DATE October 29, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Tavis Smiley, of NPR's "The Tavis Smiley Show,"
discusses his new book, "Keeping the Faith," and his other roles
as commentator and contributor
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Through his work as a broadcaster, my guest Tavis Smiley has become an opinion
leader, particularly in the African-American community. He's a commentator on
the nationally syndicated "Tom Joyner Morning Show." His Smiley Report is
heard daily on urban contemporary radio stations through the ABC Radio
Networks. He's a contributor to CNN, and formerly hosted his own show on BET.
Now he hosts his own National Public Radio program, featuring interviews and
commentaries. There's more. He also runs the Tavis Smiley Foundation, whose
mission he describes as encouraging, empowering and enlightening black youth.
Smiley started his career as an aide to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. In his
new book, "Keeping the Faith," Smiley collects the comments of
African-American writers on such themes as black love, faith, inspiration and
grief and healing. He also shares some of his own personal stories such as
coming of age in a trailer with 10 children, including the four his parents
OK, this is what I gotta know. What are some of the differences for you,
doing a show on NPR vs. working on commercial radio or cable TV?
TAVIS SMILEY (Author, "Keeping the Faith"): Well, one thing, you would never
hear me say, (speaking softly) `From National Public Radio, I'm Tavis Smiley.'
I don't talk that way. My energy level, my vocal quality, my sound, my
energy, my flavor, as we like to say in the black community, the flavor that I
bring to the program, is very different.
GROSS: Oh, I bring flavor to the ...(unintelligible).
SMILEY: Indeed you do, Terry Gross.
And so my style is different so I think stylistically we have noticed the
biggest difference in what I do on commercial radio and what I do on public
radio. The other difference is that most of my commercial outlets allow me to
express my opinion. I am a commentator, if you will, in most of these
commercial outlets. On public radio, I enjoy the opportunity to sit back and
to ask the questions because, I don't know if this is true or not, Terry--it
probably is not--but when I got to bed at night, since hosting a show on NPR,
I at least feel smarter. Maybe I am. I don't know. But I certainly feel
smarter hosting a show on NPR because I get a chance to ask questions. And I
believe, ultimately, that knowledge is power.
GROSS: I'm wondering what you think the image of NPR is among your friends,
colleagues, and I'm interested, particularly, among African-American friends
and colleagues; if you listened before, if people you're close to listen, and
what the image is and how you think that compares to the reality.
SMILEY: The reality is that many of my African-American friends and
colleagues don't know what NPR is, have never heard of NPR. They know the
NBA, but they don't know NPR. There are too many people in the
African-American community and, for that matter, in communities of color that
do not know what NPR is all about, and the tragedy is that because I believe
that information is power, that means there are a lot of people in this
country not being empowered through this thing we call National Public Radio.
The reality is that it is called National Public Radio, and not National
One-Third of the Public Radio. And I have been very frank about saying, on
the air and off the air, that public radio, NPR in particular, has to do a
better job of using this radio medium to allow Americans to be introduced to
GROSS: You come from a background of public speaking. Your mother was a
minister. She did--she preached at the pulpit. You started in politics
before you became involved in broadcasting, so you had to do a lot of public
speaking to, like, big gatherings of people. And although on radio or TV,
you're talking to a lot of people, you're talking to them one on one, and it's
a very intimate kind of medium compared to speaking in a big hall. And I'm
wondering if you feel like you had to learn a different style of speaking when
you started doing radio?
SMILEY: I am learning a different style, not because of radio, as much, but
because of public radio, and particularly National Public Radio, NPR. In
commercial radio one can obviously get away with a different style. There are
shockjocks who scream and yell every day in commercial radio. Nobody cares,
you know, if they're a fan of the show. And public radio, and particularly
NPR, there is this sound that NPR has that is, I think, at best, antithetical
to the way that I've approached radio, you know, this real soft National
Public Radio kind of thing. And that's not the way I am. That's not my--my
energy level, you know, is significantly higher than that, so within the
context, construct, of what NPR is, it's something that I work on.
GROSS: What was your mother's preaching style? Is she still preaching, first
SMILEY: She is. My mother is a Pentecostal preacher, charismatic preacher.
For those who don't know much about the Pentecostal Church, it is, for lack of
a better term, high energy. We have a choir--we have in our church, we have a
choir, a full choir, we have organ and piano and drums and bass guitar and
tambourines. Our church is a high-energy church. And so that's the experience
out of which I come. And I think it's reflected in part, you know, by who I
am. I grew up in this high-energy church, if you will.
GROSS: Now you say you got your sense of faith from your mother and your
sense of being hard-working from your father, who was very hard-working. What
kind of work did he do?
SMILEY: My father was, and still is, an Air Force officer, 33, 34 years, and
counting. Still in. Went in right after high school. So my father's an Air
Force officer. So he's served his country honorably for these many years.
And when my parents adopted these four kids--and I should say these four
kids--I have seven brothers and two sisters. We're all part of one big family
of 10. But these four persons who were adopted happened to be my cousins. My
mother's sister, my aunt, was murdered back in 1969, 1970, and those four kids
were going to be split up and sent to foster homes, different foster homes,
because no one family in Mississippi, where they were living--we were living
in Indiana at the time--no one family where they were in Mississippi could be
found to take all four of them in. So rather than split those four kids up,
my parents made the decision, even though my father had a meager Air Force
salary, to take those four kids in. And we were all raised together, and my
parents went on to have a few more kids and so there ended up being a total of
10 of us. And to this day, I have the utmost respect for my parents because
of the love that they have shown me how to practice through their own example.
GROSS: Thinking of how much authority your parents must have had when you
were very young, you know, your mother being a preacher is kind of like the
voice of God in the house and your father being a military officer...
GROSS: ...is a commanding presence, too. I--must have been--must have been
hard to get away with anything.
SMILEY: You know, I never quite thought about it in that way, Terry. But
that is a very nice way of putting it. And a very interesting way of putting
it. I'm going to call my parents when we get out of the studio here and share
with them that description. But that makes a lot of sense. My mother was and
is the voice of god, small `G,' of course, in our household, and our father,
being a military guy--although, it's funny, my father isn't the typical kind
of military guy. My father really is very soft-spoken. He's a
disciplinarian. He does what has to be done. He puts his foot down. And you
do walk in fear and respect of my father's tactics when it comes to
discipline. But at the same time he wasn't--my mother is much more talkative
than my father is and so that was strange in my household. But my father got
your respect by just looking at you in a certain way.
GROSS: I can imagine what that certain way might have been.
SMILEY: Yeah, that may--he didn't have the military voice. It wasn't
`Soldier, get over here before I'--you know, it wasn't like that. But he had
that military look and he still has it down pat.
GROSS: Now in your book, "Keeping the Faith," you talk a little bit about
what happened to you when you and your sister, when you were in seventh grade
were accused of creating disruption in church, something that was particularly
embarrassing for your mother, because she was very important in the church.
And this was a public accusation. This was, you know, to the whole gathering
of the congregation. Your parents were so angry that your father beat you and
your sister. What did he do?
SMILEY: We were part of a family that believed in discipline, make no mistake
about that. You cannot have 10 kids unless the kids are running the
household, which is not the case in my family. You have to be very much
disciplinarians and my parents were. And my parents were very spiritual, and
it wasn't just my mother who was involved in the church. My father, although
not a preacher, was on the board of trustees, and a member of the deacon's
board at my church. So both of them very deeply involved. So it wasn't even
just that they were angry. What led to this all--this horrible incident was
that my parents were embarrassed. They were embarrassed to have our minister
stand up in front of the entire congregation and scold my sister and I.
My sister and I were deeply hurt because we had not caused this public
disruption. We were accused of something falsely. My sister and I were
severely beaten. My father got home that night and rather than beating us
with a little belt or, you know, a spanking or whatever, that night he was so
enraged that he took--he disconnected from one of the kitchen appliances an
extension cord and we were beaten severely with an extension cord so badly
that we were hospitalized, both, for about 10 days, each, and to recuperate
and to be treated for our condition.
My sister and I both still have marks on our bodies, to this day, from that
incident. My sister more so than me. And it was an incident that was clearly
one of the defining moments--certainly the defining moment of my young life.
Because it--we live in a--we grew up in a small town in Indiana and so
everybody knew about this and ultimately my father was dragged into court, my
sister and I were both taken out of the home, we went to live with two
different foster families. I eventually returned home to my family. My
sister, though, Phyllis, never returned home. And that was traumatic for all
of us, to just lose a sister overnight. ...(Unintelligible).
GROSS: Was that her choice not to return home?
SMILEY: It was her choice. It was her choice. She went to a different
foster family and just decided not to come back. But ultimately it, for me,
became a source of motivation. I determined, Terry, that I would, as an
adult, one day return to that community and didn't want to return in
embarrassment. And, again, speaking of lessons--I mean, I don't know why I
even felt like I had done anything wrong, but I was embarrassed by this entire
ordeal. I thought--I was shamed by this incident in the community because--I
think in part because as a kid you're the one who doesn't get believed. Your
side of the story doesn't get told. You're not an adult. Sit in the corner
and shut up. And especially when the minister of the church, the reverend,
the pastor, stands up, that you really have nothing to say, and you were
wrong, and that's the end of it.
But it became a source of inspiration and motivation for me. My sister, by
contrast, saw her life tainted as a result of that. She went on to have a
number of kids out of wedlock, became a crack addict. I'm happy to say to
this day, or at this time, she is doing quite well, not doing drugs, working
full-time. She's going back to school to get her college degree. I'm happy
to pay for her to do that. So it's turned out, you know, not the worst story,
not the worst ending. But it was certainly a traumatic moment in our life.
GROSS: Here's the paradox with that story. You know, you and your sister
ended up being taken away from your parents and put in your foster home. Now
your aunt was murdered when you were a child and her children, after she was
murdered, had no place to go, they first stayed, I think, with your
GROSS: When she could no longer take care of them, she became too ill, rather
than watch them go into a foster home, your parents took over their care. And
your parents adopted them and brought them up as their children. So here are
your parents who have made this tremendous sacrifice in their life to prevent
your cousins from having to go to foster homes and then two of their birth
children, you and your sister, are taken from them and put in foster homes. I
mean, do you have any sense of how your mother felt about that?
SMILEY: I do. My father, who I love very dearly, I want to be clear about
that, has apologized profusely over the years.
GROSS: To you or to her?
SMILEY: To me and to her. It has been a source of shame and embarrassment
for him inside of our family and now, thanks to this book, for everybody else
to read. And I worried about that, because I didn't want my friends--my
father's friends these days may not be aware of this that happened 20-plus
years ago. And I was concerned about my father's welfare, and the telling of
this story. My father apologized profusely. My mother's burden was one of
shame, based upon not coming into the room to stop what was going on. But my
mother, you know, has lived for that for years and it's very difficult for her
to talk about.
GROSS: My guest is Tavis Smiley. He hosts a new NPR program and he has a new
book called "Keeping the Faith." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Tavis Smiley is my guest, and he's the host of "The Tavis Smiley Show"
on NPR. And he has a new book now called "Keeping the Faith."
Now you said you've inherited your work ethic from your father, who is a
military officer and also had a lot of part-time jobs to make ends meet having
to support such a large family. Do you think he liked his work? I mean, you
have work that's pretty exciting now. And you're so well-known now. But what
about your father? Did he--you saw him working really hard, but did you see
somebody who liked working?
SMILEY: I don't know that my father really or necessarily liked what he did.
But he went into the Air Force right out of high school, number one. Number
two, my father is the kind of person that--he's one of those guys that--one of
those persons that does what has to be done. It doesn't so much matter that
he necessarily likes it. My father had worked a number of odd jobs, as you
mentioned. Most of those jobs were cleaning up office buildings late nights.
GROSS: I guess I'm wondering when you started working really hard whether
your vision of work was something that's really awful but has to be done or
whether your really wanted work that you could love and looked hard for that.
SMILEY: Oh, no. Yes. I went to college and have worked hard, and have tried
to educate myself because I never wanted to do manual labor. My father, when
he got these little contracts to make ends meet, cleaning offices, we became
his employees, his 10 kids. And so that was never of interest to me. I swore
every trash can I had to empty, every toilet I had to clean, I swore this was
not the life for me. I had--and I would always tell my younger brothers and
sisters, `This is what happens when you don't go to college and get a good
education.' And what did I know about that? I was a kid myself. But I knew
there had to be a better way to make a living than what we were doing.
So I don't know if my father liked it; I know that Tavis did not like it. And
what's funny about this is that my first job out of college I went to Los
Angeles from Indiana University in Bloomington where I studied, moved to Los
Angeles to work for the late great Mayor Tom Bradley. And my very first job
out of college I made almost twice as much money as my father was making at
that time. And it was almost embarrassing. I felt so bad, Terry, almost
guilty, making that kind of money. Even though I had those dreams as a child,
I almost felt guilty making more than my dad because my dad is the
hardest-working person I knew and I felt guilty making more money than my dad.
GROSS: Now as a broadcaster, your primary subjects have to do with
African-American culture and politics. When you grew up, when you were going
to elementary school in the Midwest--you say you went to a predominantly white
school--I'm wondering what impact you think that had on you, or what it was
like then to be one of the few black student in the school.
SMILEY: It was fascinating, because it started out--this story has two parts
to it. It started out being very challenging for me, because I was the only
African-American person in mostly all of my classes. It was difficult because
I felt like I had something to prove and they did not understand me or see
things the way I saw them. They didn't appreciate the kind of music that I
liked. They didn't go to the same kind of church that I went to. I was
very--my life experiences were very atypical, you know, antithetical to the
experiences that my classmates had. So on certain levels we could not relate
altogether well, and that caused some problems because I felt like I had to
prove myself all the time. And so I started, you know, in the third grade
with this chip on my shoulder and, you know, being cantankerous and, you know,
just difficult to get along with, because I was different and they were
different and I wanted to be accepted for who I was, but I was going about it
the wrong way.
Somewhere around the seventh grade, things started to change, things started
to happen, and I started to see things a little bit differently.
GROSS: Was this also a predominantly white school?
SMILEY: Oh, yeah, my entire career.
SMILEY: Yeah, the entire career. But by the seventh or eighth grade, things
started to change a little bit for me, changed for me in terms of how I
related to my classmates. And by the time I got to high school with this same
class of white kids, I ended up being elected class president, and all through
high school I was, you know, `the black guy,' but I was class president, voted
most likely to succeed and won every award you can imagine, and all of that
And I just, this past summer, returned to Indiana for my 20th high school
reunion, was the only black guy in the picture with all of my returning high
school classmates. And it's turned out interestingly, because I have any
number of classmates who have done quite well for themselves--and I don't
believe that notoriety or exposure or personality or celebrity makes you
better than anybody else--but certainly with regard to achievements, I was the
standout at our high school reunion. So it's fascinating how it started out
with me having a very difficult time navigating that color line, if you will,
but it all panned out, and I was so excited to go back and to see these
people, these white kids who I went to school with 20 years ago.
GROSS: You said that you knew in the high school that you were known as `the
black guy.' What did it mean, do you think, to the white students to be `the
SMILEY: I don't know. I know that it meant for me not being treated much
differently than anybody else, except for the fact that white girls would not
go out with me on dates.
SMILEY: I never had a date until I was in college, because I went to an
all-white school, and that's where my friends where and for the prom--I was
the class president, but never went to the junior prom. I was class
president, but didn't go to the senior prom. I couldn't get a date.
GROSS: Did you have black friends outside of the school?
SMILEY: Oh, yeah, through my church. Through my church. I went to a black
church. That I did do.
GROSS: So it sounds like you were in a mostly white neighborhood, so where
was your mother's church?
SMILEY: The church was about 30 miles away from where we lived.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
SMILEY: So we lived in two different worlds. My daytime world was this white
environment. And there are all kinds of black comedians, indeed those who I
feature on my show every Friday, who make jokes about, you know, trailer park
trash, or white trash in the trailer parks. Well, I grew up in a trailer
park. There were 10 kids, my mother, my father and my maternal grandmother,
who we called Big Mama, 13 of us total, in a trailer. I grew up in a trailer,
a three-bedroom trailer with 13 people. My mother and my father had one
bedroom. Me and my seven brothers had a second bedroom. And my grandmother
and my two sisters had the third bedroom.
GROSS: Did you feel that, you know, living in two different worlds, the
daytime world, which was white, or the weekday world I should say, which was
GROSS: ...and the weekend world--Is that right?--which was African-American?
SMILEY: Well, more than weekend. We grew up in--it's a very good question,
though, and for those who know anything about the Pentecostal Church, they
will relate to this, and I'm sure they are laughing as we speak. In the
Pentecostal Church, it's not a weekend thing, it's an everyday thing.
SMILEY: We had choir rehearsal on Monday night, prayer meeting on Tuesday
night, Bible study on Wednesday night, missionary meeting on Thursday night,
young people's meeting on Friday night, prayer meeting on Saturday morning,
junior choir rehearsal after prayer meeting on Sunday morning, Sunday school
at 9:45, morning worship at 11:30, children's church at 5:30, evening service
at 7:00--four services on Sunday, and back again on Monday. I did that every
day of my life for 18 years.
GROSS: Tavis Smiley, thank you so much.
SMILEY: Thank you, Terry. I appreciate it.
GROSS: Tavis Smiley's new book is called "Keeping the Faith."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews the new Charlie Christian box set.
Also, we meet Dr. Sima Samar, Afghanistan's former minister for women's
affairs, and its current head of the Human Rights Commission. And David
Bianculli previews tonight's season opener of "24" on Fox.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New CD box set commemorating work of Charlie Christian
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Jazz guitarist Charlie Christian was born in 1912 and grew up in Oklahoma
City. While he was in his teens, he jammed with blues guitarist T-Bone Walker
and jazz saxophonist Lester Young. Benny Goodman hired Christian for his
sextet in 1939, and within months he was the most acclaimed guitarist in jazz.
But his triumph was short. Christian died of tuberculosis in 1942 at the age
of 25. A new box set centers on Charlie Christian's recordings with Goodman.
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.
(Soundbite of jazz instrumental with Charlie Christian and Lionel Hampton)
KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:
Charlie Christian and Lionel Hampton on vibraphone, 1939. There had been
electric guitarists before Charlie Christian, but not many, and most played
Hawaiian slide guitar. Christian changed everything because he phrased and
let notes ring out like a horn player, like saxophonist Lester Young much of
the time. Early jazz soloists would usually bear down on the rhythm, but
Young seemed to float above it by placing a stream of notes just before or
behind the beat. You can hear what Christian got from him on a 1940 Benny
Goodman session they both played on. Here's Lester Young on "Lester's Dream."
(Soundbite of "Lester's Dream")
WHITEHEAD: On Charlie Christian's solo, you can really hear that he and
Lester Young spoke the same rhythmic language.
(Soundbite of "Lester's Dream")
WHITEHEAD: Charlie Christian with the Benny Goodman Octet from the four-CD
set "The Genius of the Electric Guitar." It's mostly devoted to the Goodman
small groups that made Christian an instant jazz hit. The box includes a
batch of newly heard alternate takes and a couple of long rehearsal sequences,
in which we hear Goodman make a leader's classic request to a guitar player:
`Turn your volume down.' Much of the stuff has been out before or is
available on European issues, but at best, the sound of Christian's guitar is
clearer than I've ever heard it. You can really hear the steel strings
vibrate and the nuances of how he attacks a note. This is "Royal Garden
Blues" from the fall of 1940, when Goodman's sextet was really wailing.
That's "Cootie" Williams on trumpet and Count Basie on piano.
(Soundbite of "Royal Garden Blues")
WHITEHEAD: From that solo, you can hear how Charlie Christian's country twang
influenced early rockers, the way his tone and timing set the standard for
jazz pickers. To say he introduced the modern electric guitar is barely an
exaggeration. Oklahoma was part of a Southwestern jazz continuum where swing
feeling, blues inflections and string bands had come to an easy understanding.
The Southwestern smoothness Count Basie personified had infected most jazz by
the late 1930s. Having a dependable pulse behind them gave soloists like
Christian something to phrase against, but he could also get down in the
groove with the rest of the band.
(Soundbite of jazz instrumental)
WHITEHEAD: The next step in jazz's evolution was to get whole groups to play
weird accents and off-center phrases like Christian or Lester Young taking a
solo. That was the birth of bebop. Charlie Christian was in on that, too,
jamming after hours in Harlem with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. It's
the one key part of the story missing from this new box set. There are a few
live tracks floating around, however. This next bit of music comes from the
CD "After Hours" on the OJC label, which shows how Christian sounded with his
volume turned up. The drummer is bebop pioneer Kenny Clarke.
(Soundbite of jazz instrumental)
WHITEHEAD: There's a bit of the influence of Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt
in there, and a few of Charlie Christian's sides with Benny Goodman. The box
"The Genius of the Electric Guitar" gets a solid A for production values and a
low F for packaging. The CDs are housed in a flimsy and too-big cardboard box
tarted up to look like a guitar amp. The moment I got the shrink wrap off my
copy, the bass slid out and onto the floor, and one CD popped out of its
precarious perch, wedged into a bed of plastic foam. I don't get the logic
here. This is smart music, intelligently prepared and annotated, and then
packaged as if consumers were dummies.
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead reviewed Charlie Christian: "The Genius of the
Electric Guitar" on the Columbia label.
Coming up, Dr. Sima Samar, Afghanistan's first minister for women's affairs
and the current head of the country's new human rights commission. This is
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Dr. Sima Samar discusses her work for women's rights
and human rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan
TERRY GROSS, host:
Now that women are no longer forced to submit to the Taliban's harsh rule in
Afghanistan, my guest, Dr. Sima Samar, is one of the few women who have risen
to positions of importance in the new government. After the fall of the
Taliban she became Afghanistan's first minister for women's affairs. Under
pressure by Islamic extremists, she was forced out of that position. She's
now the head of the country's first human rights commission. During the Loya
Jirga, she was vice chair to Hamid Karzai, the current leader of Afghanistan.
Dr. Samar just won a human rights award from the Lawyers Committee for human
rights. On her trip to the United States, I asked her if there were things
she said working with Karzai, or when she was minister of women's affairs,
that were particularly controversial.
Dr. SIMA SAMAR (Afghanistan Human Rights Commission): Nothing was
controversial, actually. When I was asking for women's participation in
different section, they were just kind of looking at me, that `I don't
understand' or I'm crazy somehow, because I really wanted the women's
participation to be really realistic in the country, and not only symbolic.
They want somebody to be a minister of women's affairs, and sitting and not
doing anything, or be quiet, not fight with them for everything. But I was
not able to do that. Very simple; I was asking them that when they made a
commission for coordinating aid to Afghanistan--and I said, `Can I be part of
it?' And they said, `Why a woman should be part of it?' And I said, `Well, I
feel that there's a need, and I want to know the plan you're making for the
country, how gender-sensitized it is.'
GROSS: Did you feel like you got support from Hamid Karzai?
Dr. SAMAR: Not much, unfortunately. I think, you know, he was saying that,
`We are making road. It's for both, for men and women. So why are you
worried about it?'
GROSS: You had to explain yourself all the time.
Dr. SAMAR: Yeah, first of all, to explain all the time, and secondly, most of
the time they were not giving chance to me to speak. So that was a really
difficult position. But I'm proud to say that I was really able to establish
the Ministry of Women's Affairs, and the Ministry of Women's Affairs is much
organized and does have as long-term strategy than any other ministry now.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about your life. Your father had two wives
and your mother was his first wife. What did your father think of women's
rights? And what did your mother think?
Dr. SAMAR: Well, both of my mothers, unfortunately, are illiterate. They are
very traditional. They think that what they do is their job, very simple, as
all the other women in the country. My father was--I mean, he really believed
on educating the children, but even for him there was a difference between
boys and girls. Of course, the preference was for the boys, not for the
girls. And for us, he was ready to give us the education, to allow us to go
to school, after certain time. But this was not limited for the boys.
GROSS: You got married before you went to medical school. How did your
husband feel about you going?
Dr. SAMAR: Well, that was part of our argument, because I said that I'm not
interested to marry unless he really support me on education, because I want
to continue my education. And he was really supportive. He did support a
lot. But then he was taken by the Russian when I was in fourth year, and he
GROSS: So you were still in medical school when he was taken away. You
stayed in medical school, completed your time?
Dr. SAMAR: Yes, I did. I continued because I was in fourth year, so I had to
study another three years.
GROSS: Did you ever see him again?
Dr. SAMAR: No. No.
GROSS: In 1984 you went to Pakistan from Afghanistan. Why did you go?
Dr. SAMAR: I went to Quetta Baluchistan, which does have a lot of refugee.
And I was working in a hospital for refugees which was run by Interchurch Aid.
And then I decided that--this was the only hospital which had a female branch
on it, female section, but this hospital was only functioning from 8:00 to
2:00, and they were not attending any emergency cases. Then I decided to
start a hospital for women and children. I did start a hospital for women and
children in '87. So that was the way I start, and I start some girls school,
then I start some hospitals and schools in Afghanistan. Now I run four
hospitals, 10 clinics, 57 schools with more than 37 students, boys and girls,
and some income-generation projects, a lot of literacy course for women.
GROSS: When you were in Pakistan and started setting up women's hospitals and
schools for girls, were you familiar with the madrassahs that were being set
up there by Islamic extremists that were, in part, training boys who were
refugees from Afghanistan?
Dr. SAMAR: Absolutely. I was seeing--in '85 there was a new camp built in
one part of Baluchistan, so--newly established clinic, and I was going there.
It was under the tent. Beside the clinic it was a huge building with a high
wall, was built very quickly, and it was madrassah. So my question was--at
that time I was not thinking that they are coming in power one day in
Afghanistan. My fear was that these poor boys, why they should be in prison
in order to get education. And I saw the difference of how much money is
going to build a madrassah and how much money is going to build a clinic,
because the madrassahs got a high wall and really--rooms on it and building.
We were under the tent and we--just maybe a one-and-a-half-meter-high wall
around it, in order to protect the--dust not enter the tent.
And nobody was really there--no UN agency, no other international community,
to support a formal education, because they would say that we just do the
emergency work and education is long-term development work, which was a big,
big mistake. It's most unfortunate that we lost all those generation without
GROSS: You have a son. Were you worried when he was young that he would be
influenced by the extremists who would want to train him to be a man who did
not respect the rights of women?
Dr. SAMAR: Not exactly, because he was my son and he does have a lot of
respect for women's right. And he's very nice and supportive son. And I
really didn't give any kind of chance for him to be influenced by the
religious extremists. One of these political party, fundamentalist party,
wanted to kidnap him in order to make me leave the country or leave the work I
do because they were not happy with the women's programs from the very
GROSS: So did they succeed in kidnapping him?
Dr. SAMAR: No. No. He was locked for, I don't know, three weeks at home.
He was under house arrest actually--house arrest. And we were able to somehow
GROSS: How old was he then?
Dr. SAMAR: He was seven or eight years old when I started all these things.
GROSS: What did you tell him about needing to be brave? Did you talk to him
Dr. SAMAR: Well, he was so clever and supportive that he was telling me that
we should be brave, we should be strong because he was knowing about the whole
thing. I tried to, you know, tell him that his father is lost or arrested
or--and then one day he was five years old, he told me that, `Oh, don't try to
lie to me. I know what's happened to my father. So don't worry, I'll be old
and I'll be all that.' And he said he's going to be mujahadeen and fight
against the Russian in order to protect his father, to protect the country.
GROSS: Where does your son live now?
Dr. SAMAR: My son is living in this country.
GROSS: In the United States?
Dr. SAMAR: Yes.
GROSS: And are you grateful that he's out of Afghanistan now?
Dr. SAMAR: I'm grateful that because it's not easy in Afghanistan to be a
single parent and brought somebody up, some child, the way you want. So he
loves to go, and he will go. He's only on a student visa. He's studying in
this country. The last year when the announcement was made he said he's going
because I'm alone and he wants to help me. But I said, `Finish your study and
then go.' We have--my son has a long way to go, so don't rush. He's very
cooperative. He's very nice.
GROSS: Do you know a lot of women in Afghanistan now who don't seem to want
to have more rights, who think that they should be behind the veil and who
think that they should remain in the house and who think that men are much
better and more important and smarter and all the other things than women are?
Dr. SAMAR: Yes, unfortunately, because the literacy rate is very low in the
country. And the majority of the people are illiterate. When you have enough
educated women, you have less violence, you have less problem for the woman
because they know what is their right. In our country, I think 98 percent of
women are illiterate.
GROSS: Have you tried to talk to women who resist women's rights?
Dr. SAMAR: I did try the women's. Yes, they're not really resisting, but
what they say--they say that they're not as strong as I am, or they don't
understand. And very simply, they reply that, `Well, we have to obey the
husband. Otherwise, who's going to feed us? You're a medical doctor, so you
can earn your own money. We are not in that position.'
GROSS: Well, so when a woman says to you, `Well, sure it's easy for you.
You're a doctor. You make a living. How can I be independent? My husband
would cut me off and I wouldn't be able to eat,' what do you say to them?
Dr. SAMAR: Well, I keep trying and pushing them, `OK, let's do and learn this
job.' That's what I do around some projects which give the women some skill
and they can stand on their own feet, especially the individuals. But, of
course, it's very difficult to get the money. You're absolutely depend on
outsider. But we really try on this matter.
GROSS: Now you've been called the Salman Rushdie of Afghanistan. Salman
Rushdie had a fatwa against him. He had a death threat against him. Do you
think your life is in danger? Do you need any protection?
Dr. SAMAR: Yes, the life is in danger. I already have a lot of protection by
some people, but still I have bodyguards and I walk around everywhere with
GROSS: Do you think that the gunmen and bodyguards who are protecting you
support your women's rights work?
Dr. SAMAR: Oh, yes. Yeah. Yes. These are the people who has been working
with me maybe 15 years. And these are the boys that somehow I arranged their
marriages and everything, so it's almost like my sons, my family.
GROSS: You arranged their marriages?
Dr. SAMAR: Yes.
GROSS: Can you tell me a little bit about that, about how you did it?
Dr. SAMAR: Yes. For example, one of these boys has no mother and no father.
He was with us and working. And since '87 he is with me in the hospital. And
then there was another family, another lady who had a daughter and a son, and
her husband was also killed. And this girl was--I proposed and she was happy
to meet this boy, and they are--we just did the marriage and everything. And
now they have childrens, three children and they're happy. And both of them
is really kind of thankful to me that I was able to direct their life. Before
that, he was working here and there, and he had no option. But now he has a
family and he has everything. And he really respect me. He calls me mother.
GROSS: Oh, that's great.
Dr. SAMAR: So this is something that--I mean, it's few people like this that
I really kept since long, long time since. And still if they have some
problem, I'm the judge to solve it. So these are--this is the way that we
GROSS: Well, I wish you very good luck with your work, and with your safety.
And I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Dr. SAMAR: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Dr. Sima Samar is the head of Afghanistan's new human rights
commission. Last week in New York, she received a human rights award from the
Lawyer's Committee for human rights.
Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli on the season premiere of "24." This is
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New season of the TV show "24"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Tonight on Fox the serialized drama, action drama, "24" returns for a second
season. TV critic David Bianculli has been waiting impatiently for the series
to start again, but reports quite happily that it's worth the wait.
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
Last season "24" was the most daring experimental series on network
television. Kiefer Sutherland starred as counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer, a
man assigned to protect a prominent presidential candidate from a planned
assassination. The experimental part was that the entire plot, as well as a
second story line about Jack's wife and daughter being kidnapped, unfolded in
real time. Each hour of the show was an hour in Jack's life with the clock
ticking incessantly. Twenty-four hours and 24 episodes later, Jack's day was
done. The candidate was safe, the traitor in Jack's organization was
uncovered, Jack's daughter was safe, too. But in an amazing and unexpected
cliffhanger, Jack's wife was killed by the traitor at virtually the last
That's what happened last season. What happened this summer when "24" was off
the air was even more significant. Executives at Fox, the network that's
presenting "24," asked the producers to rethink the show's concept. Do it in
three separate eight-hour story lines, maybe, or condense events so that each
show was one hellish day in Jack's life. The producers tried writing one such
script, but fought for the uniqueness of the original concept and finally won.
So now we start the second season. It's a year later and Jack has been
inactive the whole time, too grief-stricken over the murder of his wife to go
back to work. The politician whose life he saved, Senator Palmer, is
President Palmer now. And Jack's daughter, Kim, is estranged from Jack,
keeping him at a distance while starting a new job as a nanny.
As the first new show begins, counting down his 24-hour day beginning at 8 AM,
Palmer learns of a horrifying threat against the United States. Terrorists
are planning to detonate a nuclear device in or above Los Angeles some time
that day. So Palmer reaches out to phone the one person he trusts to handle
that sort of responsibility and pressure. Dennis Haysbert plays President
(Soundbite of "24")
Mr. DENNIS HAYSBERT (As President Palmer): How's it all going, Jack?
Mr. KIEFER SUTHERLAND (As Jack Bauer): It's been difficult, sir.
Mr. HAYSBERT: I'm sure it has. I thought a lot about you this past year.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: Thank you, Mr. President.
Mr. HAYSBERT: Jack, I know this is a bad time, but I need your help.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: Sir, I've been inactive for over a year. I can't see how I'd
be of any help to anyone.
Mr. HAYSBERT: We are in the middle of a grave situation that requires the
attention of all branches of our national security. My advisers are convinced
that you can play an important part in this effort.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: Mr. President, I'm sorry, but I'm in no condition...
Mr. HAYSBERT: Jack, listen to me. I know you suffered a loss. I know it's
hard, but this is not a routine request. Go to CT. Listen to what's
happening then make your decision. Jack, you saved my life. I trust you as
much as I trust anyone. And now I need your help.
Mr. SUTHERLAND: When do they need me?
Mr. HAYSBERT: Now.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Man, I love those kachunks. That's the high-intensity way "24"
switches scenes or goes to a commercial break. Excerpt that for tonight's
show, there are no commercial breaks because there aren't any commercials.
The primary plot is a thrilling one, and Jack's angry and unstable emotional
state makes things even more tense. Before this first hour is over, Jack will
do some things that make Michael Chiklis' rogue cop on "The Shield" look like
a model of restraint. And like the show, he's just getting started.
The parallel plot about Jack's daughter, Kim, though, begins very implausibly
and way too coincidentally. But "24" had its lapses last season, too.
Remember Jack's wife getting amnesia for a few episodes? And it still
delivered the goods. Just as the president has faith in Jack, I have faith in
"24." This show has me hooked. And the first two hours of this season
haven't let me down. Give this show one hour and I'll bet you'll be just as
eager to see the remaining 23.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.