SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
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, he wrote "The Godfather." One of the more than 30 millions of 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 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-Pashtun 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 their religious police, who often beat people on the street for imagined disobedience because he recalled a passage from "The Godfather" where Don Vito Corleone counsels, never let anyone know what you were 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, like 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.
Zalmai Yawar came to the United States after Peter and I returned and 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")
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