Back to Kabul, With a Queens Accent

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Nov 3 18:44:19 UTC 2003

>>From the New York Times, November 3, 2003

Back to Kabul, With a Queens Accent


    Zikria Nazamy lost almost everything when he fled Afghanistan. Born
into a wealthy family with houses in Kabul, Logar, and Kunduz, he left at
age 9 with his parents and seven siblings, and spent his adolescent years
working the checkout counter in a supermarket in Flushing, Queens. But
recently Mr. Nazamy known as Jack in this country began a reverse journey
few immigrants ever undertake. During a trip to Afghanistan in August and
September, he and his father were able to reclaim their houses from
squatters after a 23-year absence, along with the family's farm and fields
in Logar. He married an Afghan woman in a ceremony attended by hundreds of
his relatives. Now he is facing the surreal prospect of moving back to
Kabul and assuming his father's old life.

"I never dreamed this would happen," said Mr. Nazamy, a stoop-shouldered
32-year-old who speaks with a strong Queens accent. After American-led
forces drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan two years ago, Afghans
in Flushing began rediscovering a country many thought they would never
see again.  Some are renting out or selling their reclaimed houses in
Afghanistan, some have started businesses there and many are making money
as they shuttle back and forth.

"It's been a great opportunity for us financially," said Ahmad W. Afzali,
who runs a Muslim funeral parlor in Flushing. Not all the news is good.
Many returning Afghans find relatives dead and houses destroyed or taken
over by squatters. The country is still relatively lawless outside Kabul,
and most Afghans in Queens are hedging their bets until the government
gains a firmer control.

Still, outside the marble facade of the Masjid Hazrat-i-Abu Bakr, the
largest Afghan mosque in New York City and a gathering place for many of
the city's 20,000 Afghan immigrants, tales of loss and redemption can be
heard every Friday after prayers. Hashmat Farooqi, 32, opened a
cement-mixing plant in Kabul last month, and now divides his time between
Flushing and Afghanistan.

Ghulam Yousufi, a 52-year-old taxi driver, returned to his home in
Mazar-i-Sharif in September and became engaged for the first time. Akbar
Yunusi, 27, a short-order cook, finally got his old Kabul house back after
a three-month search for the profligate cousin who had run off with the
deed. But few reversals of fortune are as sudden or as complete as Mr.

Growing up in Flushing, he thought of Afghanistan only as the place in the
photographs on his parents' living room walls. As a student at
Intermediate School 25 and Francis Lewis High School, he quickly mastered
English and refashioned himself as an American, worshiping the New York
Giants and working at Waldbaum's. After high school, he decided not to go
to college and took a job at a hotel reception desk in Manhattan. He had
only dim memories of the family's regal life in Kabul, where his father
had run the city's only ice factory and an import-export business. A
business owner and religious man, his father, Ghlum Nazamy, was an obvious
target when the Communists came to power. On the advice of a Russian
trading partner, he left for the United States in 1978, bringing his
family two years later.

None of the Nazamys thought they would ever see Afghanistan again. Even
after the Taliban were forced from power in late 2001, Mr. Nazamy and his
father hesitated. "I was scared," he said, sitting in a coffee shop in
Flushing. "You hear a lot about how dangerous it is over there."

Mr. Nazamy and his father finally left in mid-August, after assurances
from relatives that it was safe. Mr. Nazamy's mother has died, and his
siblings were busy with their own families and could not come along. The
day after the men arrived in Kabul, several cousins accompanied them to
their two-story concrete house, which, amazingly, was still in good
condition. But they found a man living there with his own family and
brothers, about 15 people in all.

"We said to him, `Are you the owner of this house?' " Mr. Nazamy recalled.
"He said no. My father said, `It's good you're honest, because I am the
owner, and I want to come back.' " Far from being angry, the man said he
was grateful for being able to stay so long without paying rent. He agreed
instantly to move out, and asked for 10 days, Mr. Nazamy said.

Stunned at their good luck, father and son went on to Logar and Kunduz,
where they found sweet melons ripening in the fields. The people the
family had entrusted the land to were still working it, and they said the
Nazamys were welcome to return. Even the ice factory is still there,
though it is not yet clear whether the family will be able to reclaim it.
Tribal connections helped: Mr. Nazamy and his father belong to the Ahmad
Zai, an influential Pashtun group. So did the fact that Ghlum Nazamy had
held onto his title deeds, and that no one challenged them.

The Taliban issued new deeds, making life more difficult for many
returning Afghans, said Nisar A. Zuri, who published a news bulletin in
Queens called "Agenda for Afghanistan" until he returned to Kabul last
year. Back at the house in Flushing that he shares with his father, Zikria
Nazamy still looked incredulous as he leafed through photographs of the
family's houses, lush fields and flocks of relatives at his wedding.

Mr. Nazamy grew up expecting to marry an American. But after a few
relationships that ended badly during his 20's, he was willing to listen
when his father offered to set him up with an Afghan woman last year. He
saw videotapes of her and spoke to her a few times by phone. His Farsi is
rusty, and her English is poor, but they managed to understand each other.
"I wanted to get to know her better," he said shyly. "But I took a

Now, he says, he finds himself unsure whether he is American or Afghan, or
both. Since the trip, his job at the
Manhattan hotel has begun to seem onerous, the hours long. He dreams of
the melons growing in his family's
fields in Logar, and imagines a new life as farmer or factory owner. And
he misses his wife, whom he is trying
to bring to the United States before they decide whether to move to
Afghanistan for good.

He still hesitates. "It's not easy over there," he said. "They need a lot
of rebuilding, and the roads  forget
about it."

"But we want people to know these thing are ours," he added. "We are
coming back."

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