‘He’s gone back to Afghanistan,” says Khaled Waleh. “He left last week.” It’s a shock. I’d come looking for Zia Waleh, famous for his intimate Zia’s Afghan Café in North Park, closed now but much beloved by vegetarians.
I wanted to ask Zia what the Afghan community felt about the coming 2014 U.S. troop withdrawal and last month’s Obama-Karzai agreement to continue a strategic partnership through 2024.
Now, it seems, the patriarch has gone back, not as an interpreter for U.S. forces, like so many of his compatriots, but simply because he’s homesick.
Khaled, Zia’s son, was born in Afghanistan but scarcely remembers the day his father smuggled him and the family out in a secret truck compartment normally reserved for opium. Now, decades later, Khaled is grown — he’s 41 — and happy to be an American and to let go of his past connections with what Forbes magazine has called “the world’s most dangerous country.”
His dad: not so. “Dad is 73. He’s like all immigrants his age,” Khaled says, “one foot in the past, one foot in the present. He was a police chief there, a sophisticated man. But now he just wants to see his old farm, his friends, his valleys, to speak his own language, to be near the graves of his parents, to feel he’s home. Because, for all the 30 years he has spent in San Diego, he has never lost that longing.”
There are maybe 4000 to 5000 Afghan Americans living in San Diego County. Khaled and I are talking in his restaurant, Zia Gourmet Pizza (named after his dad), a popular place in Normal Heights that brings a bit of Afghanistan to the pizza world by offering toppings like eggplant, raita (yogurt), and cranberries.
But he doesn’t take it past that. “I don’t have a connection like my dad. First-generation parents give their kids confusing messages. Their initial thing is, ‘Be American. Jump totally into it. Be our guides in this culture.’ Then it’s, ‘I’m losing you. Come back! Don’t forget our language, our ways, our arranged marriages, and staying within our Muslim faith.’ Also, my dad wants me to go back with him to discover my roots.
“I say, ‘Not for me, Dad. Why put myself in harm’s way?’ He says, ‘To see where your heritage is, where you were born, where I grew up, where your grandparents are buried.’ But I’m not curious. I didn’t choose where I was born. People put too much emphasis on that. Me, I make my own destiny. I’m laying roots here, because in my life I’ve seen the product of that world of his.”
“Dad regrets ever leaving Afghanistan. But the reality is, he had to. Just before the communists took over in 1978, he had been totally anticommunist. He hunted down the communist secret organizations. He created a lot of enemies, people with grudges. Yet he’s a romantic. All he remembers is the rushing rivers of his province, Parwan, north of Kabul. Or the flavor of the cumin seed from one special valley, or the huge, sweet yellow melon that bursts with flavor in your mouth. Or dried mulberries. He talks of the 50 to 60 types of grapes, of melons, apples, of the lamb.
“So now he’s spending eight months living in Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter that my mom, Lailana, worries night and day that he could be kidnapped. And yet the truth is, when he goes back, he is always disappointed. He dreams of cafés he used to go to, but they’re gone. He dreams of friends, but they’re in Germany or India or here. Those who are left, everybody is trying to steal from everybody. The place is full of wiseguys. They’re corrupt. Only bribery gets things done.
“Plus, even though he doesn’t have much money, people there view him as a rich American. And they resent him. My uncle said, ‘Why did you leave when we needed you, in the hard times?’ Even though he had to, to survive, because of his position. But he still goes back.
“I know I disappoint him by not being interested. I view myself like my pizzas: a kind of fusion. But too much looking back can lead to con-fusion.”
∗ ∗ ∗
It’s a scratchy line. Khaled’s given me his dad’s satellite phone number, and I’m talking to Zia at his farm in his village in the hills of Parwan Province, Afghanistan.
“What are you looking at as you talk to me?” I ask.
“Well, I see a view of the river, the hills, flowers everywhere — it is spring. The mulberries will be ripe in two weeks. And I am surrounded by mountains full of snow. We have lots of snow, especially in the Hindu Kush.”
He says his farm lacks water, so they grow “dry” crops like wheat, chickpeas. Other farms have sheep and goats to milk and make cheeses from, but not his.
It turns out he’s not just farming but trying to lift his village out of poverty with money collected from family and friends in the United States as well as helping to build clinics in villages by coordinating efforts between the Ministry of Public Health in Kabul and an L.A.–based Afghan TV channel that’s raising funds.
So what do people in Parwan feel about the Americans and NATO forces leaving in 2014?
“Some people are happy that the U.S. is leaving because they are under the propaganda of the Taliban and the Iranians. But people who think logically and know the facts are not happy. They fear Pakistan and Iran will start the fighting among the people here.”
And what of last month’s strategic partnership agreement signed by President Obama and President Karzai, tying the two governments’ fortunes together for at least a dozen more years?
“This is the one thing I’m very happy about. And especially that it has been approved by the parliament of Afghanistan. The Iranians and Pakistanis tried to stop it in the parliament. I am happy that they could not do that. And maybe if [the U.S.] leaves some bases here later they will help as reserve force training centers for our army and police.”
“Are you disappointed that your son Khaled is not interested in Afghanistan and visiting the land of his birth?” I ask.
“Not really. These young people who grow up in Western countries, especially the United States, they are not interested in this type of country. We are not developed yet. We don’t have running water in our bathrooms, cold and warm water. But that’s okay. If he chooses to stay over there, I’m happy with it.”
I have to know: “You have over 50 types of grapes in Afghanistan?”
“Oh, yes. Actually, we have 75 different kinds of grapes. They are soft and very delicate. And, oh, so tasty. For grapes, it is paradise over here.”