On March 11, 1999, as Haji Rahimi and five members of his Afghan family listened to BBC News on the radio in the living room of their house in Peshawar, Pakistan, five armed masked men burst in. They ordered the Rahimis to turn to the wall and be silent. Mumtaz Rahimi, then 11, closed the eyes of her little nephew, only to witness one of the men beat Haji, her father, with the butt of a gun.
A second gunman shot Haji's oldest son, a 37-year-old university lecturer, three times in the neck. The men left, declaring that they had taught Haji a lesson for writing anti-Islamist tracts. Haji was an executive member of the Council for Understanding and National Unity of Afghanistan, a group of intellectuals advocating for a peaceful solution to the civil war raging in their homeland.
Haji's enraged second-oldest son ran after his brother's killers, only to be shot through the heart by one of the gunmen.
"Our house was filled with the smoke of gunfire, which looked like dark clouds hanging in the air," Haji later wrote in an affidavit.
The youngest Rahimi sons, Nazir and Nisar, were playing video games in a nearby market when they heard the shots. They came running home, where 17-year-old Nazir found one brother lying in the hallway and his oldest brother shot in the living room.
Nazir ran from house to house, begging neighbors for help to get his brothers to the hospital. Someone brought a pickup and Nazir and others got the two men into the truck. They were both pronounced dead at the hospital.
In the aftermath of the attack, the family was plagued by phone calls threatening Nazir, the oldest surviving Rahimi boy. Haji sent Nazir to Germany to be with relatives.
After a year of waiting, Haji Rahimi, his wife, three daughters, son Nisar, the two widows of their eldest sons and their children were granted political asylum in the United States in 2000. They flew into Chicago, and from there to Utah, where they settled. Haji, now 79, says the mountains and the climate reminded him of Kabul.
In comparison to the lack of freedom in Pakistan, Nisar says, "This place was heaven, I couldn't be more happy. There were times I used to sit and thank God for taking us out of that dirty country."
But while the Rahimis thought they'd left violence behind them, the very cultural values that Haji had advocated against in Pakistan were waiting for them in Utah. Nazir's relationship with Nargis Mullahkhel—an Afghan single mother in the middle of a divorce, at odds with her family's strict cultural values—led to friction, then violence between the two families, and ultimately to the death of Nargis' 19-year-old brother and Nazir spending five years in prison for his killing.
Although the police who investigated the killing never got to the bottom of exactly how and why it happened, the Rahimi family's story and court documents suggest that at the heart of the tragedy lies not only a clash between modern and traditional Islam, but also the struggle of immigrant families to both assimilate within American society and retain their cultural identities, even if those identities may sometimes chafe with American cultural values and laws.
The Mullahkhel family cast Nazir Rahimi as a "ruthless murdering thug" in court, but the Rahimis say that the Mullahkhels had subjected the Rahimis to a campaign of harassment and violence fueled, in part, by rage at Nazir for violating their cultural mores. The Mullahkhels, Nazir told an immigration-court judge, are "traditional Muslim people" who viewed a man dating their daughter outside of marriage as violating the family's honor.
Nazir, 32, faces deportation to Afghanistan and fears that the Mullahkhels will come after him if his appeal to the U.S. government fails. "They want to get revenge and kill me because my sentence wasn't enough for them," he told the immigration judge. "They want to get their revenge in Afghanistan blood, like a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye."
Imam Muhammed S. Mehtar at the Khadeeja mosque in West Valley City says that both families "are important to us. We want to see good for their future." But, he says, "it saddens us that people come to America and take the law into their own hands as if living in a place other than America. As if we are back home."
It's important, he says, that those who come to America create a blend of their cultures and assimilate where they can. He acknowledges that the pain of bereavement for members of the Mullahkhel family is "severe," but, he says, "If we don't examine the cause of that killing"—or any incident of violence—"then we will be getting continual vengeance on both sides."
The Rahimi family has never spoken publicly about the relationship between Nazir and Nargis or the killing of Nargis' brother Farhad. But with Nazir facing, if he is deported, what they say is certain death in Afghanistan—either at the hands of the Taliban or people connected to the Mullahkhels—Nazir and several members of his family shared their stories with City Weekly.
The Mullahkhels declined to comment. On behalf of the family, a man who declined to give his name said the Mullahkhels preferred to "leave it to God."
Farhad's sister Bilquis Mullahkhel spoke at Nazir's April 5, 2011, parole-board hearing. She told Nazir that the gates of heaven "will not be open to you in this life or the hereafter. This life is not eternal; you may not pay the penalty in this life, but I promise you, you will in the hereafter."
Nazir quietly replied at the hearing that in one sense he agreed. "The United States was a heaven to me. And the United States door is already closed to me. She's right about that. The door of heaven is closed for me."
THIS IS AMERICA
It's a tradition for members of the Afghan community to welcome new refugees when they arrive. Muhammed Mullahkhel, who has lived in Utah since the early 1970s and owns a convenience store in downtown Salt Lake City, visited the Rahimis shortly after they arrived, bringing them the Afghan treat of sugared walnuts.
Haji Rahimi recalls that when he first got to know Muhammed Mullahkhel—known as Omar—Mullahkhel's wife was in Afghanistan, having taken their two teenage daughters—14-year-old Bilquis and 16-year-old Nargis—to marry older men.
Court documents also note that Bilquis was "required to marry an older man at age 14 for cultural reasons."
The two girls, Nazir says, had been "hanging out with guys at high school, dishonoring their family." The Mullahkhels believed, he says, that by bringing them home pregnant, their husbands to follow later, they would get "their honor back, and at the same time the Afghan community [in Utah would] become bigger."
While Omar and Haji Rahimi were friends, Haji didn't agree with the decision to marry the children off. "To me, it's not correct; we cannot force our children to marry someone," he says. "We want them to have their freedom, choose the way they want to live their life. We can guide them, not force them."
Still, the parents of the two families became close, especially the mothers. The Rahimis desperately wanted to bring Nazir over from Germany, and Omar, Haji says, was one of two members of the Utah Afghan community who provided witnessing signatures for the paperwork.
"My mom fasted for 40 days praying to Allah to bring her son back," Nazir says.
Nazir quickly adjusted to life in the States after his arrival in 2001. All the 19-year-old liked to do "was work, spend money on girls and mind his own business," his brother Nisar says. Both young men spent hours every day working out at the gym. "We want to impress the girls," Nisar says.
Nazir says he met Nargis at Green Street Social Club on New Year's Eve in 2006 and that both Nargis and Bilquis called him the next day to say that Nargis liked him and wanted to date. It was only later, he says, that he realized they were the children of his parents' friends the Mullahkhels. He knew that her family was traditional Muslim, but his family, he believed, would have no problem with them seeing each other. "This is America," he says. "I do what I want to do."
The men who had married Bilquis and Nargis in Afghanistan petitioned them for divorce in 2004 and 2006, respectively. Divorce put the sisters at the center of sometimes-violent family disputes and led to the sisters being "shunned" as outcasts from their family and even assaulted by relatives "due to cultural and religious beliefs," according to a West Valley City Police report.
Nazir's sister Breshna Rahimi had met Nargis and Bilquis at a baby shower. Bilquis "was beat up really bad," Breshna later told a Utah immigration-court judge. Breshna recalled that Bilquis told her, "I got beat up by my brothers because I was dating another guy."
City Weekly accessed 33 police reports through a record request to West Valley City Police Department that reveal family members at war with one another, particularly in the aftermath of the sisters' divorces. The reports include complaints of assaults and violent threats mixed with allegations of made-up reports and fake texts.
"This is a Muslim household," middle son Ajmal Mullahkhel told a West Valley City Police officer in reference to Bilquis' relationships with several men, "and if she did these things in Afghanistan where we're from, she'd be killed." Bilquis responded, "We're not in Afghanistan."
But for all the fraught emotions within the Mullahkhel clan, it was the on-again, off-again relationship between Nargis and Nazir that sparked a feud between the two families that "escalated to a point that resulted in an absolute tragedy," as Utah Board of Pardons and Parole member Jesse Gallegos would later tell the two families.
The couple went on trips to San Francisco and Las Vegas, and Nazir, Nargis and her two children eventually moved in together. They loved each other at first, but then, Nazir says, it devolved into simply "a sexual thing." He says he paid $4,000 for Nargis to get breast implants. "If you look good, I look good," he says he told her.
Neither Omar nor his oldest son, Abdul, was happy with Nargis dating Nazir, Nazir's sister Mumtaz Rahimi says. "In the Afghan community, a lot of people talk bad about a family if the daughter is dating and not married," she says. "'Why is your daughter with Nazir? They're not even married.'"
Haji Rahimi says that as soon as he became aware that Nazir was dating Nargis, he told him to stop—not because he necessarily objected to the relationship, but because he knew it would cause trouble with the other family. "If somebody is dating an Afghan, they have to be engaged, they have a party to announce the engagement."
The couple repeatedly broke up, then got back together as the intense family politics of the Mullahkhels spilled over into Nazir and Nargis' personal dramas. Several Rahimi children filed police reports of threats and violence from the Mullahkhel children. Nargis would later say she was a victim of domestic violence by Nazir.
Nazir's brother Nisar recalls a phone call from middle Mullahkhel brother Ajmal, who said, "You don't know who you are messing with. I got a 9mm in my car." Nisar says he didn't understand what Ajmal was referring to at the time, so he laughed and said he had a 10mm. Several months later at a downtown club, Nisar got into a fight with Ajmal and Farhad Mullahkhel that had to be separated by bouncers.
The Rahimis say that they complained to Murray and Salt Lake City Police Departments about harassment, damage to their cars, and violence from members of the Mullahkhel family. But, says Murray Police Department Officer Kenny Bass, the detective in charge of the investigation into Farhad's death, "there was nothing in their history that led us to believe an incident like [the street fight and stabbing] would have occurred." That history includes what he terms as "a slightly physical confrontation" at a Muslim festival in Sandy.
On Oct. 13, 2007, members of the Rahimi and Mullahkhel families separately attended the culmination of the three-day Eid-al-fitr, an annual Muslim celebration to mark the ending of Ramadan, held at Sandy's South Towne Exposition Center. As Breshna and Mumtaz were edging their way out of the crowded parking lot, they passed Abdul Mullahkhel's wife, Marzia, who, the Rahimis say, insulted them. Mumtaz says she snapped back an insult, then saw Abdul running toward them. She says she rolled up the window, only for Abdul to punch the passenger window several times until it broke, showering her with glass.
"At that moment, I thought I was back in Pakistan, where guys can hit women and women can't do anything about it," says Mumtaz, who subsequently went to the hospital.
After the incident, Haji Rahimi says, Omar Mullahkhel and his wife came to the Rahimis' house to apologize, bringing gifts of walnuts and shortbread.
"That is why I really respected him, because they came to our house," Haji says. "To me, he is not the person who did that; the son did it. He told us 'sorry.' To us, if somebody says 'sorry,' it wasn't his fault."
One night in late March 2008, Nisar Rahimi says, he answered the door to find Bilquis' ex-boyfriend Ali Munder Al-Rekabi, an Iraqi refugee of the Gulf War.
Nisar says that Al-Rekabi told him that he had received a call while he was in jail from several of the Mullahkhel children, offering him $15,000 to kill Nisar and $10,000 to break Nazir's teeth—the intention being to make Nazir suffer. Nisar says Al-Rekabi told him, "I'd never do that, but that doesn't mean somebody else wouldn't do it."
Officer Bass says that when he interviewed Al-Rekabi in prison, where he's currently serving 60 months on an unrelated charge of gun possession by an illegal alien, "he said none of that was true at all."
A few weeks later, in the 24 hours leading up to Nazir killing Farhad, Nazir and Nargis broke up one final time—though, in the aftermath of the street battle, they gave very different accounts to Bass as to why.
Nargis told Bass that she'd informed Nazir they were over "and that she could not take his beatings and crude comments." Nazir, she said, then threatened her family, saying, "Are we done? If we are done, I will fuck up your family and fuck up your brothers."
Nazir said that he thought that she was cheating on him, and that he went to the Midvale nail salon where she worked on April 20, 2008, to end the relationship and retrieve a ring he had given her and some pictures of the two of them together.
During that visit, Bass says, the couple may have argued, but because they spoke in Dari, witnesses had only vocal tones and body language to go on.
After the meeting at the salon, Nazir, the Mullahkhels said in statements to Murray City Police Department, then began sending threatening texts to Nargis' brothers from Nargis' phone, which Nazir had taken—accidentally, he says—when he'd retrieved the items from the salon.
Nazir told Bass her brothers kept calling and sending texts, saying, "We're coming to your house with Mexicans to mess you up."
Bass looked at Nargis' phone and noted in his report that while "there were several text messages sent to and received from Ajmal ... the messages are confrontational in nature but there were no threats made."
Nisar called Murray Police Department and requested to speak to an officer who had been handling a prior complaint that the brothers had made against the Mullahkhel children. However, because Nisar did not respond when the officer called him, the officer "advised dispatch to clear the call out," according to Murray Police interview notes.
Shortly afterward, Nargis' brothers Farhad and Ajmal, along with Bilquis and, depending on whom you talk to, a widely differing number of other individuals went to the Rahimis' house in Murray.
Abdul Mullahkhel later said his brothers "went in peace, as is our culture," to get the phone back and talk through their differences. The Rahimis say the Mullahkhels attacked their home.
Nazir says he came out of the house to see his brother bleeding badly from a head wound and his pregnant sister on the ground, screaming, "Leave my brother alone."
"I couldn't hold myself back," he says. He went back inside and emerged with a knife in each hand.
The street battle was as confused and contentious as the events leading up to it. "It was muddied up from the beginning as to who was involved," Bass says. Though there was an independent witness of the street fight, the person "couldn't say who was with whom."
In a series of calls to 911 by members of the Rahimi and Mullahkhel families, along with witnesses who describe people hitting each other with boards, a male can be heard bellowing, "You come into my house, you fucking gangsters?!"
Bilquis called 911 begging for an ambulance, but she did not know the complete address where her brother lay dying in the street, stabbed, she told the dispatcher, by her sister's boyfriend. "Ma'am, he's turning blue," she screamed.
The one fact Bass was confident about "was Nazir stabbed and took the life of Farhad." Nisar Rahimi had been hit in the head and bled profusely, but "we never ever determined who hit him in the head," Bass says.
Nazir later told an immigration-court judge that Farhad had a knife and that he was only defending himself. "I had a knife in my hand," he said. "My intention was to stop him. My intention wasn't to harm him or kill him."
But, Bass says, "There was no evidence Farhad was armed." The only statement he got from Nazir about Farhad's stabbing was that Nazir had "hit him with something in his hand," then as they talked further, Nazir said that he had used a knife.
The Rahimis say that Nazir killed Farhad in self-defense, but Bass doesn't agree. While a resident has every right to protect his or her home, even outside the property, Bass' investigation led him to conclude that Nazir chased and confronted Farhad and so "was on the offensive when the stabbing took place."
Nisar never imagined Nazir would end up in jail. "I'm sitting here because of him. He defended me, his family. To others, he might be a murderer; to me, he's a life's savior."
In November 2009, Nazir was sentenced by Judge Randall Skanchy to zero to five years in prison for criminal homicide by assault. At his sentencing, a line of bailiffs separating the two families in the courtroom, Nisar's girlfriend, Natasha Skiby, speaking on behalf of the Rahimi family, apologized for Farhad's death. "We are very sorry for the loss of Farhad," she told the court.
Farhad's father, Omar, asked the court, "How can time heal when I'm reminded of Farhad's loss every day?" He requested that Nazir receive no mercy.
Farhad's oldest brother, Abdul, called Nazir "a wolf in sheep's clothing." His family would never forget nor forgive. "It hurts me to say this, but I ask God to lay upon your family as much pain and sorrow as you have caused my family."
April 5, 2011, Nazir Rahimi had his first and only parole-board hearing, one that both families attended.
Parole-board member Jesse Gallegos said that according to Nazir's pre-sentence investigation report [PSI], there was little risk of him repeating his violent behavior. "You rarely see that type of statement in a PSI," Gallegos said.
Bilquis' voice shook with emotion and rage as she told Gallegos that while she understood his urging her family to forgive Nazir and move on, if he had seen what he did to her younger brother, then "no one would tell you to forgive."
WHERE LIFE IS CHEAP
A few weeks after Nazir Rahimi finished his five-year sentence on April 20, 2013, Immigration & Customs Enforcement agents transferred him to Utah County Jail, which has a contract with ICE to hold those undergoing deportation proceedings.
On Jan. 21, 2014, Nazir appeared before immigration Judge David C. Anderson for his application for Convention Against Torture protection to stay his removal proceedings. Nazir had to establish, Anderson wrote in his ruling, "that it is more likely than not that he would be tortured if removed to the proposed country of removal," namely Afghanistan. Nazir also had to show that "he would be tortured in Afghanistan at the instigation of a public official or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official."
Nazir and two of his sisters testified to Anderson about the killing of their brothers by Islamist radicals and their subsequent problems with the Mullahkhels.
Breshna pleaded for her brother's life. If the court sent him back to Afghanistan, "he would die. He will get killed," she said. Her family had been unable to prevent the deaths of her two brothers in 1999, but this time, she said, "you guys can prevent my brother from dying, so please, judge, don't send my brother to Afghanistan. My parents will die. They can't see that anymore."
Anderson ruled that while Nazir "does face grave danger in Afghanistan" from both the Taliban and the Mullahkhels, "regrettably" he would have to deny his application, as Nazir had failed to show that public officials in Afghanistan would be complicit.
Nazir says the ruling is a "death sentence." If his appeal fails and he is deported to Afghanistan, he will be viewed as "a spy, an undercover agent, as American, not Afghani," he says. With Haji Rahimi's background in peace activism and the fate of his two oldest brothers, Nazir fears that "the Taliban will not let me walk away easily."
And if they don't get him, then, Nisar says, the Mullahkhels will. "If they can afford to pay $10,000 here, in Afghanistan, you can pay almost nothing for a life."
RUNNING FROM THE PAST
Shortly after that hearing, Haji Rahimi traveled to Afghanistan to meet with a friend and senior adviser to the Afghan ministry of education. Haji asked the man to write a letter stating that it will not be safe for his son if he is deported to Afghanistan.
"I need him, my wife needs him," Haji says. "We want him to take care of us. We do not want to lose another son."
The Mullahkhels have also continued to struggle, both with the courts and one another. In 2011, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced a 20-count federal indictment by a grand jury against five members of the family—father Omar, sons Abdul and Ajmal, and daughters Bilquis and Nargis—saying they had defrauded the U.S. government of $1.3 million through a benefits scheme in their downtown market.
Domestic problems have continued to plague the family. Omar invited the sisters and their partners to "talk out their problems" at his home, according to a police report in June 2012. The meeting devolved into the couples exchanging threats of violence and the police being called.
By the end of 2013, the five Mullahkhels had reached plea agreements, with three of the five receiving sentences of probation, ranging from 36 months to, in Bilquis' case, five years, from federal Judge David Sam. On Feb. 24, 2014, Sam sentenced Bilquis to two years in a federal-corrections facility, with a further three years on probation, for violating curfew and other plea-deal stipulations. Sam also recommended she receive treatment for medical and mental-health issues.
Omar's sentencing for the benefits fraud is set for May 10, 2014. It will only be after that, says U.S. Attorney spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch, that the federal government will attempt to collect on the $617,000 forfeiture order that Sam signed off on in August 2013.
Nazir Rahimi's prison sentence ended in April 2013, but he remains behind bars while the fight over his deportation drags on. He struggles to maintain hope. "I'm a man with no country," he says. "I'm ashamed of my own country. I only have hope in God now, nothing else." One day, perhaps, the Mullahkhels will forgive him and move on. "I know loss of life, I lost two brothers."
Nazir's family, meanwhile, consider their own future. Nisar says he doesn't want to live in the same state as the Mullahkhels. Six months after Farhad's 2008 death, he was charged with tampering with a witness following an altercation with Nargis Mullahkhel in a nightclub. Three years later, he took a plea in abeyance to a class A misdemeanor, receiving probation and community service.
Nisar is now considering following his sisters Breshna, who relocated with her husband's work to California, and Mumtaz, who left the state out of fear of Abdul Mullahkhel. "I can't live with this anymore," Nisar says. "I'm pretty sick of it."
Violent death, he says, has played far too prominent a role in his life so far. "I've noticed that the more you run away from something, it chases you most." CW
On April 19, the Salt Lake Islamic Centers will host Sawtul Quran, an Islamic lecture series aimed at youth empowerment and spiritual reform at the University Guest House (110 Fort Douglas Blvd., 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.). E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.