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Home Fires Burning

From Midtown Baltimore, an Afghan Restaurateur Fights Against the Taliban, and for His Compatriots

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 9/26/2001

It's 11 in the morning, and Mount Vernon's popular and much-lauded Afghan restaurant the Helmand is empty and quiet. Linen-covered tables set with gleaming china and glassware wait in the dark for diners who won't begin arriving for several hours.

But within the deserted stillness, the eatery's trim 53-year-old owner, Qayum Karzai, is hard at work juggling phone calls. One moment he's calmly taking dinner reservations: "Party of four for 6:30? That will be fine." Next, he's on a cell phone talking hurriedly in his native tongue to a younger brother 10 time zones away in Quetta, Pakistan--barely 100 miles from Afghanistan's eastern border. How is the family? Karzai wants to know. What's happening? Karzai says he's expecting a call from the State Department, but in the meantime he's talking Afghan politics with a University of Nebraska professor who rings up. The next call comes from a news organization. Then he's on the phone with a former patron to discuss a $3 discrepancy on a credit-card bill.

Karzai, a native Afghan, has lived in the United States for 30 years, and in that time he has seen his homeland fall victim to coups, Soviet military invasion, civil war, and now a ruthless, hard-line Islamic regime, the Taliban, accused of harboring Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden. While establishing himself in Baltimore as a successful restaurateur, he has also emerged as an active member of a global community of Afghan expatriates who have been endeavoring for years to bring peace, unity, and stability to their ravaged homeland.

And now the mountainous, landlocked nation faces perhaps its gravest crisis yet: U.S. military forces gathering in the region for what will likely be strikes against bin Laden-linked terrorist camps believed to be tied to the heinous attacks of Sept. 11. These camps--and bin Laden himself--are thought to be in Afghanistan's rugged hinterland. And Karzai--no stranger to being a stateside source for Afghan information--is busier than ever.

"It's really demanding on my time," he says, "but that's the way it is."

Unlike many Americans of Middle Eastern descent or Islamic faith, Karzai--who was raised a Muslim--says he hasn't been a victim of bigotry or boycotts because of his ethnic or religious background since Sept. 11. Baltimore does not have a large Afghan community--perhaps no more than 20 families in all--and Karzai says business at the Helmand, the culture's most visible presence in the city, has remained brisk and patrons extraordinarily supportive. What has changed, though, is that this low-key restaurateur, known among local gourmands for his signature sautéed-pumpkin dish, is suddenly in high demand as an expert on Afghan affairs and unofficial diplomat.

A member of a politically active Afghan family, Karzai came to the United States in 1971 to receive flight training from the U.S. Air Force in preparation for a career in the Afghan military. Chronic motion sickness ended his aviation aspirations; instead, he entered a Ph.D. program in politics and economics at the American University in Washington, D.C. That was cut short too when Karzai left school to open an Afghan restaurant in Chicago with a brother who had also come to study in the States. The Chicago eatery is now closed, but four other restaurants owned by the family remain in operation around the country. (Along with Baltimore's Helmand, the family has two other restaurants by that name, one in Cambridge, Mass., and one in San Francisco.)

While Karzai was settling into American life, his father served as a high-ranking legislator in Afghanistan's then-parliamentary government. But amid the political turmoil that culminated with the 1979 Soviet invasion, the family fled to neighboring Pakistan, where it remains to this day. When the Taliban took control of the country in 1996, Karzai's father emerged as a high-profile opponent of the new regime's strict fundamentalist rule. That outspokenness cost him his life three years later.

"He was leaving a mosque with prayer beads in hand when he was assassinated--shot several times in the head," Karzai says. "Based on how it happened, we have no doubt that it was done by extremist allies of the Taliban."

Despite living a hemisphere away, Karzai too has remained active on Afghanistan's political front and has made frequent trips to his country. The most recent--in 1999, after his father's death--was a particularly somber and difficult one. He joined his family in Pakistan, and together they managed, at considerable risk, to convey his father's body across the border for burial in the familial village in southern Afghanistan, 100 miles from the Helmand River that gives his business its name.

Over the years, Karzai has also regularly attended international forums designed to bring Afghanistan's many political factions together in opposition to the Taliban. When the terrorists embarked on their suicidal attack on the United States, he was in Rome meeting with Afghanistan's aged, exiled king, Zahir Shah. Karzai was exploring what role the former monarch, who ruled from 1933 to 1973, might play in the Afghan expatriate community's ongoing efforts to find symbols of national unity. Though Afghanistan is composed of differing ethnic and tribal groups, Karzai says, they have never failed to unite in times of national crisis. And they will need every bit of that tendency now.

Sept. 11 not only affected Americans, but Afghans too, Karzai notes--and, every bit the diplomat, he seizes the opportunity to relay to a visitor what life these days is like for his people. Ten days after the attack, while tending to the barrage of phone calls, he finds time to brew Afghan tea for a reporter and prepare a plate of dried fruit--"a traditional Afghan offering of friendship," he says. The gesture fits the message he wants to convey during this brief interview: The Afghan people are not enemies of the United States.

"Afghans have never in the history of their struggles--including their struggle against the Soviet Union--been involved with terrorism," he says. "I believe 99 percent of the Afghan population is squarely opposed to the Taliban and the invasion of foreign extremists in our land. They have hijacked our culture, they have hijacked our values, they have hijacked our religion."

Unfortunately, though, Karzai says, most rank-and-file Afghans have been rendered powerless to act on their views. Decades of war and turmoil have left the country decimated, the population starving and destitute--conditions only exacerbated by the brutality of the current regime. "With great irony, the Taliban has completed what the Soviets set out to do," he says.

Karzai is "absolutely" sure that if the international community had paid closer attention to the Taliban's rise, and acted early to thwart its grip on Afghanistan, the current crisis wouldn't exist. "Now there is absolutely no way that this can be cleaned up without a military action," he says. But he fears the impact of extensive bombing of the country on the civilian population, and appeals to the rest of the world for help.

"The No. 1 source of recruitment for extremist ideologies is a destitute population," he says. The job of fixing Afghanistan "rests on the shoulders of the Afghan people," he continues, "but the situation is so desperate, the people so powerless, we do need help from the international community."

Whether or not that means arming anti-Taliban forces within Afghanistan to help the United States and its allies eradicate terrorists, Karzai can't say; he's "not a military man." But while the details of pending military action in Afghanistan remain to be seen, Karzai wants the rest of the world to know that Afghans are determined fighters for a good and just cause. As he explains it, the Taliban once consisted of two branches, the current regime and a more moderate group of "patriots" in Afghanistan's decade-long struggle with the Soviets. This moderate group was largely disenfranchised--removed from positions of power and in some cases killed--by today's Taliban. The members of the more extreme faction, he asserts, took no part in national defense but instead studied their stringent form of Islam at Pakistani religious schools funded by certain Arab countries. ("Taliban" is an Arabic-Persian combination that roughly translates as "religious student.")

No question, Karzai says, grim days lie ahead. But with the world finally focused on his troubled homeland, he feels "the potential is there" for positive change. And just before an invoice-wielding delivery person arrives at the Helmand--snapping Karzai away from the heady realm of world affairs and back to the workaday business of running a restaurant--he articulates his greatest wish for his country.

"I would like to see the establishment of an Afghanistan government that is legitimized by Afghan culture, national unity, and the will of the Afghan people," he says. "A moderate, law-abiding government that can be a partner within the community of nations."

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