A New Book by Scott Carrier

                                                                                                     -  Reiser Perkins
                                                          Perhaps best known for his appearances on NPR and This American Life, Scott Carrier is also the author of two non-fiction books, the first of which, Running After Antelope, is actually about running after antelope, among other things. Like that book, stories from which initially appeared in the pages of Esquire, GQ, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and Mother Jones, Carrier’s latest effort, Prisoner of Zion, is a collection of personal essays. A few days after the 9/11 attacks, Carrier decided to visit Afghanistan, on his own initiative and dollar, triggering this often mind boggling collection of Kerouacian man-on-the-ground reportage, throughout which Carrier’s unique and haunting voice intertwines various narratives that ricochet between the Rocky Mountains, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and beyond.                                                      

“I went to meet the foreign enemy first-hand,” he writes on the book’s website, “as a fellow human being, in order to find out what it’s like in their world. Then I studied the enemy here at home. I looked within my own culture to find the source of our fear of others. Then I turned inward and confronted my own fears. I came to the conclusion that fear itself is the problem and that it’s everywhere—all around us and inside us as well. The stories in this book are an attempt to look at the fear and move toward it rather than away from it.”

a cargo truck in Pakistan, 2002                                                                                                                                   photo by Scott Carrier

A week after 9/11, Carrier applies for a visa to Uzbekistan. His plan is to get into Afghanistan from the north, “like the Soviets.” A couple of weeks before he’s set to leave, he serves a little jail time for taking matters into his own hands after junky neighbors repeatedly harass his wife and children. His bail bondsman asks him why he’s going to Afghanistan, why not let somebody else go. “I don’t trust anyone else,” Scott tells him. “I don’t believe the news.”

A native and lifelong resident of Salt Lake City, a strategic site chosen by Mormon pioneers fleeing violent persecutions, Carrier grew up surrounded by a ring of fortification-like mountains and the pervasive LDS culture. Though not a Mormon himself, it was his familiarity with the modus operandi of true believing friends and neighbors that convinced him he’d be able to communicate effectively with the Taliban. His mindful treatment of LDS culture in all of his work is that of one who is well beyond the need to criticize or ridicule. He writes that some of the most tolerant people he knows are Mormons in good standing. He has a problem with only one of their beliefs: “that Mormons are God’s chosen people and He gave this land to them. This is Zionism, and I’m against it, wherever it occurs, because it’s nothing but a lie used to justify taking land and liberty from other people.”

In Mazar-i-Sharif, Carrier meets nineteen year old Najibullah (Najib), who offers to work as his translator, for free if necessary. Najib’s is one of the more uplifting stories in the book, beginning as it does in wreckage and ending up with Najib being given the chance, with a little help from Carrier, to live out his lifelong dream of getting an education. Though the book is definitely not about how Scott Carrier helps people, he tends to try and do so nonetheless: 

    There are bomb craters in the road - twelve feet wide and six feet deep - and the burned-out shells of Toyota pickups off to the side. The Taliban came through here when they fled Mazar and U.S. planes took out some of them. The driver has to slow down and weave between wreckage, and he starts complaining. He says this was a good road before the Americans bombed it. He wants to know if somebody is going to come and fill in the holes.
    “Yes, for sure,” I say. “We have special machines for doing this, they’re called bulldozers, very big and strong, and we have so many that we don’t know what to do with them.” I make a note in my notebook, a reminder to call the road department upon my return.

three men in Mazar-i-Sharif                                                                                                                                      photo by Scott Carrier

Throughout his travels, Scott maintains the swagger but none of the cultural arrogance of the typical American in a foreign land. He asks people seemingly simple questions like: “What was it like when the US was bombing the city?” and then lets them talk until they’re done. He approaches his subjects not so much with the so-called objectivity of the professional journalist, but with a mind like a blank slate. Of course, he does sometimes travel among and hobnob with reporters from more mainstream media outlets, many of whom are alarmed by Carriers renegade tactics.  

The stories in Prisoner of Zion cover a period of several years, moving back and forth between Carrier’s forays into Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cambodia,Turkey, and Iraq, and his day to day life in Salt Lake City, where he finally succumbs to a job as an assistant professor at a small college. The vast majority of the students at Utah Valley University are LDS, and fairly resistant, at first, to some of Carrier’s humor and teaching methods. He also gives us a barebones but fascinating overview of Mormon history, lingering upon some of the culture’s more notorious “religious wackos,” such as Brian David Mitchell who kidnapped 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart in 2002. His take on the incident and its subsequent trial is the most insightful indictment of the role religion played in Smart’s abduction, and demonstrates how any scripture can be used to justify even the most heinous crime.

“But there are other things you can’t call by name and so you can’t write about them and they don’t go away,” he writes. “They stay inside and you live with them, like shrapnel, your body grows around them.”

Captured Taliban in the Sheberghan prison, November 2001                                                                              photo by Scott Carrier

One such piece of emotional shrapnel afflicted Carrier while he was visiting Qala-i-Jangi, one of many overcrowded prisons in Pakistan where Taliban are being detained. Rumor had it that the general in charge of the area was killing Taliban who surrender and dumping their bodies in mass graves. Carrier interviewed several survivors of a firebombing. The men had been imprisoned with hundreds of others in the basement of Sheberghan prison. Under the general’s orders, the basement had been flooded with gasoline and diesel fuel, then lit on fire. After bombs were dropped down the ventilation shafts, the area was flooded with cold water. Two hundred men died, sixty seven survived and were kept locked up with the dead bodies for days.

“What do you think about America?” Carrier asked one of the survivors, who replied, “It looks like a very nice place in the movies, but will you talk to someone and get us some medical help? My backbone is broken.”

When another prisoner told him that he would go back and fight against America again, even after all he’d been through, Scott was blown away.

It was late in the day and maybe I was tired, but things started spinning when he said this, that they’d do it again, even thought they were wounded and close to death... A few weeks later I flew back to the United States and wrote my story, but I didn’t mention the wounded prisoners or what they had said about being will to do it all over again. This became the shrapnel in my body, and the only way to get rid of it was to go to Pakistan, to Gilgit, and see where those two guys came from.

Which, of course, he does. In Chakdarra, he makes the acquaintance of Haider Ali, a 25 year old member of Al Qaeda, with whom he discusses religion, Jerry Springer, truth, America, the war, and Osama bin Laden. Carrier concludes that while he’d started out thinking that Haider Ali and he weren’t so different, he was wrong. “We come, literally and figuratively, from other sides of the planet.”

In Gilgit, he’s surrounded by tribes from all over central Asia. “Balti and Tibetan nomads, Kashmiri and Hundu Brahmin merchants, Hunza and Wakhi, Hazara and Pashtun.” The hotel owner says he can only stay for a night or two, and that he isn’t safe. Carrier thinks he’s exaggerating until he goes for a walk and notices the way young Pashtun men are looking at him. He’s looking for the families of the two Taliban prisoners he interviewed the previous fall, though he’s no longer quite sure what he wants to ask them. With ten days to go before his plane leaves Islamabad, he decides to forego his plan and go on a road trip through the mountains. His new plan is roughly “to stay up high and keep moving.”

The upper Gilgit River, Northern Pakistan, summer 2002                                                                                       photo by Scott Carrier

It’s refreshing to follow a narrative that doesn’t adhere to the strict formula it has laid out for itself. Most nonfiction books that are published nowadays start out as detailed outlines attached to query letters to agents. It is, of course, assumed that the resulting manuscript shall never deviate from this holy outline. Writers are supposed to know better than to stray from the track they themselves have so painstakingly laid. It is far most interesting, however, not to mention believable, to see what happens when a writer follows a wild hare down a rabbit hole. 

We’re in Cambodia, where Carrier is reporting on human trafficking. At first it seems a little harder to fit this tale in with everything else, until he explains the lack of a visible military presence in Burma:

It wasn’t necessary. The people controlled themselves. Even tourists were not immune. If you were in Burma, you were a prisoner among prisoners, each with his or her own cell. The effect was a deadening of desire, a flat-lining of curiosity and humor, and loneliness hung in the air, heavy as the smog cloud that covers all of Asia.

Carrier, with his knack of universalizing the personal, turns the same powers of observation and insight on his own life. Challenges and breakthroughs as a teacher, girlfriend troubles, buying a house... Carrier takes no prisoners in his writing, not even himself.

Carrier also writes about trying to write about John Gunnison, who was massacred in central Utah in 1853, some say by Mormons dressed as Indians. The massacre is thought to have been retribution for Gunnison’s history of the Mormon people in which he calls them “an unfortunate mistake” and labels their prophet and founder a “con man.”


The reason I was trying to write about John Gunnison had to do with his advice on dealing with the “Mormon problem.” In the early 1850’s, nearly everyone in the country was worried about the Mormons and how they were building a God/Kingdom in the middle of the western territories. And also they were polygamists. Gunnison, who’d lived among the Mormons and studied the history, said the best policy was to “leave them severely alone,” as persecution would only make them stronger.

Carrier, of course, is not the first person to make the argument that using force against our enemies serves only to empower them, but he makes it more persuasively than most. He does this not so much by calling attention to the “enemy” on the other side of the world, or even to those here at home, though he does an eloquent job of both. The most bone chilling moments in Prisoner of Zion are those in which he pulls back the veil and shows us the most pernicious enemy of all, the one within.

Scott Carrier at home                                                                                                                                                         photo by Mark Johnston

Scott Carrier graciously agreed to answer a few clumsily put and rather random questions for Otis.

Do you consider yourself a regional writer?
I do consider myself to be a regional writer. I try to dig my heels down into this place, right here. I go to so many places, or I used to go to so many places, that I need to know where I'm from or I'd feel lost.

What does it even mean these days to be a regional writer?
I think being a regional writer means you sound like the place where you are from.

Talk to us a little about what is happening in the publishing world, will you?
As for publishing, I'm looking for a publisher. I put the book out as an ebook because I thought it was done and that it should come out on the anniversary of 9/11. I've taken it off the ebook circuit now because it wasn't really selling and I need to find a real publisher. And as for the future of publishing, I don't really know. I'm sorry, but I have very little experience, having written only one other book, Running After Antelope.  I've heard that it's hard for everyone in publishing these days. But my brief entry into ebooks was not really encouraging either.

We’ve noticed that you’ve reported a little on the occupy movement. What most interests you about it?
I was interested in the occupy movement because it seemed like the mainstream media was missing important parts of the story, or rather they just weren't getting it. The mainstream media speaks for the one percent, so it's kind of hard for them to see what's happening. It's not that they are biased, more like they are blind.

How would you say the movement here compares to what is happening in the Middle East?

I haven't really been to the Middle East so much, just Jerusalem for ten days in 2007.  It was so disturbing that I couldn't write about it. Nobody, at least in this country, can write about it. Those other countries I've been to, well I doubt there's anybody there following my work. But if I had to say something to the young people in far off places, it would be "party on dude, and be excellent to one another" (from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure).

Prisoner of Zion is now available in a special limited edition from Ken Sander’s Rare Books.