Comic Outrage—The Real Saga of the Afghan Interpreter John Oliver Hailed on HBO

By Glen Martin

Like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, John Oliver has made a career of deconstructing the news into its absurdist bits and serving it back up as a steaming hash liberally sauced with irony and outrage. Plus, because his Sunday show, “Last Week Tonight,” is broadcast on HBO, he gets to say the “F word” a lot.

Certainly, he was in top form in last night’s show, which featured Mohammad, a remarkable man whom CALIFORNIA Online profiled earlier this year. Mohammad (who uses only his first name out of concern for his family’s safety) worked as an interpreter for U.S. Marines fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Specifically, he served in a platoon commanded by Captain Adrian Kinsella, now a law student at UC Berkeley.

The platoon dubbed Mohammad “Yoda” for his general wisdom and almost preternatural intimations of danger both imminent and potential. “He was the guy who looked behind the curtain for us, who told us what was really going on,” Kinsella said.  Mohammed, he continued, saved American – and Afghan – lives. It was that simple.

Oliver echoed that sentiment. After running a clip of an Afghan interpreter named Srosh translating a village elder’s comments on the likely location of improvised explosive devices, Oliver observed, “…You see, that’s a good message to get exactly right. You don’t want someone saying, ‘Oh, to be honest, my Pashto’s a little shaky, but there’s either an IED or an IKEA behind those rocks somewhere…”

Mohammad has abundant reasons to be disenchanted with the Taliban. His father was tortured and murdered by Islamist militants, and his three-year-old brother was kidnapped and held for ransom by insurgents. Mohammad has said he had to pay $35,000—his entire life savings—to secure the release of the child. The family subsequently went into hiding, and Mohammad applied for visas for both himself and his surviving family members.

Kinsella and his fellow Marines did their utmost to secure a visa for Mohammad, and their work finally paid off—after 3 1/2 years. Their efforts to secure visas for his family have been unsuccessful. That weighs heavily on Mohammad; you could see the stress and worry on his face during Oliver’s show. Nor is Mohammad’s experience the exception. Most Afghan interpreters applying for visas remain adrift in a No Man’s Land of governmental red tape and indifference.

Oliver, for his part, expressed deep anger—and for once, it seemed genuine, unalloyed with black humor.

“Ask any veteran and they will tell you translators risk their own lives working for us,” Oliver said, “and because they did that, they are permanent targets for insurgents.”

Oliver also railed at the foot-dragging, butt-covering and general bureaucratic incompetence that marked Mohammad’s entry to the United States. When the interpreter finally did receive his visa, Oliver noted, his first name was officially listed on all official documents as FNU –an acronym for First Name Unknown.

“..And FNU,” Oliver said, “is Fnot a Fnucking Fname…”

Oliver capped his tirade by noting there has been at least one exception to the long wait most aspiring evacuees endure for their visas. In this case, the individual was processed with alacrity, but Oliver is not happy about it. Why? He (the evacuee) is an ass. Literally.

Oliver showed a clip about Smoke the Donkey, an equine that wandered onto an American military base in 2008 and was adopted by some Marines. Smoke began his document processing in 2010, and he was Stateside eight months later.

“You know who else started his application in 2010?” Oliver rhetorically posited. “Mohammad. It took Smoke the Donkey eight months to get to America. It took Mohammad nearly three-and-a-half years. F—k you, Smoke!”

Read more about Berkeley’s bond with Mohammad here.

Filed under: Arts + Letters
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