Jahar and The Rolling Stones Controversy

By Laura Fawaz, Contributing Reporter


The upcoming issue of The Rolling Stones magazine hasn’t event hit the newsstands yet, but is already starting controversy.

The Rolling Stones magazine has been an international icon for over the last four decades, with coverage from news and politics, to social taboos, but mostly for music legends and up in comers.  And for the August 1st, 2013 issue, they’ve decided to put a picture of Dzhokhar (Jahar) Tsarnaev, titled “Jahar’s World.”  It followed with this caption “He was a charming kid with a bright future. But no one saw the pain he was hiding or the monster he would become.”

Most politicians are outraged by this.  Boston city Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said “Your August 3 cover rewards a terrorist with celebrity treatment. It is ill-conceived, at best, and re-affirms a terrible message that destruction gains fame for killers and their ’causes.’ There may be valuable journalism behind your sensational treatment, though we can’t know because almost all you released is the cover.”

In response, the magazine referred to its earlier statement, which read, in part, “The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.”

Currently, there are two places that you won’t be able to buy this issue: CVS and Walgreens.  They vowed not to sell the magazine via social media sites.  CVS did first on Facebook where it has been “liked” 32,00 times and shared more than 14,000 within the first day.  Walgreens followed with this tweet: “Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.  Walgreens will not be selling this issue of Rolling Stone magazine.”

So how about the average person?  After casually speaking with a people of all ages, gender, and religion throughout Metro-Detroit, Michigan, the results were surprising.  Most people thought that the media was making a big deal out of nothing.  Kiki Davis said “Don’t judge a book by its cover.  First I believe the Tsarnaev brothers are innocent, they’ve been set up to take the fall.  I believe this because information given by the BPD [Boston Police Department] & FBI are either inconsistent or outright lies.  No matter how you look at it their stories just don’t add up.”

And even on the comments section on The Rolling Stones magazine article website, the majority of the comments revolve around the theme that the Tsarnaev brothers have been set up.  With readers posting photos and videos, raising questions such as “There were a bunch of Tamerlans that night.  Who knows which one is real?  This guy also doesn’t look like he’s been run over by a car and dragged.  Wouldn’t more of his body be crushed and twisted?  Wouldn’t there be more abrasions on his skin?”  This was from reader Hoegarten Alexandria when discussing a recently posted photo of Tamerlan’s dead body from the waist up.

All these emotions and actions are taken without the piece even being read yet.  So what does this pot-stirring article have to say?  Well The Rolling Stones foreseeing some type of dismay began the article with the following from their editorial staff.

“Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens. –THE EDITORS”

Then the piece itself begins with someone named Peter Payack, a wrestling coach at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.  He woke up early on the morning of April 19th, 2013 to news coverage of an identified male suspect in the Boston bombing.  People in Cambridge thought of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – “Jahar” to his friends – as a handsome, tousle-haired boy with a tender character, soulful brown eyes and the kind of shy, laid-back manner.  He had been a captain of the high school wrestling team for two years and a promising student.  It had been the coach who’d helped Jahar come up with his nickname, replacing the difficult-to-decipher Dzhokhar with a simpler one.  “If he had a hint of radical thoughts, then why would he change the spelling of his name so that more Americans in school could pronounce it?” asks one longtime friend, echoing many others. 

At the precise moment of Jahar’s friends trying to reconcile him from the news, just west of Cambridge, in suburban Watertown, Jahar Tsarnaev laid on the floor of a 22-foot motorboat.  Just after midnight, he’d supposedly been in a violent confrontation with police, who killed his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan.  After the capture of the “suspect,” still an uneasy panic settled over Boston when it was revealed that the Tsarnaev brothers were not, as many assumed, connected to any terrorist group.  Rather, they were young men affiliated with no one but themselves.  Russian émigrés, they had lived in America for a decade – and in Cambridge, a city so progressive it had its own “peace commission” to promote social justice and diversity. 

Tamerlan, known to his non-Russian friends as “Tim,” was a talented boxer who’d aspired to represent the United States in the Olympics.  His little brother, Jahar, had earned a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and was thinking about becoming an engineer.  Since the bombing FBI and other law-enforcement officials, have tried to piece together a storyline of the brothers, most of which has focused on Tamerlan.  This because as we later found out was on multiple watch lists, in the U.S. and in Russia, though no one had any reason to investigate him further.  Though Jahar was on no one’s watch list of any kind.  Actually it’s the opposite because after a few months worth of interviews with friends, teachers, coaches, and really anyone who knew Jahar, what emerges is a portrait of a boy who glided through life, showing virtually no signs of anger, let alone radical political ideology or even any kind of deeply felt religious beliefs.  “Listen,” says Payack, “there are kids we don’t catch who just fall through the cracks, but this guy was seamless, like a billiard ball.  No cracks at all.” 

Though as the FBI tried to find and put together any kind of motive, they say that they see a boy who had a front row seat to all of his family’s hopes and attempts of a safer and wealthier life, as well as the deep disappointments after these attempts failed.  His father, who is from Chechnya, grew up in exile in the republic of Kyrgyzstan.  Jahar’s mother is from Dagestan, which has been fighting its own struggle for independence against the Russians since the late 1700s.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chechen nationalists declared their independence, which resulted in two brutal wars where the Russian army slaughtered tens of thousands of Chechens.  By 1999, the violence had spread throughout the region, including Dagestan.  The Tsarnaevs then fled to Zubeidat’s native Dage­stan, but war followed close behind.

This abuse would be the premise of the Tsarnaevs’ claim for asylum.  So in the spring of 2002, Anzor, Zubeidat and Jahar, then eight, arrived in America on a tourist visa and quickly applied for political asylum, which they were granted a year later.  In July 2003, the rest of the family joined them in Cambridge, where they’d moved into a small, three-bedroom­ apartment at Norfolk St.; a weathered building with peeling paint on a block that otherwise screams gentrification.  The family was happy to be in America, but in Cambridge specifically, as Jahar was known to say several times.  Cambridge is known as one of the most liberal and intellectually sophisticated cities in the U.S., and is also one of the most ethnically and economically diverse.  There are at least 50 nationalities represented at the city’s one public high school, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, whose motto is “Opportunity, Diversity, Respect.”

A diligent student, Jahar was nominated to the National Honor Society in his sophomore year, which was also when he joined the wrestling team.  And in his junior year, the team made him a captain.  All his friends agreed that Jahar had morals unlike any other classmate.  “He never picked on anybody,” recalls a friend wanting anonymity, so we’ll call Sam.  “He was better at boxing than wrestling – he was a beast.  But while he could probably knock out anyone he wanted, he never did. “He wasn’t violent, though – that’s the crazy thing. He was never violent,” says Sam.

Jahar never denied he was a Muslim.  He fasted during Ramadan, which included giving up smoking weed – an immense act of self-control, this according to his friends.  Most Cambridge students and staff all agree that Jahar’s perspective on U.S. foreign policy wasn’t all that dissimilar from a lot of other people they knew.  “In terms of politics, I’d say he’s just as anti-American as the next guy in Cambridge,” says his friend Theo.

Tamerlan’s experience in Cambridge did not go as well as Jahar’s.  He was a already a teenager when he arrived in America, and spoke with a thick Russian accent.  After graduating in 2006, he enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College, studing accounting, but after just three semesters, he dropped out.  A talented pianist and composer, he harbored a desire to become a musician, but his ultimate dream was to become an Olympic boxer, after which he’d turn pro.  But his arrogance undermined his ambitions.  In 2010, a rival trainer, claiming Tamerlan had broken boxing etiquette by taunting his fighter before a match, lodged a complaint with the national boxing authority that Tamerlan should be disqualified from nationwide competition.  His reasoning: he was not an American citizen.  The authorities, coincidentally, were just in the process of changing their policy to ban all non-U.S. citizens from competing for a national title.  This dashed any Olympic hopes, as Tamerlan was not yet eligible to become a U.S. citizen. 

Tamerlan had discovered religion, a passion that had begun in 2009.  Before long, he quit drinking and smoking pot, and started to pray five times a day, even taking his prayer rug to the boxing gym.  At home, he spent long hours on the Internet reading Islamic websites, as well as U.S. conspiracy sites, like Alex Jones’ InfoWars.  He told a photographer he met that he didn’t understand Americans and complained about a lack of values.  He stopped listening to music.  “It is not supported by Islam,” Tamerlan said.  Then, in 2011, he decided to quit boxing, claiming it was not permitted for a Muslim to hit another man.

As for the rest of the family: Zubeidat, too, had become increasingly religious – something that would get in the way of her marriage.  Anzor, who’d been at first baffled, later moved back to Russia in 2011, and that summer was granted a divorce.  Zubeidat was later arrested for attempting to shoplift $1,600 worth of clothes.  Rather than face prosecution, she supposedly skipped bail and also returned to Russia, where she ultimately reconciled with her ex-husband. Jahar’s sisters, both of whom seemed to have escaped their early marriages, were living in New Jersey and hadn’t seen their family in some time.

And Tamerlan was now married.  His new wife, Katherine Russell, who was a Protestant from a family in Rhode Island who thought about joining the Peace Corps after high school.  But instead decided on college at Boston’s Suffolk University where she’d met Tamerlan in 2007 at a club during her freshman year.  She found him to be “tall and handsome and having some measure of worldliness,” one friend would recall.  Russell has never spoken to the press, what is known is that she did convert to Islam, adopting the name “Karima,” and soon got pregnant and dropped out of college.  In June 2010, she and Tamerlan were married; not long afterward, she gave birth to their daughter, Zahira.

Jahar, meanwhile, was preparing for college.  He had won a $2,500 city scholarship, and planning for his future, not plotting a terror theme.  But much of what is known about the two years of Jahar’s life leading up to the bombing comes from random press interviews with students at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.  None of who seemed to have been particularly close with him.  As for Tamerlan, his journey the past two years is far easier to trace.  Though no more Chechen than his brother, Tamerlan was also – as his resident green card reminded him – not really an American.  Tamerlan’s interpretation of Islam had become his identity.  But Brian Glyn Williams, a professor of Islamic studies at UMass Dartmouth and an expert on terrorism and the politics of Chechnya, believes that Tamerlan’s journey was less a young man’s quest to join Al Qaeda than to discover his own identity.  “To me, this is classic diasporic reconstruction of identity: ‘I’m a Chechen, and we’re fighting for jihad, and what am I doing?  Nothing.’ It’s not unlike the way some Irish-Americans used to link Ireland and the IRA – they’d never been to Northern Ireland in their lives, but you’d go to certain parts of Southie in Boston, and all you see are donation cans for the IRA.”

In January 2012, Tamerlan traveled to Dagestan, where he spent six months.  Dagestan has been embroiled in a years-long civil war between Muslim guerrillas and the (also Muslim) police, as well as Russian forces.  There, he, along with most of the local young men, lured by the romance of the fight, seemed to have wanted to join the rebellion, but he was dissuaded from this pursuit.  Tamerlan was seen as an outsider who came to Dagestan dressed in fancy American clothes and bragging of being a champion boxer, and had no place in their country’s civil war.  It was an internal struggle and had only resulted in Muslims killing other Muslims.  Tamerlan was urged by relatives to embrace nonviolence and forget about Dagestan’s troubles. 

Jahar, who was in America for a decade now, spent the summer lifeguarding at a Harvard pool.  “I didn’t become a lifeguard to just chill and get paid,” Jahar tweeted.  “I do it for the people, saving lives brings me joy.”  He was living with Tamerlan and his sister-in-law, who were going through their own financial troubles.  The family was on welfare, Tamerlan was now a stay-at-home dad; his wife worked night and day as a home-health aide to support the family.  They were apart of an increasing number of Cambridge’s young adults who were being priced out due to skyrocketing real-estate prices.  In August, Jahar, intensely aware of the troubles around him, commented on the $15 billion that was spent on the Summer Olympics in a tweet he wrote, “Imagine if that money was used to feed those in need all over the world.”  The value of human life ain’t shit nowadays that’s #tragic.”  In the fall, he returned to college at North Dartmouth, where, without Tamerlan around, he picked up his life, partying in his dorm and letting his schoolwork slide.

“Idk why it’s hard for many of you to accept that 9/11 was an inside job, I mean I guess f— the facts y’all are some real #patriots #gethip,” Jahar tweeted.  This is not an uncommon belief.  Payack, who also teaches writing at the Berklee College of Music, says that a fair amount of his college students, notably those born in other countries, believe 9/11 was an “inside job.”  And Larry Aaronson, a retired Rindge history teacher, says that he’s shocked by the number of kids he knows who believe the Jews were behind 9/11.

Jahar returned home for spring break in March and spent time hanging out with his regular crew.  “People come into your life to help you, hurt you, love you and leave you and that shapes your character and the person you were meant to be,” Jahar tweeted on March 18th.  Two days later: “Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.”  Similar tweets followed in the days before the bombs went off on Monday, April 15th.  Jahar’s Twitter account is what the FBI used the most to track the mindset of the accused bomber, using tweets such as this one posted on April 11th: “Most of you are conditioned by the media.”

On the afternoon of April 18th, a friend of Jahar’s from Cambridge as well as from UMass Dartmouth, was watching the news, along with the rest of America.  He and another friend were discussing that one of the bombers looked like Jahar.  Like most of their friends, they thought it was a coincidence and even texted Jahar telling him that he looked like one of the suspects on television.  “Lol,” Jahar wrote back, casually, and told his friend not to text him anymore, saying, “I’m about to leave, If you need something in my room, take it.”

A month or so after the bombing, a group of Jahar’s friends are sitting together, talking to the reporter from The Rolling Stones.  It’s a lazy spring Sunday, and the media ambush has died down, but the FBI is still searching for what they call “the source of the brothers’ radicalization.  To add to their ammo, Al Qaeda added the well-known photo of Tamerlan, taken the day of the bombing, to their most recent issue of their online publication Inspire. The photo of him dressed in his crisp, white Saturday Night Fever shirt and aviator shades, as his lasting, and to some, only memory.

Surprisingly, Jahar has a fan club, and even more surprising, it keeps growing – #FreeJahar – and tens of thousands of new Twitter followers, despite the fact that he hasn’t tweeted since before his arrest.  Like so many of his fans, some of Jahar’s friends have latched onto conspiracy theories about the bombing, if only because “there are too many unanswered questions,” says Cara, a former friend of Jahar, who points out that the backpack identified by the FBI was not the same color as Jahar’s backpack.  There’s also a photo on the Internet of Jahar walking away from the scene, no pack, though if you look closely, you can see the outline of a black strap.  “Photoshopped!” the caption reads.

One of the friends mentions one of the surveillance videos of Jahar, which shows him impassively watching as people begin to run in response to the blast.  “I mean, that’s just the face I’d always see chilling, talking, smoking,” says Jackson.  He wishes­ Jahar had looked panicked. “At least then I’d be able to say, ‘OK, something happened.’ But . . . nothing.”


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