NEW AMERICANS - How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent (2015)

How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent (2015)



I always thought of myself as a fairly typical modern American kid—tech-savvy, a bit of a smart-ass, and thoroughly multicultural. Take one look at my olive complexion. That’s the future face of America, not the goofy grin of Beaver Cleaver or Richie Cunningham. I was born here, though my mom and dad were not. They arrived as immigrants from deeply chaotic places. They didn’t come to New York to toil in sweatshops or stand by pushcarts on the Lower East Side, like generations of immigrants before them. They came for graduate school, my mother from France, my father from Pakistan. They met at a party near Columbia University in 1968, just as the administration building was being occupied by student protestors, including one young man in a very cool pair of sunglasses who plopped himself in President Grayson Kirk’s leather chair and fired up an oversize cigar. There’s a famous photograph of that. I totally get where that guy was coming from. He took something that started out serious and turned it into unexpected fun.

My ancestors always had a nose for action, wherever history dropped them. The French Revolution, the partition of India, the march of science—if the world was tumbling into fresh upheaval, chances are I had relatives there. Notably, my great-great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side, Jean-Antoine Chaptal, was a world-renowned chemist credited with coining the term nitrogène (look him up on Wikipedia). Just as important as the nitrogen—maybe more so to his wine-loving countrymen—he developed a process for adding sugar to unfermented wine, which miraculously boosted the alcohol content. French oenophiles turned up their noses. There were actual demonstrations in the streets. The purists complained that the extra kick would only encourage the peasants to get drunker on the cheap stuff. But the results proved highly popular in France’s lesser wine regions. The process is still called chaptalization, after my arrière-­arrière-arrière-grand-père.

À la vôtre!

Chaptal went on to found Paris Hospital. He reorganized the French loan system. Under the first emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, Chaptal was treasurer of the French Senate. He died in Paris in 1832 and was buried with his wife, Rose, in Père Lachaise Cemetery, which most Americans had never heard of until the Doors singer Jim Morrison died of an overdose and joined him there. Today Jean-Antoine’s name is inscribed on the steps of the Eiffel Tower. In light of such achievements, the rest of us were destined to seem like slackers for generations to come.

Bernard Chaptal, my mother’s father, was quite an adventurer. He worked in Argentina as a gaucho, traveled the world, returned to France, and married a Russian Jewish girl named Alice Feldzer just in time for World War II. He joined the French army and fought the Nazis valiantly. When the German blitzkrieg outflanked the Maginot Line in the spring of 1940, my grandfather escaped to Switzerland, where he spent two years in a prisoner-of-war camp. His mother-in-law and her twin sister were killed in the Holocaust.

My mother’s first name is Claude, which, in France, isn’t just a boy’s name. She was born in 1943. She, her brother, and two sisters adjusted as well as they could to the postwar shortages, though their mother was a legendarily awful cook. “She can hardly make toast, even when there is bread on the store shelves,” her children liked to tease.

My mom was a bright, creative girl. Like her father, she had a strong independent streak. She was torn between her passion for the arts and her love for science. She graduated from the Faculté de Médecine in Paris, then moved to New York to pursue a post­baccalaureate art degree at Columbia. At a grad-student party on a rare night out, she met a doctoral student of philosophy, attending New York University on a Fulbright scholarship. He had a deadpan sense of humor. He was a year older than she was. His name was Naseem Zia Jamali. He was also new to New York.

The Jamali family went as far back into the history of India as the Chaptals did in France—probably farther, though the details were not so intricately recorded. My father’s father, whose name was Zia, was a young Muslim physician in Delhi with a wife named Zora and seven little children. In 1947, when my father was five, the British divided India in two, carving out Pakistan for the Muslims and leaving the rest of the country to the majority Hindus. The young Jamali family left Delhi for Lahore and then the humid river city of Hyderabad.

The partition of India was a bloody and bitter affair, for most people, anyway. Ghost trains of massacred Muslims arrived each day in Karachi, Pakistan, as ghost trains of massacred Hindus arrived in Delhi and Bombay. When I asked my father one day how his family managed to survive the ghost trains, he answered with his usual ironic shrug. “We flew,” he said. “It was lovely.”

My father was educated the way affluent Pakistanis were—in a British-style private school where the students memorized long passages from the classics and wore neatly pressed uniforms. After graduating from college, he won the President of Pakistan merit scholarship to graduate school at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

He hated Scotland. It wasn’t just the damp, chilly weather or the bland Scottish food. The whole place felt old and unwelcoming. When he tried to rent an apartment, he was told, “Sorry, it’s already rented. I have nothing for you.”

But soon my father’s luck began to change. He won the Fulbright scholarship from the U.S. State Department and moved to New York. He entered the doctoral program at New York University, rented a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village, and began to inhale the openness and freedom and turbulence of the late 1960s. He experienced the pleasure of meeting other smart young people from around the world, including a dark-haired French woman named Claude.

Despite—or because of—the pair’s very different backgrounds, sparks flew immediately, the good kind. He was the self-deprecating philosopher-intellectual. She was the art-school graduate discovering the firmer truths of science. Both of them felt like they’d finally arrived where they belonged. They moved in together, then married, but didn’t rush to start a family. Their big-eyed, long-lashed son, Naveed Alexis Jamali, was born February 20, 1976, a post-Vietnam, post-­Watergate, bicentennial baby arriving at a moment of relative cultural calm and patriotism. Naveed means “bearer of good wishes” in Arabic, the “ee” being the Pakistani spelling, not the Persian “i.” My parents spoke En­glish and French at home. I learned both as only a toddler can, weaving them together in totally haphazard ways. Other than a few simple words, I never learned to speak my father’s Urdu. My mother swears my first word was auto, which is the same in all three languages and, I am convinced, was the earliest appearance of my lifelong passion for cars.

My mom had already decided that medical school wasn’t for her. She was working as a researcher at Rockefeller University. My dad, with his fresh NYU PhD, was adjunct-teaching philosophy courses at NYU and Adelphi Universities, and traveled to NYPD stationhouses in all five boroughs to teach ethics and philosophy courses to police officers. The cops, he found, enjoyed what they thought of as the Sherlock Holmes side of police work. “Many of these guys,” he liked to say of his students in blue, “if they hadn’t become cops, you know they’d have ended up as criminals. They have a foot on either side of the law.” My father never had much of a filter between his mouth and his brain.

I was a child of the city and a child of the world. Our two-bedroom apartment on West 112th Street was just down the block from Columbia and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. My parents took me in my little stroller to the parks in the neighborhood, Central, Morningside, and Riverside. Each summer, we visited the relatives in France and Pakistan. At three, I attended the Columbia Greenhouse Nursery School on West 116th Street, one of the oldest in America, then went on to pre-K a few blocks south at the progressive Bank Street School for Children. I moved again for kindergarten, this time to the Calhoun School on West End Avenue. These were all top schools with excellent reputations. Like me, the other children came from educated families with roots around the world. My closest friend at Calhoun was a Japanese boy named Jason, whose father was a ballet instructor. Life was innocent and fun. “I like school,” I remember saying to my mom midway through kindergarten. “I’m going back tomorrow.”

But that was a tough time in New York. Crime was rising. Graffiti was everywhere. Crack cocaine hadn’t hit our neighborhood yet, but heroin definitely had. Suddenly, the tiny apartments and crowded subways felt dangerous, confining, and cramped. Coincidentally, my mother had been studying that phenomenon in her Rockefeller University lab. When I went to see her at work one day, she described her research to me. They were studying brain development using rats. This was accomplished by injecting the rats with radioactive hormones and then examining their brains to see what paths the isotopes had traveled. When I asked what happened to the rats, I learned that the experiment was good for science but not so much for the rats. Then, so the researchers could study their brains, the rats had their heads chopped off.

“You chop their heads off?” I asked my mother, excited at the drama of it but also slightly alarmed. I’d never seen a beheading on the 1 train, even in the gritty 110th Street station.

She assured me that the rules of science required it.

My parents got spooked when the super’s son was found dead in front of our apartment building. That wasn’t their idea of the Great American Dream. Abruptly, we exchanged city life for the sprawling lawns and strong public schools of New York’s northern suburbs. Our new town, Hastings-on-Hudson, wasn’t exactly a bedroom community for Wall Street. Hastings was a history-minded river town that attracted people like my parents, academic and professional types who had considered themselves city people until the first or second child came along.

That corner of Westchester County felt right to my upwardly mobile, immigrant parents. But as the crickets chirped monotonously and the stars twinkled across the broad Westchester sky, all I could think was: What kind of fun am I ever going to find up here?

I was five years old.

We had a two-family house on leafy Cochrane Avenue. Shortly before my brother, Emmanuel, arrived, we traded up to a turn-of-the-century two-story expanded colonial on the same block. My parents yanked off the white aluminum siding, installed a deck, upgraded the landscaping, tore up the driveway, built a rock garden, and turned the detached garage into a furnished studio. Actually, my mother did all that work herself, including jackhammering the driveway and removing the special garage extension installed by the previous owner to accommodate his 1962 Cadillac fins.

* * *

Moving to the suburbs was startling for me. I wasn’t the one who found the city oppressive. To me, it was an all-you-can-eat buffet of discovery, diversion, and delight. I never had trouble sleeping amid the noise of grinding garbage trucks and honking taxi horns. The nights were too quiet in Hastings-on-Hudson—what kind of name was that, anyway?—and at first I felt out of place at Hillside Elementary School on Lefurgy Avenue. Most of the other kids had started together in kindergarten. I was a year late for the in crowd, and I didn’t look like any of them. I promise you, there weren’t too many French-Pakistani children in the lunchroom or the schoolyard. There was one black girl in my whole grade. She and I were the diversity. And she had the benefit of an easy-to-pronounce name. I had to repeat mine two or three times before the other children could get it right. I toyed with the idea of calling myself “N.J.” or “Alex,” shortening my middle name. But I couldn’t get either of those to stick. I just knew that at the card-and-gift shop on Main Street, the novelty rack of mini-license plates went from Nancy straight to Norman, completely skipping Naveed.

Our first-grade teacher, Mrs. Wassenberg, was explaining to the class about Christopher Columbus and the people he met when he landed in America. She mentioned something about Indians. I raised my hand. “Like my father?” I asked.

“No,” Mrs. Wassenberg shot back. “Your father is a different kind of Indian!” I didn’t think she meant it as a compliment.

But as the school year rolled on, I gradually found my place in this strange new environment. Our school was small. We had fewer than one hundred children in each grade. One by one, we all got to know each other and found little places for ourselves.

It turned out I was funny, and funny was good. I liked to tell jokes. I knew how to make the other children laugh. I could mimic the teachers, and even some of the teachers seemed to get a kick out of that. I decided I was the official class clown. For me, making fun of myself became a survival skill. People went from laughing at me to laughing with me. I made easy friends, including some of the popular kids. By the middle of first grade, I realized how much I wanted to be part of the club. Being on the outside, I decided, really sucked.

Too bad my social prowess wasn’t being matched academically. As adept as I was at making people like me, that was how poorly I performed on my homework assignments and tests. I began to depend on my humor for more than making playground friends. I realized that as long as I was making people laugh, they weren’t getting mad at me. If they weren’t getting mad at me, I could get away with stuff.

“So, Naveed,” my teacher asked in class one day, “where’s your homework?”

“I could tell you a lie,” I answered, “but I have too much respect for you to do that.”

I could see she wasn’t angry, amused by my attempt at a grown-up excuse. “Go sit down! Bring it in tomorrow!”

To me, my youthful schmoozing seemed a whole lot easier than doing the work. I think the teachers also admired the fact that the French-Pakistani boy could use a Yiddish word like schmooze.

I always liked to read. From Thomas the Tank Engine to Gulliver’s Travels to Huckleberry Finn, I loved stories of adventure in exotic locales. But when it came to studying, I had a difficult time buckling down. My teachers seemed to think I was bright enough. They’d met my parents and watched me work the room. But on a math assignment, I might do the first four equations, no problem at all, and then the fifth question would be a hard one, and I would tell myself, “I’ll come back to that later.” And I never would.

I’d forget to do my homework. Or I would do it—poorly—five minutes before class. Or I’d study hard and do awesome on one test, then wouldn’t study at all and would bomb the next three. As much as I liked to read, I never learned to sit down and focus on my schoolwork. The whole concept of self-discipline was like the Urdu that my father could speak fluently but I never learned at home. I just thought, Why bother? “You’re so bright,” my teachers often said. “Why don’t you apply yourself?” They knew I wasn’t trying. I was the kid in the back of the classroom, making stupid faces and passing folded-paper notes.

Given my parents’ backgrounds, you’d think they would have been appalled, and I suppose they were. They were high academic achievers, upwardly mobile first-generation immigrants. They’d shown the drive and the focus to move halfway around the world and make successful lives for themselves. They both worked incredibly hard. I remember seeing them rush off at seven-thirty a.m. while I was chomping down my Wonder bread with Nutella and Sunkist soda and telling myself, “I don’t really have to do that homework!”

But as driven as my parents were, they were also steeped in the attitudes of the era, the belief that children should be given the freedom to find their own paths. “He’ll figure it out eventually—or he won’t,” my father said, sighing.

* * *

By then, my parents had gone into business for themselves. “Why work for other people when you can be your own boss?” my father said at dinner one night. He’d been teaching his college students and police recruits. My mom had been toiling away in the Rockefeller lab. It was anyone’s guess how many rats she’d decapitated. There was no denying that they always worked hard. But they both, I think, felt a little stuck where they were.

Books & Research, their new company was called. It wasn’t that big a leap from their lives in academia. Both my parents were excellent at researching obscure topics. What is graduate school if not a training ground for that? Now, instead of assembling data for their professors and exam committees, they were doing it for paying customers. They were Google for a pre-Google age, delivering articles, reports, and technical data to businesses and government agencies in the United States. and abroad. The Internal Revenue Service might need a thousand training manuals. The state of Arizona would call for sample environmental regs. Or it might be the research librarian at an army base in Florida, asking about a journal article no one could seem to find. Somewhere between a full-fledged bookstore and a staff of graduate research assistants, my parents’ fledgling business found a profitable niche.

While they were busy at the office and I wasn’t busy at school, I turned my imagination to cars, soldiers, and planes. I had Hot Wheels and G.I. Joes and models from the hobby shop in Dobbs Ferry. Hasbro came out with the G.I. Joe Skystriker XP-14F, a just-to-scale fighter jet that looked an awful lot like the navy’s F-14 Tomcat fighter jet. I knew this because I read about the real ones in the World Book Encyclopedia. I got two Skystrikers. I would turn our living room couch into a make-do aircraft carrier with constant takeoffs and landings. I had a picture book called Sails, Rails and Wings, by a cartoonist from MAD magazine. I knew every little scribble of the ships, trains, and planes in there. I’d copy the illustrations on tracing paper, then fill in the pictures using my sixty-four-box of Crayolas.

I was ten when the space shuttle Challenger blew up seventy-three seconds after takeoff and the book Flight of the Intruder came out. I was fascinated by both of them. I could imagine Christa McAuliffe being my social-studies teacher. I knew she wouldn’t yell at me if I skipped an occasional assignment. And I couldn’t get enough of Stephen Coonts’s novel about a team of navy aviators and their two-man all-weather A-6 Intruder fighter jets. Those fliers hooked me on the Vietnam War. I could definitely see myself with Morg, Tiger, and Jake “Cool Hand” Grafton, gunning for “Gomers” in the north and grumbling about the navy’s stupid rules of engagement. The Tom Cruise movie Top Gun had recently hit theaters. Goose and Maverick, Cougar and Charlie—they had the same easy camaraderie and perfect flier nicknames. And look at the toys they got to play with! F-14A Tomcats flying off the carrier U.S.S. Enterprise and engaging in dogfights with the bad-guy Soviets. I went to Regal Cinema in Yonkers the weekend the movie opened. Then I saw it three more times.

What can I say? Some kids love fire trucks. Others love baseball cards. I liked war stories and military gear. I built soldier dioramas. I had a gray pseudo-flight jacket. On a trip with my parents to an army/navy store in the city, I bought pilot patches, flight wings, and a Jolly Roger skull-and-crossbones VF-84. With a joystick and a keyboard, I played intricate combat flight-simulator video games. This was dorky stuff, my guilty pleasure while other kids were out playing soccer and basketball.

It was all a little unusual in Hastings, where most of the parents were extremely liberal and war was right at the top of the Do Not Glorify list. A lot of my friends weren’t even allowed to have toy guns. That might have been one of the reasons kids liked coming over to my house. The few kids in our school who were interested in the military were the ones from the wrong side of the tracks. Their dads drove trucks for the Public Works Department or worked as prison guards. For the new families moving into Hastings, the military was something other people did. The Vietnam War draft was long over. No one’s older brother was enlisting. This was the 1980s. Parents were already decrying the negative social influence of violent video games.

I don’t know exactly where my interest came from. Maybe it was the books I’d been reading since I was little. Maybe it was hearing stories about my French grandfather in the war. It certainly didn’t come from my parents, who were born in war-torn countries and saw nothing romantic about war. Maybe I wanted to have something—some interest, some passion, some expertise—that made me stand apart from the other children and feel special somehow.

I didn’t stress out over elementary schoolwork. I rarely did any. The last thing I was concerned with was grades. But just as I was stinking up my eighth-grade report card with another mess of Bs and Cs, my parents decided they’d had about enough of me screwing off in class. “It’s time for you to clean up your act,” my father told me in an unexpected burst of hard-assery.

The dreaded solution? Private school. More precisely, the Hackley School of Tarrytown, New York, a chichi prep school founded in 1899 by the philanthropist Mrs. Caleb Brewster Hackley. I got a keen sense of the soul of Hackley on my first day of classes, when I glanced across the student parking lot. It was filled with shiny new Porsches, BMWs, and Nissan 300Zs, a sporty number that had come out the year before. Suddenly, the Hastings-on-Hudson public schools seemed a little like Boyz N the Hood.

As I always had, I did my best to find a crowd to connect with, and it wasn’t the A-students. I joined the football team, playing halfback and safety. Hackley wasn’t exactly a gridiron powerhouse, and I made the varsity squad sophomore year. But somehow, my jokes didn’t seem quite as funny at Hackley, and nothing about the private-school experience improved my grades. At the end of sophomore year, the Hackley headmaster politely but firmly suggested: “We really think you’d be happier back in public school.” And my parents seemed to agree. They didn’t see much reason to pay private-school tuition if I still wasn’t ready to apply myself.

I felt like I’d been sprung from Leavenworth.