I spent many cold nights in Afghanistan sitting on worn mats in cramped, smoky huts, drinking chai with Afghan and U.S. soldiers. As soldiers often do on quiet nights, we pondered many things, including religion. I was the lone atheist, surrounded by equally convinced Christians and Muslims. There was one thing they all could agree on: that I was going to hell.
Then there was Fayez, one of our Afghan interpreters, who was the most eloquent in explaining the pillars of Islam. One night, I described my faith, that men could do good deeds without interference from God, and my fear that religion caused much of the strife we witnessed daily in Afghanistan. This was met by a chorus of condemnation. Fayez floored everyone by interrupting to say that they all should consider the possibility that I was right. This was a brave thing to do in a country where, even today, people face death for questioning Islam.
Fayez was a soft-spoken teenager who seemed out of place brandishing an AK-47. In our country, he would have been the kid in the high school drama club, too skinny to play sports and too nerdy to get a girlfriend. But in Afghanistan, his intelligence and proficiency in English meant he was on the front lines in war, earning a high salary to support his large family.
To me, Fayez was a ray of hope for the future of Afghanistan. He was intelligent, tolerant and decent to others in all his interactions. Since my return home, I've gotten e-mail updates on Fayez and the rest of my Afghan colleagues.
I recently received an e-mail from another interpreter. He told me that Fayez had been killed in action. The Humvee he was riding in had been hit by a devastating IED. All of the American soldiers on board died instantly. Fayez survived the initial blast. But he was captured by the Taliban, tortured and killed.
News like this, of a friend cut down in the summer of his youth, shakes your faith to the core. That's equally true for a person like me, who holds no religious faith. I find myself hoping that there is a heaven, and that Fayez is enjoying all the rewards promised to the faithful in the Quran.
It would be dishonest to say that, in the shadow of his tragic and cruel death, I'm now a believer in the afterlife. But I can say, if there is such a thing as heaven, Fayez surely belongs there.