Kabul in Miniature;
California's Afghan American Community Is Divided on How to Unite Its People
Sharon Waxman - The Washington Post 10/31/2001
The banquet hall at Mission Paradise restaurant is packed tonight, vibrating with an odd, adrenaline-fueled mix of momentum and melancholy.
Momentum, because the 300 intellectuals gathered here, leaders of one of the largest Afghan American communities in the United States, sense that for the first time in years, attention is being paid to their native land, offering a glimmer of hope that somehow Afghanistan may be freed of incessant poverty and devastation.
And melancholy, because most of those in the room have friends or relatives half a world away, caught between the desperation of the iron-fisted Taliban and the military might of an angry superpower.
"It's so hard," says Mahroch Niaz, a poet and Afghan journalist. She visited the country in 1999, safely hidden beneath a burqa. "I sleep two, three hours a night and wake up, thinking of what's going on in Kabul. I'm sleepless for everyone suffering there. But if all this bombing brings an end to the Taliban . . . then it's worth it." The purpose of tonight's meeting is to muster a unified front among these community leaders of the 40,000 to 60,000 immigrants in the San Francisco Bay Area, most of whom arrived after the
Soviet invasion in 1979. A dozen news crews are here to record the occasion.
A statement is passed around calling for the installation of a broad-based coalition government to be headed by the 87-year-old king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who now lives in Rome. Speakers take the lectern and pronounce their support in Dari, one of the two main Afghan languages.
"We all have love for the country where we originated," says Waheed Momand, a Soviet-educated software engineer who organized the meeting. Referring to Afghan Americans and their homeland, he says: "We are trying to break the wall of division, of ethnicity. We want to integrate everybody."
But the wall of division stands high and solid. The Afghan immigrant community here, concentrated in the towns of Fremont and Hayward, is in many ways a microcosm of the country that's nearly a dozen time zones away. Like their brethren, the Afghans here are Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks. They are ex-mujaheddin who fought the Soviet invaders, supporters of the Northern Alliance, even sympathizers with the Taliban. They were the cream of Afghanistan -- the children of generals, former ministers and religious leaders -- and all have potent, painful memories of the havoc wrought for three decades in their land.
Even those who have taken root and flourished in America seem unable to escape the gravitational pull of the nation they left behind. The intricacies of recent Afghan history, enough to fry the synapses of the most dedicated student of foreign affairs, are a constant obsession. Radio and local-access cable talk shows endlessly dissect this arcana. The problems that defeated civil society in Afghanistan for so long -- ethnic tension, tribal power plays, communism chased by Islamic fundamentalism -- are very much alive here.
"We suffer from our disunity," says Omar Khattab, the president of Radio Payame Afghan, which broadcasts statewide from Orange County in Southern California. He says he is not pro-Taliban, though he believes that no government can be formed without them. "We are very divided, whether in Afghanistan or here. We transferred all our animosities from the battlefield to the Bay Area."
David Yaar has been battling the tensions among Afghan Americans for too long. Now he's tired. Born in Kabul, the former Fulbright scholar -- educated at Bowling Green State University in Ohio -- taught economics at Kabul University before being arrested in 1978. In the wake of a coup, Yaar's relation to the king, his cousin, had landed him in trouble. He was smuggled out of the country by friends and came back to America, where he now teaches economics at California State University, Hayward.
Until recently, Yaar, who had a Farsi radio show, supported the Taliban. He considered the Northern Alliance worse than its fundamentalist rivals. Before the Taliban, he supported the king but came to believe that Zahir Shah was not up to the task of leading his people.
Either way, Yaar's compatriots in Fremont didn't appreciate his views. "When I supported the king, the Northern Alliance would threaten me," he says. "They'd call my home, they'd threaten to kill me. They called my wife." The threats continued after he shifted his support to the Taliban.
Not that he considered the Taliban ideal. "I believe the Taliban are the perfect mirror image of Afghan society," he says, speaking in his small office at Cal State as Afghan transmissions crackle in the background on a shortwave radio. "Illiterate, poor, ignorant of what is going on in the world."
But, he sighs, "what alternative do we have? Should we bring them from Heaven? We have to start with something." Yaar gave up on the Taliban last spring, when the rulers blew up ancient Buddhist statues. He has decided to retire from politics. "They're not worthy of any support. I feel betrayed, actually," he says.
Farid Younos gets threats, too, but not for his political views. It's because of his views on Islam. The threats don't come from white supremacists or Muslim-haters. They come from fellow Muslims, more conservative than he. Younos founded a local group to help protect abused women in the Afghan American community. Abuse is a big problem here, and not everyone likes to talk about it.
"I want equality between the male and the female in the family," he says. "Afghan men's mentality is that women should be obedient. They should do what they're asked to do. I say no, she's not a slave. Not a maid. A family is made up of a couple. And this couple, according to Islam, should be complementing each other."
Conservative Muslims in the area dislike his approach. "They think I'm polluting the religion, destroying
traditional family life," says Younos. The threats come regularly. A caller to a TV talk show was particularly chilling: "He said, 'We will kill you. We will beat you, burn your house,' " recalls Younos, who called the FBI. "But I've never been scared. If someone kills me because of my views it's a great honor."
Younos, like many others here, considers himself both Afghan and American, just as he considers himself both Muslim and democratic. "This country gave me not only sustenance but my freedom of mind," he says. "It's what I love about American democracy. I'm no less American than anyone else."
And also, he says, no less a Muslim than anyone else. Fremont and Hayward consist chiefly of broad boulevards intersecting one another between Interstate 880 and the Fremont Hills. There is no city center to speak of in either town, no quaint sense of local history. Afghan-owned establishments and a couple of mosques dot Mission Boulevard along the mountain range, between the Wal-Mart and the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, next to the bowling lanes and used-car lots, as massive trucks roar by. The local emigres
live tucked away in small apartments, the more successful ones in comfortable houses up in the hills.
The heart of the community is Little Kabul, a small stretch of Afghan-owned gift shops, restaurants and grocery stores along the quieter Fremont Boulevard. People go there to shop, to congregate and hear the latest news. At the Salang Pass restaurant, a striking mural of majestic green mountains covers one wall; decorative sabers and pearl-encrusted knives hang on another. Business is brisk -- a lot of it includes curious journalists in the past few weeks -- and politics is in the air.
Said Safi Gufran, a 45-year-old former taxi driver, has finished off a lamb kebab and is ready to talk. "I love America," he says, then points to his eyes. "One eye is American, one eye Afghan." As a mujahed opposing the Soviets in the 1980s, Gufran's job was to take Western journalists into Afghanistan; then he came to New York and drove a taxi for 13 years until an accident injured his arm. He has six children and now subsists on welfare and refugee aid. That could all change, he says, if things go the right way. "If there's a government and democracy, I'm the first to go" back, he says. "I want to work for the
A few doors down, Homa Youn, owner of the Pamir Food Mart -- selling pistachio sweet cakes, mutton biryani, decorative rugs and amber tea -- echoes the sentiment. He fought the Soviets for seven years and has been a resident here since 1990.
Bomb the Taliban, he says. "If you're Afghan, you laugh for the bombing. I have a friend in Kabul. He says when the bombs go overhead, people are clapping. We have 3 million refugees in Peshawar. Why don't you see Afghan people on the street supporting bin Laden?"
Not everyone is as enthusiastic as Youn about the U.S. assault. "You're bombarding my country -- how do you think we feel?" says Wahid Andesha, the owner of Salang Pass. "How did you feel when they bombed the World Trade Center? That's how we've been feeling for 30 years."
Andesha himself has been here for 30 years, but he feels no less Afghan for it. He has been to Washington to lobby on behalf of his country many times. And he thinks chasing Taliban foot soldiers is pointless. "You're going after people who have no power," he says. "By bombing the Taliban, you're not solving terrorism. You're killing children. You have to go for the source, who trained them. They're in Pakistan."
And then there is 25-year-old Sophia Masody, a blond, blue-eyed American convert to Islam who is raising her three small children, ages 5, 3 and 1, to be good Muslims. Married to an Afghan, Masody is frightened at anti-Muslim sentiment around her, concerned about the impact on her children. The week after the Sept. 11 attacks, she kept her children home from their Islamic school and removed her veil. She was upset to see her 5-year-old son playing with building blocks, piling them up to make two tall towers, then knocking them down with his hands.
"You don't know what to put up on your car, a flag or what," she says after shopping at the food mart, although her car does have an American flag. Masody is organizing an art project of condolence messages from her children's school to victims of the terrorist attacks.
"People see you covered and they freak out," she says. "It's a shame, it breaks my heart. The Afghans are innocent in all this." Among the Afghan Americans here, gentle, soft-spoken Najia Hamid is perhaps the hardest to understand. She works tirelessly at the Fremont City Hall, helping Afghan senior citizens, many of whom are housebound and impoverished. Today she winces as she walks because she has not had time to go to the doctor after falling down some stairs last week.
Hamid has been in the United States since 1990. Before that she worked for the United Nations in Afghanistan for 10 years and at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan for three. She is a rare sort around here: a pro-Taliban holdout.
"My dear," she says sweetly, "I support the Taliban because at least they did something for the country." She is perched on a couch in her sister's cramped apartment as fragrant rice cooks in the kitchen. Another sister and two brothers live in Kabul. "They brought security, they brought opium cultivation to zero percent, they collected the weapons. It's not easy in five years to expect so much from poor people."
As for the question of brutality toward women, "the women's issue comes after that," she says. In April, Hamid went to Afghanistan with a suitcase full of cash to start a medical clinic in her native village, south of Kabul. She met an official at the foreign ministry and says she wore only a head scarf, not the shroudlike burqa, at the meeting. "He said, 'You are our older sister, we are your younger brother, we will help you,' " she recalls. "I went to my province with the Taliban, I worked with them like a man; there was an American with me." She pauses. Americans, she says, "criticize a lot, but we don't help. There's too much talking, no action."
At the big conclave at Mission Paradise last week, the speeches stretched on into the night. A parade of former bureaucrats, liberals, religious leaders -- even students from the University of California at Berkeley -- declared their support for a new Afghanistan that would bar ethnic discrimination and foreign interference and would grant equal rights to women.
But dissent was apparent. There were murmurs from some that the speeches did not sufficiently consider Islam. There is little agreement on what the components of an eventual ruling coalition should be.
How many former refugees -- now American residents with mortgages, with children in local schools, with cars and credit cards -- will ever go back to Afghanistan? It's hard to say. There is a wistfulness about the speakers, even among those who have no memories of Afghanistan. One of the Berkeley students, 20-year-old Durrana Najat, says: "We're all American, but we connect deeply with our Afghan culture. I would move if there were peace, or some established government."
Waheed Momand, the software engineer, is dubious. "To be honest, it probably won't happen on a big scale," he says, when asked how many would move back. "Reconstructing Afghanistan is the main point. Everyone will make excuses [not to move back permanently]. So we want a system where people will go for a short time, for three months. But we can't do this without United States help, or United Nations
Among the speakers there is a sense of desperation. "This is the time. We have to start," insists Rona Popal, a women's rights activist. "We will have a very hard and difficult time. But this is our last chance to bring stability. If we don't use this chance, believe me -- we can forget it."
Some are inclined to forget it already. "We're all trying to see what will come out of this," Yaar observes, but he adds: "Based on past experience, I don't see something good coming out."
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