Symphony narrator saw in Massoud hope for Afghanistan
Baltimore Sun, February 11, 2004
By Dan Fesperman
Haron Amin left L.A. to join the guerilla fight for his country.
Shopping for Afghan warlords was a very '80s thing to do in the borderlands of Pakistan, and it was a buyer's market. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, just across the mountains to the west, and the warlords offered the best hope for winning back the country.
So, in the streets and bazaars of frontier towns such as Peshawar, Quetta and Chitral, an exotic assortment of buyers lined up to inspect the merchandise. CIA men shopped for mujahedeen warriors to lead the charge. Arms dealers shopped for conduits to deliver the goods. Pakistani spies shopped for zealots to push new agendas. Then there were the volunteer warriors, shopping for the right leaders.
Haron Amin joined the latter group at age 19, dropping out of college in Los Angeles in 1988 to go and fight for his homeland, despite the pleas of his distraught parents. They had fled the country eight years earlier, just after the Soviet invasion.
To the young Amin, the decision was easy. The one leader to stand out from the crowd was Ahmad Shah Massoud. "He was my mentor," says Amin, now 34. "I found him to be the most organized fighter and resistance leader. It was not this random, ragtag operation."
Amin's choice paid off in many ways, and tonight in Baltimore he will honor the late Massoud - assassinated by Arab suicide bombers two days before the 9/11 attacks - by narrating the world premiere of the David Gaines symphony, The Lion of Panjshir, a celebration of Massoud's legacy to be performed by the Peabody Wind Ensemble.
Amin arrives with his own esteemed credentials, having vaulted from his callow days as a guerrilla volunteer to become Afghanistan's ambassador to Japan. As for Massoud, he was one of the few warlords whose reputation emerged from the fighting in better shape than when the hostilities began, and Amin says it is only fitting.
"His was a mind that was very creative, always thirsty to learn more, yet trapped in the mountains of Afghanistan to the level of peasants," Amin says. "Now if Massoud had been alive and you would do something like this [symphony], he would consider it very Stalinist. But now that he is dead, we need to somehow be able to honor him. This musical piece will make him, in a way, immortal."
Amin remembers little about his earliest days in Afghanistan. Born in the capital city of Kabul, his family fled the Soviet onslaught when he was 11, after three of his friends had disappeared. The family wound up in Los Angeles by way of Peshawar and Germany, but Amin held on to his Afghan identity and read with interest of the commanders who were taking the fight to the Soviets in the craggy passes of home.
Three months into his freshman year at Pasadena City College, bored and restless, he decided to join the cause. "There was a lot of crying and weeping and hugging, but by then I had already secretly gotten my passport," he says. "Everyone thought I was crazy, that I had no chance for survival."
For a while, it seemed everyone might be right. In June, he joined a team of Western doctors and scientists trekking from Pakistan to Massoud's stronghold in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley - which the Soviets had tried seven times to take, without success. They traveled on horseback and on foot, and early in the journey Amin was stricken by food poisoning. He remembers gazing at the sun two days later, after crossing a particularly grueling pass, and thinking that he'd reached the end of the line. Then someone offered him the juice from a can of peaches, and relief was almost instantaneous.
Not long afterward, he met Massoud.
"He was sitting right there against a window," Amin says, "and there was something about him, a fierce look, a very serious look, a sense of what was happening - a very strong aura about him."
Amin committed himself to two years of service, and the Soviets were already beginning to withdraw. But with Amin's command of English and experience in other countries, Massoud recognized the potential for more than just another soldier, and after only two military operations, he took Amin aside.
"He said, 'Listen, you're in the wrong place. Are you here to fulfill your own desires and to be selfish about it, or are you here for the greater good?" It was the first time that he basically told me that, while martyrdom is one of the greatest aspirations for a Muslim, victory is more important," Amin said. "This guy thought totally differently from everybody else. To him, if you could win without sacrifice, without losses, then that's a greater victory."
After the defeat of the Soviets, Amin served as Massoud's representative to the United States. Massoud then became defense minister in the ill-run and ill-fated government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, which was soon battling for its life against the radical-Islamist Taliban movement.
Amin returned briefly to the fighting in 1995 - this time in a losing cause - and the Taliban took power the following year. Amin moved to New York as an official in Afghanistan's government-in-exile, while Massoud fought on as guerrilla leader of the cornered Northern Alliance.
Two days before the 9/11 attacks, Massoud was assassinated by two Arabs posing as television journalists, who detonated a bomb in their camera. With the United States providing air support, Massoud's forces swept the Taliban out of Kabul two months later. Within days, they had plastered the slain leader's picture all over the town.
It wasn't the sort of veneration Massoud would have liked, Amin says, and plenty of ne'er-do-wells were soon invoking Massoud's legacy to boost their own ambitions. That left Amin wondering what might be a better way to pay tribute to the man.
"The way you honor a person who means so much for the greater good of Afghanistan is not by erecting a 50-foot picture of him," Amin says. "You do it in a way that he would appreciate - in the way of art, in the way of music. In the way of building a school, or by making it easier for the peasant who wants to feed his family."
It was in that frame of mind that Amin got a letter in February 2002 from composer David Gaines, mentioning the idea of a symphony.
Amin telephoned the next day: “I said, 'Dr. Gaines, this is Haron Amin. How can I be of assistance?'”
He is pleased with the way the project turned out, although he suggested one last addition to the text.
“There was one quote which I felt was paramount, in the context of the symphony, which [Gaines] inserted. That quote was Massoud's message to President Bush during his press conference in France [three months prior to 9/11]: ‘My message to President Bush is that if he doesn't pay attention to Afghanistan, that sooner or later these terrorists will also target the United States.’”
Tonight, Amin gets to utter that prophetic line, in tribute to his one-time leader.