They were going to suffocate the boy. "We knew if the baby cried, we would all be dead. So one of the men put his hand over the baby. To suffocate it. It was terrible, but better one child die than ll the children, all of us."
These are the choices in war.
“You don’t know what people have been through to get here to San Diego,” Zia Waleh says. “I was in that truck. It is how my family and I escaped from Afghanistan. There was a secret compartment behind the front seats, no more than two feet wide. There were adults, children, babies inside. On that ride from Kabul to the border, to Peshawar, in Pakistan, we all just about suffocated. But the worst thing was the baby that kept crying. When we were stopped at a checkpoint, and the guards were feeling round, poking bayonets through, we knew that one sound, and we would all be hauled out and probably shot right there. We waited forever. The baby went limp in the man’s arms while the soldiers banged around outside. The truck started again. He took his hand off, and the baby came back to life. It was a miracle. We felt so bad but so relieved.”
I'm sitting in Zia Waleh’s little restaurant, Zia’s Afghan Cafe, on 30th Street in North Park. He has photos of himself as a provincial police chief back in Afghanistan and buddy shots with people like Henry Kissinger.
“I belonged to the Islamic Front of Jihad.” says Zia Waleh. “We fought the USSR alone. Two million of my people have been lost. One million maimed. Eighty-five percent of my country has been destroyed. And yet our struggle against the Soviet invasion caused the collapse of the USSR. An end to the missile threat. Freedom for East European countries. The end of the Cold War. So why has the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan? Now, when we need them most after our sacrifice?”
Zia is lucky. He made it out of Pakistan with his family and on to San Diego and a decent life. He’s also lucky that he was educated here, so he knew what to expect. But like so many Afghans here, he’s not doing what he was trained to do. Police work. Administration. He runs a tiny restaurant, cooks Afghan food day in and day out. And now he’s watching another battle take place. The battle of values for the next immigrant Afghan generation.
Friday night, for instance. Outside it’s 1996. Inside it’s 1375. Afghan time. Muslim era.
Mariam and Fershta, two teenaged girls sitting in the back, look a little bored. But the faces of older women near them are taut with emotion as they listen to the words of a long-dead Persian poet, Hafez Shirazi, express what is in their hearts.
The dark night, when is it going to end?
When is the desert going to turn green?
This is the end of Fasting Month:
This is the night we must pray.
Angels are ready to take our plea to God.
This is the Mercy Night.
The Koran says: whoever has a good heart.
His plea to God will he heard.
This night, the 27th, the night when God gave Mohammed the first Surah [chapter] of the Koran, the door of mercy is opened to the faithful.
Silence. Then applause, polite but heartfelt. For everyone here, Sultan Hamid Zekria’s reading talks of one thing: their beloved Afghanistan. The ache in their hearts for Kabul and its crisp spring air and its mountains, the last rumples of the Himalayas.
They’re in San Diego because, especially since the 1979-88 Soviet invasion, their homeland has been wracked by civil war. Factions fed by Afghanistan's neighbors, India, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, are reducing this most ancient of civilization’s crossroads to a moonscape. Many people here lived in the capital, Kabul. They know it looks like Berlin in 1945. They know, too, that they will probably never see it again.
This is the end of Ramadan, the 27th day of the sunrise-to-sunset fasting month. Here at the Afghan Cultural Center on Rainier Avenue, in Grantville, people have gathered to pray and meet on a Friday, the Muslim sabbath, and to be Afghan, and, of course, to eat. They have waited all day for the sun to set. Now they stand for prayers, while a table at the back groans with rice and lamb and pastry delicacies and fruit. You can almost feel the discipline holding them back.
A black, red, and green banner marks the front wall. The men are grouped together on the left of the room and the women on the right.
The imam chants out the prayers. The sound is strange to the foreign ear, clearly comforting to the faithful gathered here. These are the sounds of home, the high brown mountains and the sudden green valleys of the land they have lost, possibly the greatest amalgam of civilizations in the world, Afghanistan.
Not that they can readily understand the imam’s prayers. His almost atonal singing is in Arabic, the lingual glue of Islam, as Latin has been for Christianity. His hauntingly beautiful voice with its trills and lemon-bitter minor tones and guttural bridges seduce you in a way that makes the music of the Christian church seem EZ-emotion, saccharine-sweet by contrast. He catapults you into Islam’s history and its children’s suffering and yearnings. It evokes more feeling for biblical times than any choir. It instantly takes me to Muslim places I have been: Qatar, the blue-dust streets of Doha, where the distorted, magnified sound from loudspeakers at the top of the stone-walled mosques ricochets through the mauve-shadowed alleys of the souks, the markets. Or the thrill of reaching Mostar, in Muslim Yugoslavia, before this war, and hearing the same “O-Allah, O-Akhbar!” ring out from its marvelously thin minarets across that beautiful medieval arched bridge. Or even taller minarets rising beside the wallowing mosques of Cairo, like thin arms of a comfortably fat woman, the muezzin singing out the same calls. Even in the empty, echoless uplands of Eritrea, those same words, drifting from herdsmen’s lips among the bleating of goats, facing Mecca, with all the innocence of certainty, five times a day. Even in Cambodia, mauled Muslims — their community- decimated by the Khmer Rouge — were issuing the cry once again from makeshift wooden mosques among the Buddhist temples.
I could have heard it in Afghanistan too. I had the chance, but my innards failed me. There was something ominous about the situation in the ’80s, about the horrors of this landlocked Shangri-la gone awry. Maybe it was all those childhood tales of the Northwest Frontier, the tribesmen on their horses — the sonorous re-countings by my father, an Englishman. “Doctor Brydon, the sole survivor of 15,000 in the great retreat from Kabul,” when Afghan tribes killed every one of the British-led troops as they struggled east through snowbound passes trying to reach Jalalabad. That was the first Anglo-Afghan war. “In 1842, old boy,” rumbled Dad. “Not to be trifled with, those Afghans." “In’ja” was one thing. Afghanistan, quite another.
Afghanistan is a world at once frightening and seductive to a Westerner. Like the world of The Rubdiyat of Omar Khayyam colliding with Operation Desert Storm. It’s where they play polo with a calf carcass and are said to carry more rifles per head than any country in the world. So when I met an Afghan freedom fighter Orzala Sima in a seedy hotel in Bangkok, who gave me addresses and contacts in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier province, somehow I didn’t rush to change my plane ticket to stop over in Karachi. I had a severe attack of gutlessness and flew on to London.
Afghans have not had such choices since its freedom fighters kicked out the last Soviet invader in 1989. Ironically, the Russians also lost 15,000 soldiers to Afghan bullets, though it took the entire nine years of their occupation. Afghan mujahideen seem to have set on each other. They have locked their country in a scorpion embrace of self-destruction that continues today.
The Afghans kicked out the Soviets, but unlike their Southeast Asian brothers, the Vietnamese, who ejected the Americans and then settled down to a somber but united reconstruction, Afghanistan has disintegrated into tribal, ethnic, religious, and plain thuggish factions vying for power over one of the poorest, yet oldest, countries in the world. And from Pakistan to Germany to Canada and the U.S., Afghan expatriate communities have popped up as a regular diaspora. Here in San Diego upwards of 5000 of the luckier ones — and that often means richer, more powerful, and better educated — have settled, partly because San Diego has a climate not terribly different from Kabul’s. Kabul, though, has hotter summers and colder winters, and it is nearly 750 miles from the nearest sea. Still, the desert-backed dryness of San Diego is near enough for many Afghans.
But comparing the two societies and their mores is a different matter. Here tonight on Rainier Avenue, it’s clear from the start, we have tapped into a quite different way of life. Afghan-American citizens come from their day jobs to this meeting; and a bit like Clark Kent transforming into Superman, here they become Afghans again. Many are dressed in the traditional turban, the baggy trousers; pairahan, the long shirt; and a wasket, a vest to complete the outfit.
Prayers are starting. The men have washed their hands and collect on the left side of the hall. They face a window that looks out to a KFC fried chicken sign winking in the night. But their eyes are set far beyond it, of course, to the west, to Mecca, the holy heart of Islam. The women gather with the kids on the right. Most of them wear cream veils and black dresses, the older ones at least. I think of the head-covering tradition for women in the Catholic Church. So similar. Here, though, women would never be in the front. The bowing down on your knees to touch your head on the ground would be unseemly for women in front of men.
The imam’s voice rings out. Men have gone up to the front, slipped off their shoes, and stand in concentric circles around him.
“This is a special night,” Said Mirzad says to me. He is the president of the Afghan Refugee Cultural Council, which runs this cultural center. “Not just because of Ramadan. Tonight, here, both Shiah and Sunni will be praying together.
It is only the second time [in San Diego], But for a country so split like Afghanistan, these are the things we must do to start repairing the fabric, even here.”
It takes a moment to understand the significance of this. The two are competing branches of Islam, much like Christianity’s Catholics and Protestants, and the civil war in Afghanistan is partly a war between these two branches of faith.
But as the prayers proceed, you notice two things.
All of the men pray standing up, but some of them have their hands crossed around their bellies, while others’ arms hang straight down. “The Sunni hold their hands around their belly,” Dr. Mirzad tells me later. “The Shiites hang their hands down. It is traditional, to show that they are not concealing any knives in their hands or robes.”
The Shiite men also hang around their necks a small round container the size of a quarter. When they bow down and put their foreheads on the floor, they put the little package on the floor and their foreheads against it. This is a major statement of separate identity. “That little disk,” says Mirzad, “contains the dust of Karbala. It is the place in Iraq where Husayn was assassinated, soon after the death of Mohammed. It was from this event that the Shiite branch of Islam was born. These containers actually contain the dust from Karbala, in Iraq.”
Mirzad is a big, jolly fellow, whose forehead is replete with interfolding worry lines. Yet he carries his 63 years w ith the affability of someone who has become accustomed to success, despite the huge tidal waves of fortune that have hit him and, certainly, all Afghan refugees here. He’s a friend and onetime adviser of the king of Afghanistan (Mohammed Zahir Shah, deposed in 1973 after a 40-year reign but still waiting in the wings), a geologist with a Ph.D., who knows every rock of Afghanistan and now works at the U.S. Geological Survey.
“The most important thing,” he says, “is that we don’t carry on the civil war here in San Diego. We’re mountain people. Sensible people. We are not fanatics, but we love Islam. And we’re proud of our country. We come here to keep our country alive for our children. We’re not telling them to reject American ways. We’re saying pick the good parts of America, but keep the values of your own culture too.”
On my other side is a man who, with his shaggy eyebrows and wicked blue eyes, looks uncannily like my own father. Mr. Shahabzadah has a little point-and-shoot camera. He steps out and takes a picture of the crowd praying. “I run a paper,” he says when he gets back. “Kabul Morning. It is written in Persian. I am actually a doctor, a surgeon, but I cannot get the papers to practice here. So I publish a paper instead.”
Mr. Shahabzadah is also the ex-president of the Aryana Cultural House (Aryana is the ancient name for Afghanistan). Aryana is a separate Afghan organization started for the many Shiite Muslims among them. “But it is not a serious division,” says Shahabzadah. “We are Afghan. That is the main thing.”
Shahabzadah is a survivor of one of what must be hundreds of incidents of terrorism that happened to people in this room when Afghanistan became the Soviets’ Vietnam.
“I was a surgeon at the Republic Hospital in Kabul,” he says quietly. “The Russian troops, they acted like this was their own country. They came into the hospital, and they’d say. Treat these, and kill these.’ Can you believe it? So one day I tried to kill one of the Russians. I was on call at home. The ambulance came to pick me up. It took two hours to get ten miles because of the stupid Russian checkpoints. There were three patients. I did three operations.
“Then I had to go to the emergency room. There were five patients brought in there. Two of them were Russian, and three of them were Afghan. Battle injuries. One of the Russians said, 'Treat these [Russians] and kill these [Afghans].’ The other doctor said, 'How can I do that?’ The Russian said, 'Like this!’ and he hit the doctor in the face with his rifle butt. And I saw what’s going on. 1 ran to my own closet, and I pulled out my pistol. I made a lunge; but when I came back, the soldiers had left. So I worked on the three Afghans, and I didn't touch those two Russians. Later I found they were dead.
“So the next morning someone called the dean of the hospital, and then he called me. And one of the doctors said, 'Where are you going?’ I said. The dean’s office.' He said, ‘Don’t.’ So I didn’t. I jumped out, I took my car, and I ran. I would have been dead. To challenge the Russians like that. I left the country. I had to. Luckily I had a friend who was a policeman at the airport.”
Mariam and Fershta walk excitedly up and down, looking at the food, not looking at the men. That would not be approved of. They are not allowed to associate with the opposite sex outside the family or to date. That’s part of being Afghan. And Muslim.
Mariam was born in Afghanistan 17 years ago. She was brought out as a baby. To her, more than anything, her heritage has just become a sad lament her parents sometimes tell and, she knows, always feel.
“Afghanistan. There’s nothing left now," she says. “No food. People have to stand in long lines for bread; they run out before the line’s finished. It’s really sad,” she says.
“It’s really sad,” repeats Fershta, 16, as if it’s a subject she’s well used to. “Our parents have this longing just to see it one more time.”
Now, as people gravitate toward the food, the girls are eager to show me all the different things on the table.
“This is polani, ” says Mariam, pointing to a great plate of rice and chicken, with orange peels making bright flecks in the rice. “And this is palau,”says Fershta, next to an oval platter of lamb and spicy rice. She points out osh, a soup with noodles. At each plate they proffer spoonfuls, so that by the time I reach the other end my paper plate bends under the weight of roast lamb; shish kebab lamb; the palau; kabolli, raisins, carrots and rice; qorma chalau, white rice; zhareshk chalau, eggplant, yogurt, and rice flavored with a tangy, slightly bitter yellow-red seed that comes from a tree that grows only in Iran.
“We eat rice every day," says Fershta. “I get so sick of it. But Afghan adults, if they haven’t eaten rice sometime during the day, they feel they haven’t eaten.” I set down my heavy plate. An eight-year-old boy politely offers me a cup of Pepsi. In front of me a teenager and his father are sitting, dressed Afghan-style. The father hands me a piece of paper. It is a letter.
“Dear Mr. President Clinton, I ask you for help in Afghanistan. I am 14 years old and I am from San Diego, California. In Afghanistan there are many terrible wars going on.... I was hoping that when you sent the 20,000 troops to Bosnia to protect them...you would do the same thing in Afghanistan.
“Mr. President Clinton, I have many relatives living in Afghanistan, and I’m very worried that something might happen to them. In Afghanistan there is a civil war going on. Many families are tearing apart.... I always dreamed about going to Afghanistan but now, since there is a war I cannot go. Please Mr. President, negotiate with Afghanistan and United States.”
The letter’s signed “Massoud Fazal, 13.” The kid stands in front of me, his hands cupped in prayer. The boy is right, of course. Afghanistan’s mujahideen dealt the mortal blow to the Soviet Union, but the country lost 1, possibly 2 million of its citizens, with another million wounded, and at least 3 million more of its 12 million people leaving just to escape the war in which the U.S. rapidly lost interest as soon as the Soviets withdrew.
To look at his direct, urgent eyes, you’d say young Massoud wants to do something about Afghanistan, the country of his genes and his roots. Dressed in traditional garb, he stands next to his dad, praying for the country he has never seen (he was born in New York) but which permeates his life every day.
Massoud and his sister Michelle don’t need pushing to come to these Afghan events. “I don’t make him do this,” says his dad, Saleh Fazal. “He is very proud of his ancestry.”
“A lot of people ask me about being Afghan, about being Muslim,” says Massoud. “Kids in my class, seventh grade, mostly they ask, ‘Where is Afghanistan?’ ”
Orzala and Sahar Sharif, two beautiful sisters, 21 and 13, are here too. For a long time they weren’t big on this. They were gradually dropping the language, too, until their mother, Sima, started charging them 25 cents from their allowance for each English word they spoke " inside the house. “They were back on track in a week,” says their father, Farouq.
Now Orzala is part of an Afghan students’ group at UCSD, where they reinforce each other, set up programs on things like computer literacy and the history of Dari (the Afghan name for Farsi) and Pashto, the two main languages in Afghanistan, and outreach programs to help others to make it to college.
One of the older men gives a passionate talk, begging San Diego Afghans to settle their differences, to be kind to each other, to do what they say they’re going to do, to know the difference between good government and bad. “The Nazis came and went. Good government will remain forever."
As he draws to a close, his voice quavers. He’s talking about the Kabul they love, the capital city that is now in tatters. After him, a distinguished-looking man gets up to recite a poem he has just written about Islam and the Afghan plight. It is an exile’s theme, over and over.
The nearest place to Kabul in San Diego is Ziaullah Nasery’s Khyber Pass Restaurant on Convoy. Walk inside, and you are in a sort of cavern, with lush tables, walls strewn with Afghan swords and leather shields and sandals and candles winking out from recesses, and a cushioned area for cross-legged sitting.
“This place is a copy of the Share Golgola (“City of Noise”) restaurant in Kabul,” Nasery says. “It was designed for me by a prince, Shawali Wali, who is also a poet, an architect, and a composer.”
Zia Nasery is 53. Another ex-cop. He used to be with Afghanistan’s drug enforcement agency. He is graying but handsomely granite-faced and has a large photo of him and his wife at their wedding at the reception desk. In the picture he’s in uniform, dazzling and cavalier, 25 years, one invasion, and several civil wars ago.
“That was the Golden Age of Afghanistan," he says.
“When King Mohammed Tahir Shah was the ruler. It was democratic. There was freedom of speech. We had the type of Islam based on love of peace, forgiveness, honesty. But as soon as the Communists came in [in 1979], they started to get rid of Western-educated intellectuals. The first week they started arresting everybody who trained in the U.S. and Europe. The ministry of interior killed 33,000 intellectuals in the first three months. Teachers would bribe kids to tell them if their parents were listening to (Voice of America] or the BBC.”
His daughter brings us a cup of— is it cardamom? — tea. “The majority of Afghans here in San Diego don’t like [Muslim] fundamentalists,” he says. “And there are so many people of great education and background here — driving taxis, running restaurants, doing what jobs they can. Me, I’m lucky. I have this place. But I tried to work for the FBI. I had ideal training. I spoke five languages. I had experience of the drug trade in Asia and police experience in Germany. They told me I was overqualified.
“It is the same for others. Professor Hasan Kakar, one of our greatest historians. Trained in London, Princeton, Harvard, and imprisoned five years by the Communists. Now he’s here with all that experience and knowledge. He is a great teacher, but what can he do? Any doctors, specialists, cannot practice here because the language tests are so very hard. It is a triple loss. A loss for Afghanistan, and for the United States, and for the people concerned. They love America, but they can’t give it their best. And there isn’t one who would not return to Afghanistan if they could help their poor country get back on its feet.”
Professor Hasan Kakar comes to the door of his modest house in Serra Mesa, the kind you see on countless streets of I.B. or Chula Vista, low roofed, with mustard walls, a short path running up to the door. It’s a Section VIII house, and it is the home of one of Afghanistan’s great historians.
He is finer-boned than I expected, frail in the manner of a European professor who has spent his life out of the sun, hooped over books, thinking too hard, using his body too little. He survived TB when he was a kid, and when he grew up, he survived five years in a Kabul prison for antigovernment activities, under constant threat of death by the Soviet-backed government officials.
His wife brings a tray of tea and nuts and raisins to his office — the back bedroom — and leaves us. It occurs to me that this man should be settled in a life tenure at some university, able to proceed with his studies without eternal money worries and the need to find scholarly publishers interested enough in far-off Afghanistan to finance his researches.
His resume reads straight out of Who's Who. Ph.D. (history), University of London, 1975; M.Phil. (history). School of Oriental and African Studies, Fellow East-West Center, Honolulu; Visiting Fellow, Harvard; Visiting Fellow, Princeton. Volumes on the shelves surrounding his old Apple computer all have the word “Afghanistan” in their titles. Many have his name too. Government and Society in Afghanistan: The Reign of Amir Ahd al-Rahman Khan, 1880-1901. Afghanistan, the Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982.
“I was probably born in 1928,” he says. Hasan Kakar came from the countryside, not the privileged governmental society of Kabul. His birth was not even registered.
“It is a miracle I became an academic. My father was a minor government bureaucrat. I would walk to school two hours every day there, two more hours back, through a green valley flanked by mountains with a river running down it. I always remember early spring. The river would be up. There were no bridges. I would gather friends along the way. There’d be crops of rice and wheat and corn. Beautiful. Fresh. Green. We had to wade across the river. But gradually, as time wore on, more and more of my friends dropped out. From the 1st grade to the 12th grade, more than 1000 dropouts. Till, in the end, I was the only one still going, walking through that valley to the school. Two hours up, two hours back. But I had friends in every village in the valley.”
Kakar ended up teaching history at the University of Kabul. Then he won a scholarship to the University of London. It was tough standards there. No leniency given to students struggling with English. And you know the other thing that struck me very strongly, I had been trained to absorb and respect information from books we had to read. The British students were trained to read everything critically. To have the confidence to say in class where the author was wrong, what his shortcomings were. That was a very hard habit to acquire.” But Kakar’s was a fresh field. The history of Afghanistan had always been a kind of asterisk to the history of the great powers that surround it: Persia, India, Russia, Greece, China. “Everybody came through Afghanistan," says Kakar, “from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, to Tamerlane (Timur Lenk), Baber, and later the Russians and the British. We were the mountains that separated Persia and Russia from the riches of India and China. We were the gateway to the Silk Route.”
Many historians agree that it was the wily British, who, in wanting a forward buffer to protect “their" India from Russian ambitions, started dividing and ruling, setting Afghan against Afghan in order to bend them to British will. The resulting internecine bitterness and distrust of foreigners have kept Afghanistan weak and tempting to outside interferes.
The policy has eerie echoes today, with at least seven mujahideen groups, with backers as diverse as Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia, and Saudi Arabia battling for control of the country that is still the gateway to India, China, Persia, and into the Muslim belly of Russia. It is especially important for countries like Pakistan as a route to the emerging economies of new/old countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Kakar has half a dozen scholarly books covering the eras and the Soviet invasion and afterward waiting for publication.
There’s one other document here. A December 1983 issue of Amnesty International Newsletter. The photo is of “Afghan historian Hassan (sic) Kakar.” The headline, “Torture in Afghanistan."
“I was an academic,” he says. “But the day I saw a Russian tank, something happened to me. I got mad. I lost fear. It was November 27,1979. I heard the BBC saying the Russians had invaded Kabul. I was flabbergasted. I was there! I had never forgotten the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. It had moved me. Made me very sad, and mad also. So I went out in the street and saw those gray Russian tanks. I went home. I brought out my son. He was 13. I showed him the tanks. I explained that these people had invaded our country, and I explained that we won’t have it. I took him home. Then I organized the Movement for a Representative Government in Afghanistan. In April 1982, they arrested me and sentenced me to eight years, because they said I was a pro-Peking Communist.”
He spent five years in prison, not knowing when or if he would be executed. Partly because of the Amnesty International publicity, he was finally released and expelled.
But his country and its people had already been disemboweled. “We expelled the Russians. We helped provoke the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but in doing so we sacrificed many people. And because of this, our government structure, the bureaucracy, the institutions, even the kinship, the social structure, the economic structure, the infrastructure; the communications system, all those things have been destroyed. The civil society of Afghanistan was gone.
“But now because we have become weak, and the United States government backed away, we are now at the mercy of regional powers. At least the United States should have done something to discourage the regional power of Iran, and Pakistan. So the U.S. not only backed away but gave a chance to the regional powers to come into Afghanistan to provoke one group against the other.”
So, like young Massoud, Professor Kakar has written a letter to President Clinton. “Dear Mr. President Clinton: We ask for your excellency’s help in bringing peace to Afghanistan. By having taken bold action about enforcing peace in Bosnia, you have earned the admiration of the world. We think the time has now come for the United States under your leadership to take similar steps with regard to Afghanistan, the country of a people who, by having given great sacrifices, contributed to the dissolution of the ‘evil empire.’ ”
The letter went out January 31. No reply has come yet. And Kakar’s not holding his breath for a Bosnia-type response. Meanwhile, he does his best to make a life here. Professor Kakar, aside from giving a lecture course at UCSD, lives very modestly with his family. His son Kawun, the boy he showed the tanks to in Kabul, has finished at UCSD. Other children have married. And this hero of resistance and principle spends most of his time working on his books, firing them off to the academic press, trying to keep intellectual interest in Afghanistan alive.
“Oh,” he says, turning to a bookshelf, “but I also have this, my secret weapon.” He hauls out a stack of quarto-sized schoolbooks. “These are diaries I kept, privately, from 1978 till I was caught in '82.1 hid them under flagstones in our courtyard. They never found them.”
He flips through hundreds of pages, hand written, from the back to the front, mostly in the cursive, sloping hand of Persian, or Farsi, but partly in English. The dog-eared pages are still covered in the milky plastic that kept them dry for years underground.
It is 9:00 on a Wednesday night. I’m late. I’m in a Yellow Cab. 1 have just come from the Cultural Center on Rainier. There engineer Mirzad and other educated Afghans have spent the evening as they do every Wednesday, coaching Afghan students in subjects they have trouble with, like math, computer skills, language. Mirzad has been helping Saleem Joyra, a student at junior college, with his calculus the night before an exam. The lesson poured out in a combination of Persian and English. At the other end, Afghan kids received lessons on computers. Joyra says it’s great to have things explained in the language he best understands.
So I'm in a Yellow Cab driven by Abraham, an Eritrean. We’ve gotten to talking about Islam, and now we’re lost in the eucalyptus forests of UCSD. We wind around looking for the International Center, where another group of Afghan students is meeting tonight. The University Afghan Association. We finally spot the center, a wooden-decked place halfway down a tree-tangled slope. I pay the driver, watch him drive off, then walk to the meeting hall area only to find people coming out, locking the doors, saying goodnight. I recognize Orzala Sharif with a friend. “We were talking about the history of Farsi,” she says. “It wouldn’t have been much use to you: it was all in Farsi.”
She introduces me to her friend Arazo, who’s studying microbiology at UCSD. The two take pity on me and offer to drive me to Fashion Valley. I ask if this might not be a problem, seeing I am not a relative. “No,” says Orzala, who’s 21 and studying biochemistry and cellular biology. “This is a humanitarian gesture.” On the way down we compare Afghan and American mores. “I think the atmosphere here in California is going toward entropy," says Orzala. “Disorder. It seems like everything you want to do, you can do. And if you can’t do it, they say, ‘You’re violating our freedom.’ But some of those freedoms are ruining the morals of society.”
I ask if they would do their parents’ bidding if they told them they had prospective husbands arranged for them. “Parents have become more open-minded over here,” says Orzala. “The atmosphere was different back in Afghanistan. Education plays a big role here.” “Over here,” says Arazo, “the whole traditional way still happens. Like, the guy comes and asks (the parents] for the girl’s hand; the guy’s family comes over. But as far as forcing the marriage, it doesn’t happen. My parents would come and ask me. This guy came and asked for your hand. How do you feel about it?’ They’d sit down and discuss it. It’s not like, ‘Oh, you have to marry him because we like the family.’ They basically leave the final decision up to the girl."
But marrying an Anglo American boy? “Afghan families are very close to their family. The older generation, it wouldn’t be okay with them. I don’t think it would work, because the religions would likely be different. He wouldn’t know about my culture, he wouldn’t know the tradition. I wouldn’t know about his."
“A lot of our culture emerged through religion,” says Orzala. “So different religions would be difficult.”
We’ve arrived at Fashion Valley. Orzala switches off the engine. “We’ve actually had a French guy marry into an Afghan family,” she says. “And it was difficult for both the person himself and the family. He felt left out at every event. He’d leave early at every party. There’s the language barrier. Just imagine going to a party where you don’t speak any Farsi.”
And how important is religion? “I’ve always respected it, and I’ve always believed in it,” says Orzala. “But probably these past couple of years, this [student] organization in our school has opened my eyes. I’ve been more exposed to the actual Islam. I’ve been drawn toward the religion. I pray daily. Maybe not five times a day. But it’s very important in my life.”
The dating thing comes up again when I’m at Mr. Shahabzadah’s home, a decent but not palatial house on the hill in the Grossmont area. “I never thought, when I was a doctor in Kabul,” says Shahabzadah, “that I would ever be renting a house. We had our own house there. Everybody, rich or poor, had their own house. But here we are." He laughs at the bad luck.
We’re sitting around the table a week after the Friday night meeting. I’ve made the social faux pas of coming in the midst of the full flood of Eid, the post-Ramadan celebration, when everybody visits everybody all day long for three days. As I sit at the kitchen table, poor Mr. Shahabzadah must jump up and down to welcome guests, taking them to the drawing room, exchanging chitchat, and returning. His wife too. But while they’re away, three of their four daughters stay to talk.
“I could tell you so much!" says Lida. She’s 17. “I’m, like, full of talking. Because usually people don’t know about our culture." No, she’s not supposed to date. And right now she hasn’t dated. “And at the high school, dating’s the big thing. I have American friends, but with the Afghans we all have to stick together, because they know what’s going on. But then if I tell my parents about, like, say, the prom, they don’t understand that. I’ve been growing up since I was in elementary hearing about the prom, that this was a big deal. But to my parents, it’s just a get-together. So what do I do? I guess I just try to work it both ways — if I could just go but go with girlfriends.’’ It’s not the same for the Afghan guys, Lida says. “It’s really sexist. My friends have brothers, and the brothers are out, like, all night, and the girls can’t even go anywhere.”
Then there’s the language problem. “All these older people are speaking Farsi,” Lida says. “Like last Friday night at the cultural center, we didn’t know what (the speaker] was saying. We didn't understand at all, and we’re thinking, when we grow up and everybody older than us is gone, how are we going to do this? How are we going to practice these same things?”
Lisa, who’s 13, brings some Afghan corn cakes to accompany the tea her mom has made. “Every single Saturday there’s Farsi school. My dad used to teach it. Me and my sister, we just, like, sit and look, and the teachers think that they’re teaching us, but nobody ever listens. They just write notes to their friends. They don’t care."
Lida: "They expect us to already know it when we go there."
Lisa: "It's hard to admit that you don’t know how to pray."
Lida: "They look at you. I love my culture, but sometimes it’s not a good time to go study it. These kids (at Farsi class] — whatever they say, it’s not going to get to them, because it has no meaning to them. And if it has no meaning to them, they’re not going to remember."
Lisa: "What am I going to need (Farsi} for? I mean, I might be able to talk to some people with it, but when I grow up, I want to become a doctor. I may need it then, but I doubt it, because if there’s a patient, I’m not going to write down ‘She was sick’ in Farsi."
“I don’t want them to lose the language,” says Mr. Shahabzadah, returning to the room. “All of the kids should have some understanding. Because our own language is not enough for science (for example), but it is beautiful for the poetry. We call it ‘the language of flowers and birds.’"
“For me it’s really hard," says Lisa. “Because I’m learning Farsi now, and I’m still learning English. Like, I went up to my teacher, and I called him bulba and that means ‘dad.’ ” She breaks out laughing. “He’s, like, ‘What are you saying?’ I’m, like, ‘Ooops!’ ” The cultural disconnect becomes starker on the question of going back to Afghanistan. I'd be scared,” Lisa and Lida say at once. “I heard, you go there, they’ll probably come and kill us or rape us and take our stuff," Lida says. “Besides, once you have a taste of this life, and you see how nice it is — you get TV here, and you get a car, and all these advantages — would you want to go hack to somewhere where you wouldn’t get any of these advantages?”
“I like it how you can wear anything you want here,” says Lisa. “I mean, (there] you have to wear a shawl, covered from shoulder to bottom. Mom said, when she was a little girl, her mom would wear this big thing that would cover her and had little holes so she could see through."
“That’s when they’re married, so guys can back off when she goes out,” says Lida. “So they know that she’s married. That’s why they cover themselves.”
“I think that’s dumb,” Lisa says. “Because guys should know, if you have the ring on the finger, back off!"
“I would like to have lived there in Kabul before, like, before the Russians came there and attacked,” pipes up the youngest sister, Homa, who’s 12.
“Because from what my dad told me, it sounded like it was so beautiful. You know, like, here in San Diego the [electric ] wires are up everywhere. There, they were underground.”
Will they marry Afghan boys?
“I think I would not marry,” Lida says, “because I have known most of the Afghan guys, and there’s, like, probably 5 to 10 percent that are really faithful to themselves and their religion. The guys here, they don’t have [any] culture, they eat all. They drink alcohol. Gamble. Not all of them. Most of them.”
“If they are so-called Muslims, they shouldn’t go smoking and gambling,” says Lisa.
“And yet, if my American friend had a birthday party,” Lida says, “us Afghans, we’d have to be home, like, around nine. That’s when my mom calls. Or when I go to the mall, I have to be home before sunset. It’s really hard. And my friends go out till about ten.”
“When my friends come over, I usually just invite Afghans,” Lisa says, “because Americans — I don’t know how they have American parties. I usually invite my Afghan friends. We play tag, have little party scenes, because I don’t know how the Americans have a party. But, like, there is a concert coming up this Friday. And I’m just debating with myself if I should go or not. It’s young people. It’s Eid. Families will be there too, but. I’m just wondering in my mind, should I go? If I go, people will say, ‘She comes too many times.’ If I don’t go, I might miss out on something.”
“Gossip,” says Lida. “It’s a big thing with Afghans. And reputation. If you go out, and they see you with a guy, and they get the wrong [impression], it gets all the way around; and finally your mom finds out, and she, like, ‘Is this true?’ And it’s, like, ‘No.’ And then it’s, like — so what’s the point of going out if you’re going to get it coming back at you? Plus, I know Afghan girls who have done something, like dated. And everyone regrets it. Every single one of them. Because it just messes up their reputation.”
If there’s one thing worse than dating before marriage in Afghan society, according to Zohra Enayat, it’s divorcing after marriage. The lady is unique in San Diego’s Afghan ex-patriate community. She was born a distant cousin of the King of Afghanistan, worked for UNICEF in Kabul, but here, the best job she can find is as a companion to an elderly Hong Kong woman. And on that salary, she has brought up her four children single-handedly for the past two and a half years. She is a champion for Afghan women’s rights, who, in the conservative moral atmosphere of the group, somehow remains one of the community’s most popular figures.
Zohra is, as she openly says, a large woman, who lives, like many Afghans, in the Linda Vista area. A solo mom, a rare, possibly unique occurrence in San Diego’s Afghan community. One afternoon we get to talking. That is, she gets to talking, and I don’t mind.
“I was always a pioneer. When I was 15 years old, I was the first woman in Afghanistan to drive a car, 25 years ago. Me and my aunt. Wherever I used to go, people used to stare. Afghan women would always have a veil on them. )ust like if you put a lettuce on upside down, this is how most Afghan women dressed. Purdah. From top to bottom they’re covered. And they always walk ten feet behind their man. So to see a woman there who went to school or to college or rode a bike, drove a car, it used to cause a lot of excitement. But by 10 years ago, a lot of them were driving a car. And because it was an Islamic country, they weren’t accustomed to a woman swimming. So we only used to swim in our houses or go to the Intercontinental Hotel. Most people were very religious, very strict.
“I’ve been married with a man who came from a very strict religious family. I was totally opposite to what he and his family were raised to expect. We fell in love. I was at the faculty of law, and he was faculty of law, and it took ten years. But the differences in our upbringing were not bad till we got to the United States. But then, well, we have been separated two years now.
“Communism came, and I was still living in Afghanistan. My father didn’t want to leave, so I didn’t want to leave him alone. Mostly men were still there. And me and my father. But I was respected, and everybody looked up at me, so I was kind of spoiled. I was working with UNICEF, and through UNICEF I was in touch with Western embassies, so (my special role) was kind of accepted.
“But once we got here, somehow it came to my husband that ‘Uh-oh, you’re not allowed to swim. You’re not allowed to go out.’ Except, I’m a member of the Afghan Cultural Council Committee, and I’m president of the Afghan Women’s Association, and he was not very happy with this. He said, Your place, after 15 years of marriage, is at home.’ So we got separated.
“He was typical of Afghan men. I was the second wife. The families that are very traditional Afghan, usually their boys and girls get married at the age of 15 or 16 or 17. It’s an arranged marriage. A father decides to give his daughter or son to that person. The father comes and asks for a 15- or 12-year-old girl for—even for himself. You can see marriages (of) a man who’s 50 years old and the girl is only 15. So when we [my husband and I] met, I didn't know that he was married. But he was married at age 15. And when we met, he was around 30 or 32 years old. So he was already married for 18 years.
“Afghan and Muslim people can marry four wives at the same time. Of course, you cannot [so easily] nowadays in cities. In some villages, yes. If they can afford it. All wives have to he treated the same, with love, clothes, house, and everything. This is the Islamic rule. If a man can afford to bring equality among all of them, yes, they can marry. If they cannot, then no, they can’t.
“When I found out my husband already had a wife, it was a big shock. It was just one year before our marriage that I heard, and I confronted him, and he said yes. His first wife was at his father’s house.
“But we got married, and we had our own house. My husband’s first wife, I loved her. I still love her. We became very good friends. They had a beautiful house. We had a big, huge house also. No jealousy or anything from my side, and I don’t think from her side. I just accepted that.
“But as a custom, I think it’s horrible. Divorce, [a woman] cannot mention divorce. There’s no way. Especially in Afghanistan, a man can divorce a woman. A woman can never, ever divorce a man. A man can just say [three times], ‘Okay, you’re divorced, divorced, divorced,’ and the woman is divorced. And he can just kick her out of the house without one penny, without her being allowed to take anything from the house or [take] the children. In Kabul now it’s different, but most people are very religious, very traditional, and, of course, the men don’t want to part with this right. Everybody, the judge, and the mullah, and those that are applying the rules just want to stick to this rule. They’re all men. They’re totally male chauvinist in Afghanistan.
“Of course, families that have been educated, exposed to the modern life, this system doesn’t apply. But that is only a very small percentage of the population of Afghanistan, in the majority of the population, he women are suffering a lot.
“That’s why I’m president of the Afghan Women’s Association here. And I had an active role in Afghanistan also. By inviting women to workshops.”
Mrs. Knavat says the male-dominated setup has hit Afghan women living in the States hard.
“In Afghanistan, mostly men were working and women were at home, taking care of children, taking care of the house. But here, both of them are working. When a man comes home, he expects the woman, whether she’s tired or not, after eight hours’ work, to do the [housel work. The men just take their shower and sit in front of TV. And, poor women, they do the cooking, do the washing, do the laundry, take care of the babies. The woman does everything. You really do a double, triple job.
“And that’s how I got separated from my husband. I said, ‘Back in Afghanistan we have maids, we have a cook, we have nannies.’ I was working eight hours or nine hours in Afghanistan too. But when I got home, I didn’t have to do cooking, I didn’t have to do laundry. Now here, I need help. I do everything. Taking care of insurance, dropping off the kids, picking up the kids, going to PTA meetings, keeping in touch with school, plus my work. It was horrible. After the way we had been brought up in Afghanistan, it was very hard. I had never done cooking in my life. I had never done laundry. I had never done anything except studying and going to work.
“When we first came here, I had been accepted as a personal assistant at UNICEF in New York. They paid for my ticket, I went there, I interviewed, they offered me a job. Many UNICEF people had known me for 12 years, and they knew my father. They had some respect. So they offered me a G-7 job, the highest level in general service in New York.
“My husband said, ‘You can go ahead and start your work. I am leaving the four kids.’ At that time they were one to nine years old. He said, ‘I’m leaving them with your mom, and I’m going to Pakistan.’ I tried to convince him not to. But he left. He said he’d be back in three months. But three months became three years before he came back. So I had to resign because my whole family was living in San Diego. I had to have somebody with me.
“Then, I did anything. I was housekeeping, baby-sitting, working at Bullock’s, any job. I was working weekends at an Afghan restaurant as a waitress, just to earn money to raise the kids and pay the rent. And right now I live in poverty. You wouldn’t believe it. I think most people are just making ends meet.
“But it depends which kind of life you are coming from. Most Afghans here, back in Kabul, they were living in poverty, no running water, no hot and cold water, no hot shower. They had to go to public baths to take a bath. Of course, for them it’s paradise here. Even if Afghanistan returns to normal, they will never go back. For most Afghans, here is everything they wanted and never dreamed of. To have a car. Not even in dreams. Now they have three or four cars. It’s wonderful. This is also a country of opportunity. Only [for] the few of us who were comfortably off, who had the life there, it's hard. I had three nannies for my four children, and I come here, and I became a working nanny myself. Yes. It is a shock.
“To tell you the truth, we Afghans, we have a hard time here, because we work like Americans, and we live like Afghans. Like our Ramadan, just think about it. Back at home, in Muslim countries, while you’re fasting [during the month of Ramadan ], you are only working half-days, and you can sleep and rest. But here you have to work full-time while you fast.
“And then we have this Eid festivity for three days, when you put out flowers and candies and fruits and cookies, and you have to go to each other’s houses. You must. And if you have quarreled with somebody, with a friend, and you’re not on talking terms with him, on Fid you have to go to that house. You are supposed to forget and forgive. The first day of Eid, the moment I got home (from work], I had to take a shower, take my gifts, go to my mom, go to my grandma, go to my 15 aunts, say, ‘Hi, how are you? Eid ton mobarak' (“Happy Fid, congratulations”).
“There was no strain in Afghanistan. There was no tension. Despite the fact most Afghan people are all poor. No civilization, no facilities, but we had a lot of time on our hands. I was working with 15 different nationalities at UNICEF, still I had plenty of time.
“I had servants. But if you cannot afford any servant or anything, at least you have your in-laws or mom or somebody. Somebody’s there to take care of your children, help you with the household. Income is very low, but the cost of living is also very low. If the war wasn’t there, I would prefer to live in Kabul. My two older children, they always wish they could go back to the same life, the same house in Kabul.
“Except right now (with the civil war and mujahideen fundamentalism), it is worse than communism. Afghanistan is like it was a century ago. Each province has its own king.
“For women, the king and his cousin, Prime Minister Daoud, brought freedom for Afghan women (in the ’60s). He announced that Afghan girls can go to schools. They can work in government. The same opportunities as men. Same salary for the same level of work. And women had much more respect, because they were starting to work at banks and factories starting up.
“My husband and I were two very good examples of two different ways of life. And he represents the majority (of Afghan men). When we separated, if this were Afghanistan, when you walk out from your husband’s house, you just take one bag with your personal clothes. That’s all. No alimony, no money, nothing. No children. And that’s why women would rather stay with three other wives and be in the husband’s house, just to be close to their children.
“With me, it was domestic violence. I called 911, and police came and took him away. Of course, my Afghan friends tell me, ‘Zohra, please get together. You have children,’ things like that. I say, ‘No. A break’s a break. We cannot get together.’ I’m the second Afghan woman in San Diego who called 911 and asked the police to stop the domestic violence. But the first lady to do that, that was a very shocking event. It was, ‘Oh, look at that woman, she asked the police to come to take her husband away.’ But that couple got back together. And they have a happy life. The man knows where he stands. He knows he cannot slap her head. And the wife is more careful not to upset him. But again, he’s coming from a very strict and traditional family, where, when a man comes into the house, all the women stand up. In our house, it is the opposite.
“To call the police and ask them to take your husband and put him in jail, that’s, of course, the worst thing an Afghan woman can do. But there was no consequence for me. Perhaps I have the privilege of coming from a family that people still look up to, despite the fact that we’re living in poverty, so they don’t talk back.
“In my women’s group, I make them talk about it. They don’t want to talk about it. Most women suffer because most still have this economic dependence on the husband. They don’t know where to go if they divorced. They have no parents. Most parents would tell their daughters as they were getting married, ‘You go with a white dress to your husband's house, and you will come out in a white cloth, the cloth every Muslim is covered in when they die. The mother tells the girl to 'get along with your husband. Respect your in-laws. Respect your sister-in-law. Obey your husband.’
“Believe me, when I got the police to take my husband away, it was not men, it was women who criticized me. Even my friends. Even within my family, my brother-in-law, they haven’t talked about that in the two and a half years since the incident. Deep down, they don’t agree with me. They don’t appreciate what I’ve done.
“But I am different. I used to go hunting with my father. Maybe 30 men. Only me, 15 or 16 years old. I think I was maybe the first woman to shoot a gun, to fly a kite, to go horseback riding in a village.
“When we used to go to the village (of which we were the landlords), I just used to saddle a horse and ride for miles and miles to see the nomad people, to talk with the nomads’ wives. I was always blaming the men, but they didn’t dare to tell me anything, because they knew the consequences. They’d always say, ‘City girl. City girl.’ And I’d say to the men, 'Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves? You’re just sitting, lying down there, and these women are walking miles to get water?’ The nomad women do all the work. They have to unload the camels, erect the tents, build a fire, cook the food, while the men just sat there with a toothpick, leaning against the walls, and talked away.
“Despite their suffering, somehow the women say, ‘Busoz wa besaz,’ burn and bear it. Even if you are burning, you have to accept it.
“I always accuse men of being so selfish. And sometimes I say, ‘It looks like God is a man, because why are all his prophets men?’ They say God is fair; I say, ‘Then why did God never choose a woman? Why was Mohammed not a woman? Three hundred prophets. All men!’
“And, of course, they could throw rocks at me. They say, 'You never should talk like this. You shouldn’t ask questions. When it comes to religion, there are so many questions you cannot answer.’Then I say, Then God has made a difference, that man is better than woman?’ I tell you, when I get talking — “It is tough for my kids having such an individual mother. I can see that my children are shy. My daughter, she is a 4.0 student, but she doesn’t have that self-esteem. I think it’s maybe because I'm the one who always does everything. Where many families, it is the children have to do everything because they are the only ones who speak English. Shop, make appointments with doctors, write checks, so their children become more independent.
“My oldest children, it is the opposite. I make appointments, I write the checks, I go to the doctor. But those Afghan kids who surround them look up at me because I am the leader of the women. Somehow they have accepted me as I am, my openness, helping them when they’re in trouble. I’m there for them whenever they need me.
“My daughter wants to be a doctor, like my father, except she hates blood. So maybe she’ll become an engineer.
“My son, we have been through hell. He wanted to go out with American friends. They had a truck, they had long hair, and they had tattoos, and I just came out and I said, ‘No. My son cannot go with you. I am sorry. You don’t come to this house anymore. We are Afghans, and you are not allowed.’ He was embarrassed. He was frustrated. He fought and he argued. I said, ‘I don’t care. I just cannot let you go, let you jump off a bridge. If you want to be in drugs, go ahead. Be in drugs. But you cannot live in this house anymore.’ That was last year. I tell him, ‘I want to know your friends. I want to know which American family they are from, how they are brought up. Because that is very important to me. And then, yes, go ahead. But not with just anybody.’
“The main change I would want in Afghanistan is to let women know the)' have the same intelligence, the same heart, the same mind as men. And I want to make Afghan men understand that Afghan women are human beings. They are not robots. They are not machines. They’re not wood.”
And how dangerous is it for her to hold these opinions in conservative times?
“If I went right now and talked like this in Afghanistan, yes, I could get killed. This wouldn’t have been a problem in the king’s time, when there was a more tolerant atmosphere.
“But actually, both I and my kids would love to go back, if only things were better there. Because they remember it, and even my two youngest hear so much about it. Their grandpa, he was so intellectual. He was a living encyclopedia. Right now is not the time, but we always tell our children, ‘It’s your duty, it’s responsibility, it’s your land. It’s your motherland. Even if you live for 50 years, still you’re a foreigner here. You’re not accepted. You’re nobody here. You have no base. You have no roots here. Nobody knows a anybody. Nobody notices anybody. If you ran naked down the street, nobody notices you.
“In Kabul, you just walk out from your house, and there was the bakery. ‘Oh, hi. How are you? How are you doing?* 'Hie meat shop, the fruit shop, everybody knew everybody. Everybody knew your name, which family you’re coming from. Your ' childhood, when you were born. I wish we could go back. But I say first. Daddy, their grandpa, is not there any more. Our house is not there anymore. My work is not there. You wouldn’t have the same nannies and the servants like when you first opened your eyes. And our house has been bombed, and mujahideen live in it now. So it is a dream.”
And then Zohra (which means “evening star”) Knayat (“kindness”) dismisses the hopeless dream and gets on to planning the Afghan New Year, March 21, in San Diego. Concerts, new clothes, a total spring cleaning of her apartment. Tuning in to all the customs that comfort and don’t cost a lot.
“We make special fruit that we make only once a year. We soak red and green raisins, apricots — seven kinds of dried fruit. We soak them in water a day or two ahead. That juice is very healthy too, very cleansing. And we serve it to anyone who comes to the house. It’s really very time-consuming.
“Also on our table, we put seven things which start with s. Sab means green. So we have apples, saib; sabsi, spinach; samorro, which is mushroom — any seven fruits and vegetables which start with s. Then we put a bowl of water with one goldfish in it, and we put a mirror in it to shine and reflect happiness. Clear, clean water also means life.
“Oh, and then we grow wheat. We put the seed, we put it in a bowl and water it, and then by 21st March, it will grow green. And so we put that on the table.
‘Then we have to cook something green, like spinach, to welcome the spring and the new year with everything green. Green beans. New life. Also, we have to go out and walk on the green grass. Go for a picnic.
“Afghans, before we were Muslim, we were Buddhist. But we copy the Iranians, who used to worship the sun and the fire. So on this particular day, some Afghan people make a bonfire, and then they hop over it to welcome the new year with dance, with joy, with music.
“So if we spend our new year like that, the year will be fruitful and prosperity will come.’’
That would be nice.
The boom and tambour rhythms of electronic Eastern music pour out through the doors of the ballroom at the Marriott in Mission Valley. Hundreds of Afghans are celebrating the end of Ramadan with an Eid concert, which really means a ball.
Men are in tuxes, women in long dresses with veils about their shoulders. At the round tables, rice, lamb, chicken, the Marriott’s best attempt at Afghan cuisine, is being passed around. There’s no alcohol, of course, at least not inside. On the dance floor, people jig around to the music, and a circle dance tries to manifest itself. I see Orzala and Arazo dancing with each other. Kid brothers dance with older sisters. Girls with their uncles. The elders sit at the tables and never seem to be left alone. Someone always engages them.
I come across Said Mirzad sitting at a table with his wife and the cultural center’s vice president, Mr. Amin. Mirzad addresses me in French, his favorite language after Persian. But the noise from the tabla drum and electric organ is too loud. “Remind me to tell you about Afghanistan’s untapped mineral wealth,” he shouts. “I surveyed it. I reported weekly to the king about it. Untapped!”
I wander out to where a lot of younger people mill around in the reception area. I can’t get over the women. Their kohl eyes are huge and killingly beautiful in their long golden faces and lustrous dark hair. I see Saleem, the calculus kid from Wednesday. His exam went okay.
In one group is Orzala and her second cousin, a young man named Omar Ahmad, just back from Kabul. He was at home when a bomb killed his next-door neighbors. But he says he saw, perhaps, the start of some order returning to the city. Markets opening. A surety as to who was in control, at least inside the city, the onetime hero of the resistance to the Soviets, Ahmadshah Massoud. “He has the support of many young people there,” he says. “He’s concerned about the country, not his own power. I was convinced by him. Afghan intellectuals from Europe and some from the United States have joined him in Kabul. The situation could be improving.”
But, of course, this is Afghanistan. A Switzerland rich in position and poor in money to buy strength. Nobody here looks as though they’re about to jump on a plane for home. Besides, truth to tell, for most people milling about this ballroom, this is home. Combined with sentiments and customs and disciplines from a very different way of life, but home all the same.
“I suddenly asked myself why,” Mirzad says as I’m saying good-night. “Why has nobody in San Diego even heard about the Afghans living here? I think it’s because we don’t commit crimes. We don’t make problems. We are disciplined. We work hard. So nobody hears of us. That’s good, isn’t it?”