Longing For A Lost Country

A Baltimore restaurateur remembers an Afghanistan that now exists only in the memories of its expatriates, its oppressed and its freedom fighters.

October 04, 2001|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

The Afghanistan that Qayum Karzai left in 1971 was - though it wouldn't be for long - a peaceful and hopeful place, where people walked with purpose, he said, their eyes directed up, toward the mountains.

The Afghanistan that he returned to in 1999 - after the droughts, the Soviet invasion and the rise of the Taliban - was the nearly unrecognizable opposite. Buildings and spirits had been crushed. Everyone, it seemed to him, looked at the ground.

"It looked as if a tornado and an earthquake happened at the same time," said Karzai, owner of Baltimore's popular Afghan restaurant the Helmand. "But the most devastating contrast was in the faces of the people. The only way I can explain it is when you take out a plant, when you uproot it and don't put it back in the ground and just let it rest there for three or four hours, this is how the people were."

Karzai had returned to the city of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, for the funeral of his father, Abdul Ahad Karzai. A tribal leader, former member of parliament and supporter of efforts to bring peace to the war-torn country, the elder Karzai had been assassinated as he left a mosque in Quetta, Pakistan, by extremists -believed by many to be connected to the Taliban.

Behind the smile that Qayum Karzai greets customers with at his restaurant - one of four by that name he and his brother Mahmood have opened in the United States - there lies a flood of other emotions, guilt and fear chief among them.

While he is against a broad-based U.S. attack on Afghanistan that could kill civilians, he favors the United States and the international community going after the terrorists. But, he adds, for the sake of Afghanistan and the world, that should only be a beginning.

"Getting rid of terrorists by any means is a welcome proposition, but it is only hail' a proposition. Unless an independent Afghanistan is created and a moderate national government acceptable to the people, these problems will visit again," he said. "That is the only way to bring us out of this nightmare."

While Karzai, 53, has made a comfortable life for himself serving kebabs, dolmas and other Afghan delicacies in his upscale restaurants, the land of his birth, where many members of his prominent family remain, has been torn apart by one force after another.

"Often I feel guilty here," he said, sipping green tea at one of the tables in his restaurant. "Then I stop and realize what we have here is a gift of God. But certainly there is guilt."

Karzai's brother, Hamed, who inherited his father's title as head of the Popalzai tribe, remains in Quetta, where he is an outspoken opponent of the Taliban, a close ally to deposed King Mohammed Zahir Shah, and leading backer of a "loya jirga."

"We have begged him to leave. He doesn't listen. He's brave. But I'm not sure this is a plus. It can also be looked at as not smart. He has done a lot, an enormous amount for the country."

Qayum Karzai is active in the loya jirga movement as well-though mostly from afar. Karzai is a member of the Council for Peace and Unity in Afghanistan, and a founder of Afghans for Civil Society. He travels regularly to Pakistan and Rome, where the deposed king lives, and sends money home, both to support his family and to support the cause - an end to the Taliban's control of the government, and the convening of a loya jirga. Loya jirga is a traditional gathering of representatives of all ethnic groups that would meet to elect a new transitional government.

Karzai was in Rome, for a meeting with the former king on that subject, when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked. "Someone came in the office and said a terrible thing has happened," he said. "We all gathered around a computer to watch. The minute it happened nobody had any doubt in their mind who was responsible."

A new life

Karzai came to the United States in 1971 - about two years before King Zahir Shah was over-thrown - to be trained as a fighter pilot by the U.S. Air Force. He had joined the Afghan air force in hopes of receiving medical training and becoming a doctor but ended up at the base in Lackland, Texas.

From there, he was transferred to Enid, Okla. When it was discovered that severe motion sickness prevented him from becoming a pilot, he began saving his money, knowing he was going to be discharged from the program.

"I had saved $1,100 by eating one meal a day in the mess hall. I bought a car for $320 and bought six months of insurance for $16," he said. In a 1950s-era Chevrolet, he left Enid after his discharge and headed for Washington sleeping in his car at night.

He enrolled at American University, working in restaurants to pay his tuition. He finished college, began graduate school and married in 1975.

In 1978, he learned that his father, who had lost his government position when the king was ousted, had been put in prison. Seen as a powerful man and an opponent of communism, he was tortured for two years.

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