Before the Beheadings

In the spring of 2000, I lived for a month in a Taliban madrasa, a religious seminary, located on the Grand Trunk Road outside of Peshawar, in Pakistan. The chancellor of the madrasa, a wrinkled, bearded, and often barefoot man named Samiul Haq, was said to be a confidante of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader. I did not believe, when we first met, that he would agree to my presence in his school. I was open about my intentions: my goal was to write about the religious education of Pashtun boys who would soon be fighting on behalf of the Taliban, and by extension al-Qaeda, in Afghanistan.

It turned out that Haq was keen to have me understand the work of his madrasa. In our first meeting, he even made an attempt at bonding. “The problem is not between us Muslims and Christians,” he said. “The only enemy Islam and Christianity have is the Jews. It was the Jews who crucified Christ.”

In my travels, Palestinian terrorists generally understood the implication of my last name, as did many members of Hezbollah, the Shia extremist group. But Islamists in Pakistan and Afghanistan seemed less Semitically attuned.

“I’m Jewish,” I said.

He paused. “Well,” he said, “you are most welcome here.”