to try to read it.

He didn't read or write English. English education had been forbidden under Soviet domination, but Zalmai still had his father's old English-Pashto dictionary and translated the novel, in secret, word by word.

And he loved it. He saw The Godfather as a story of tribal rivalries, blood grudges and family loyalties.

When the Taliban came to power in 1996, Zalmai says he learned to look away from the religious police, who often beat people on the street for imagined disobedience, because he recalled a passage from The Godfather in which Don Vito Corleone counsels, "Never let anyone ... know what you are thinking."

When producer Peter Breslow and I came to Kabul to report on the war in 2002, Zalmai was our indispensable interpreter and guide. After he told us how he loved The Godfather, we began to call him "consigliere" and "Zally," à la "Sally," a name straight out of the story.

I remember a night in the hills of Bamiyan, where the Taliban had blown up statues of Buddha and left behind mass graves. Zally told me to look into the sky and said, "When you live in the mountains, like we do, the stars become your neighbors."

During Afghanistan's civil war, Zalmai Yawar translated <em>The Godfather</em> using his father's old English-Pashto dictionary.
/ David Riese
David Riese
During Afghanistan's civil war, Zalmai Yawar translated The Godfather using his father's old English-Pashto dictionary.

Zalmai Yawar came to the United States after Peter and I returned. He graduated from Amherst College in 2006. He's studying for his Ph.D. in geology at Indiana University, where Zally and his adviser help a group of geologists analyze images from the Mars Science Lab.

I think Mario Puzo would appreciate how an old copy of his book about blood and love wound up on a pile on another side of the world, just in time to nourish a young man's imagination. Art can lead to the most amazing places.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.