Bay Area Afghan expatriates walk tightrope

Bay Area Afghan expatriates walk tightrope

Those who returned to rebuild are caught between 2 cultures
By Fariba Nawa and Juliette Terzieff
June 17, 2002
The San Francisco Chronicle

Kabul — While most of Kabul was watching television or asleep, a party unimaginable six months ago was heating up.

A warm breeze played through the backyard of a house in the capital’s Wazir Akbar Khan district, one of two well-to-do neighborhoods that largely survived 23 years of civil war, as men and women mingled, danced to live music and drank alcohol.

At a birthday party for an Afghan translator who smiled broadly, the guests included dozens of foreign reporters who came to cover the loya jirga, some local Afghan men and a group of Afghan Americans from the Bay Area here to do service to a homeland from which they spent most of their lives away.

A few of the Afghan American men and women slyly danced to the music and kept their beers hidden behind their backs as neighbors sat in shock atop their mud walls watching a display of freedom available previously only on satellite television.

Six months ago, the ruling Taliban militia would likely have imprisoned everyone at the house. But while those days are over, and the fundamentalist gone, the open lifestyles Westerners take for granted are still a long way off.

About an hour before the capital’s 11 p.m. curfew, officers of the interim Interior Ministry men raided the party, told everyone to go home and threatened to cart the host off to jail. They were upset at hearing that Afghan women — never mind that they were American citizens — had danced and forsaken their Islamic honor. In the end, no one was arrested, but the officers made clear that any repetition would not be tolerated.

For the dozens of Afghan Americans who have returned to help rebuild Afghanistan and come to terms with the other half of their hyphenated identity, fitting in has been a challenge. “You confront who you are here,” said Rina Amiri, a political affairs officer for the United Nations who arrived five months ago.

“You say it’s OK to feel like a foreigner in the U.S. because you think your home is Afghanistan, but you come here and realize this isn’t your home either,” she said. “We’re somewhere in the middle, stuck in a crack.”

Amiri, 33, left Afghanistan when she was 4 and grew up in Fremont, home to America’s largest Afghan community.

She gave up a position at Harvard University to return and work on the loya jirga process, traveling to many provinces to oversee district elections, and working day and night to make sure the assembly is successful. Her work has been fulfilling and most local Afghans, she said, have welcomed her.

In fact, it was hard to distinguish Amiri from local Afghan women as she sat among the delegates in the loya jirga tent, a black scarf draped around her hair, her deep brown eyes fixed on a cleric reciting a Koranic verse.

“I get really emotional when I listen to this,” she said, her eyes glistening.


Amiri comes from a conservative family who did not let her indulge in such activities as drinking and dancing in Fremont. Still, some Afghans view her — single, alone and far away from her family and working with Westerners — as a loose woman.

“It hurts when they say that, but there’s nothing you can do,” she said.

Her struggle for acceptance as a working woman in a conservative society where fewer than 10 percent of the women are literate is indeed a daunting one, but Amiri says the experience has been cathartic and one of the best in her life.

So far only a modest number of expatriate Afghans have come here to work. The U.N.’s Returning Qualified Afghans program has 5,200 applications for professionals wanting to return, but it has been able to fund only 231 of them from 35 different countries. Most come from the United States or Pakistan.

Halima Kazem, 24, grew up in San Jose, graduated from New York University with a master’s degree in the spring and joined interim national leader Hamid Karzai’s staff as a media consultant.

An infant when her parents fled the civil war, Kazem spent an emotional first two weeks acquainting herself with Kabul — helping in orphanages and schools, and filling the nights with live Afghan music, fascinating conversation and good food.

“Some people kissed the ground when we arrived,” she recalled. “There was a sense of patriotism and camaraderie I’ve never experienced before.”

But once Kazem settled in, the gender issue quickly surfaced. When she goes shopping, men stare at her. She wears pants and long-sleeved shirts and has a scarf wrapped around her neck to perch on her head when venturing into a conservative milieu.

But Kazem has decided to keep the scarf off most of the time and is willing to put up with the ubiquitous leers.

“I want people to get used to seeing women with a bare head,” she said. “I hate the staring and want to put on a burqa at times, but instead of getting angry, I smile at them ask them what they’re looking at. They smile back happy to know I’m Afghan.”

Kazem’s high-profile position gives her access to top leaders and the leeway to negotiate her role as a woman. She’s the only woman in the presidential palace, and one of the guards calls her “the palace princess.”


But even for Kazem, eating out or mingling with locals, especially from the opposite sex, is taboo. The returning exiles spent much of their time working, and their social lives are spent either with relatives or expatriates.

Those strictures will not have to be a part of the everyday lifestyle of Rona Popal, a well-known Bay Area Afghan American activist who came as an expatriate delegate to the loya jirga.

For more than 20 years, Popal has championed the cause of women’s rights from her home in Union City, and in 1992 she founded the Afghan Women’s Association International to raise funds and assistance for thousands of grandmothers, mothers and widows struggling to survive in this war-ravaged country.

Popal, who was born in Kabul 50 years ago and represents the Northern California diaspora at the loya jirga, said a bit despondently, “All we’ve managed to do in six days is to vote for a president who was already selected.”

She adds that it remains to be seen whether the loya jirga will play a substantive role in selecting members for Karzai’s Cabinet, a process fraught with problems over ethnic representation.

“If the loya jirga does not decide about the Cabinet, no one will be satisfied. If we’re not here to elect the government, then why are we here?” she asked, echoing an inquiry made by dozens of delegates on the council floor.

But for those like Popal, who have watched, worked and waited for Afghanistan to break its bloody cycle of decades-long strife, the past week has also been a dream come true: “Think about it. Six months ago, women could not walk freely on the street without risking being beaten up. Now we are sitting here with the men, deciding a course for Afghanistan.”

Popal dismissed the seemingly chaotic nature of the proceedings, saying: “This is democracy. Let them scream, let them yell, let them voice their conflicting opinions. If you tell them to shut up, you are going right back to the dictatorships of the past.”

Popal plans to return to the United States later this week and resume lobbying for reconstruction aid for the country. U.N. officials estimate Afghanistan needs $45 billion over the next 10 years for that task; of the $4. 5 billion promised by international donors for this year, only $1.8 billion has come through so far.

“There is a lot of work to be done, so many in need,” Popal said of Afghanistan’s estimated 700,000 war widows.


One of her key goals is to bring the educational sector up to international standards, because “our future lies with the young.”

Popal’s core issue — women’s rights — has been at the forefront of the loya jirga, with outspoken women from across the country boldly standing up to express their views and to chastise the warlords and military commanders who have dominated the country’s politics.

“This is a watershed moment in Afghan history,” said John Kelly of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German nongovernmental organization. “The women have shown the political backbone, the political savvy, that the men have just not been able to muster.

“Their courage makes them potentially the potent force in Afghan politics. It would be folly for the men to ignore them.”

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