Baltimore native spots familiar face in Walker

January 22, 2002|By Michael Olesker

THE CONNECTION arrived slowly in Michael Kleinman's head. The first news reports said a 20-year-old American had been captured among the al-Qaida forces. A fundamentalist Muslim from California, the reports said. Kleinman thought dimly: I knew a kid like that. Then came the name: John Walker Lindh.

"Oh, my God," Kleinman declared, loud enough for his roommates to hear. He is a law student at Harvard now, 25, a native of Northwest Baltimore and an alumnus of the Gilman School who earned a history degree at Yale and took a few Arabic-language courses "on a whim."

In the summer of 1998, looking to brush up on his language skills, he took a Yale professor's advice and went to Yemen, to the city of San`a, to the Yemen Language Center.

His roommate there was John Walker Lindh.

Last week, Lindh -- who now goes by his mother's name, Walker -- was charged with conspiring to kill U.S. citizens, aiding terrorist groups and engaging in forbidden business with the Taliban. In U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., the government alleged that Walker knew as early as June that members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida group had been dispatched to the United States on a suicide mission and that Walker had met with bin Laden once, when the terrorist leader thanked him "for taking part in jihad."

"I'm listening to those early reports," Michael Kleinman was saying over the weekend, from his apartment at Harvard, "and I'm remembering this kid, 16 or 17 years old then, out of California, who arrived in Yemen just before I did. He was wearing a white robe like the pious guys from Saudi Arabia, and a religious cap, and he had a beard like I'd never seen on a guy that young. And he called himself Suleiman.""`Suleiman?'" Kleinman asked, wondering about an Arab name on a California guy. Walker said Suleiman was the Muslim name he had taken.

"When I asked why he was converting, he said Islam was the one true religion. He was clearly setting off to become the most fundamental Muslim he could be. I felt like I was dealing with a kid who was going through a stage. It was almost like a crush, like he had a religious crush on the most fundamentalist branch of Islam."

Kleinman has a photo album of that summer, including a couple of shots of Walker in his robes and the most flourishing beard Kleinman had ever seen on a teen-ager. On that first day in Yemen, he and Walker and a few other students went out to exchange American money for the local currency.

"As we're walking along," Kleinman said, "[Walker's] handing out money to beggars on the street. He was giving the equivalent of big money to these Yemeni. What someone there would earn in a day, he's handing out.

"As we walk back to the school, we were like a comet. He was handing out bill after bill, and stretching out behind him like a tail was this line of Yemenis. It was like they'd found an ATM machine. And everybody's going, `Come on, will you?' They were saying it disdainfully. It wasn't that helping people was bad. It's that he had an inability to do anything except full out, no restraint. Like getting into the religion."

Kleinman said Walker got separated from the other students as they walked back to the school that day. He said Walker wandered San`a for "eight hours. It's a city of about a million people. Big, sprawling, run-down, dirty, Third World city. An absolutely fascinating place, like an Islamic Wild West.

"Most of the men wear suit jackets and button-down shirts from the waist up. From the waist down, they're wearing kilts, and they carry these carved daggers at their belts, inside ceremonial scabbards. And the women are fully covered, so you see only their eyes. But, as soon as you get out of the city, all the men carried AK-47s. It was real Wild West."

He and Walker lived among about 50 students. For "five or six weeks," the two of them shared a room. They had two mattresses on the floor, two desks, two closets. Kleinman said they never talked politics. Kleinman mainly wanted to brush up his language skills, while Walker "seemed disappointed that the school didn't offer more on religion.

"It was clear, he was setting off to become the most fundamental Muslim he could. A couple of times, he gave me books about Islam. One was called Why All Science Comes from the Quran. I had no interest in reading it, and he didn't proselytize.

"Most of us there were about 20 years old, and he was 16 or 17. He and I were polite to each other, but we had nothing in common. [Walker] started spending a lot of time outside the school, and eventually he began sleeping somewhere else. When I got back to [Yale], I told some friends about this American kid who was, like, Lawrence of Arabia. And then I didn't really think much about him until those first reports about the American in Afghanistan."

Stunned at the news, he called Baltimore to talk to his father, Howard Kleinman. "I said, `You're not gonna believe this, but I think this kid was my roommate.'" His father said, "`Come on, it can't be.'" Then Kleinman started getting calls from friends at Yale who remembered his stories and wondered if it was the same fellow. Then, last week, the Associated Press called Kleinman, alerted by someone at the school in Yemen.

"So, it was a pretty exciting adventure in Yemen?" Kleinman was asked over the weekend.

"Well," he said, "it got a lot more exciting in hindsight."

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