Afghanistan is a country in Asia which most Americans probably spent little time thinking about before the 11 September attacks in 2001. Even after the subsequent US invasion and thirteen year occupation of Afghanistan, I don’t recall ever seeing a single Afghan face in any media and I’d bet that most Americans wrongly think that Afghanistan is an Arabic country in the Middle East rather than one that shares a border with China. Afghans have been coming to the US in small numbers for about a century and small communities have coalesced in Fremont, northern Virginia, the Northeast, and the Los Angeles area, the focus of this piece.
A CONDENSED HISTORY OF AFGHANISTAN
Archaeological evidence suggests that Neanderthals and other early humans lived in what’s now Afghanistan at least 52,000 years ago. Around 3000 BCE, farming communities of the Indus Valley Civilization arose in the area. Aryan people arrived in the area around 2000 BCE. In 330 BCE, after conquering Persia, Alexander the Great and his army arrived. The area’s strategic importance owed to its being located along the Silk Road and throughout its history the land has been contested and ruled by a succession of peoples, including Arabs, Durranis, Ghaznavids, Ghurids, Greco-Bactrians, Hephthalites, Hotakis, Indo-Parthians, Indo-Scythians, Kidarites, Kushans, Mauryas, Mughals, Mongols, Pālas, Saffarids, Samanids, Sassanids, Shahiya, Timurids, and Uzbeks. So many dynasties have met their end in Afghanistan, in fact, that it’s acquired the nickname, “the Graveyard of Empires,” an historic lesson the British, Soviets, and Americans would arguably have done well to heed.
The Afghan tribes were united under Mīrwais Khān Hotak, and the Last Afghan Empire (the Durrani Empire) was founded by Ahmad Shah Durrani with its capital at Kandahar, today the second largest city in Afghanistan. The British, Persians, and Russians all attempted to conquer Afghanistan in the 19th Century and after the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–1880) the British, though ostensibly victorious, withdrew and officially established (with the Russians) the modern borders of Afghanistan, initially a British Protectorate. A third Anglo-Afghan War convinced the British to completely relinquish control in 1920.
In the 20th century, efforts to modernize Afghanistan were made under King Amanullah Khan, who made education both compulsory and co-ed. He also banned the muslim veil and which aroused the hostility of tribal and religious leaders, who forced him to abdicate the throne in 1929. Afghanistan’s next two leaders were both assassinated and Afghanistan’s political situation in the years that followed saw drought, corruption, extremism, and outsider meddling stymie democratization, liberalization, and modernization, which nevertheless developed gradually, culminating with the creation of the Republic of Afghanistan in 1973.
The country’s first President, Mohammed Daoud Khan, and his family were killed in a 1978 military coup led by members of the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) who through brutal oppressive force attempted to transform Afghanistan into an egalitarian, secular, Marxist-Leninist country. To achieve their aims the PDPA invited help from the USSR, and when the Afghan people revolted in 1979, the USSR responded by launching an invasion. The US and Saudia Arabia responded by arming a largely foreign, Arabic jihadis known as the Mujahideen with $40 billion worth of cash and weapons. In the ten year conflict that resulted, some 1,500,000 Afghans were killed and roughly six million fled, mostly to Iran and Pakistan, but also to Europe and the US.
The USSR withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 and their state collapsed two years later. Afghanistan plunged into civil war which ultimately ended with the creation of the Islamic State of Afghanistan. Violence continued, largely fueled by local forces who received support from India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and the US — all keen to shape events to their advantage. The Pakistan-backed Taliban ultimately conquered the country and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996. In 2001, al-Qaeda, a force comprised largely of former American-armed Mujahideen and supported by the Taliban, attacked the US killing 2,996 people (excluding the hijackers). The US, in turn, invaded Afghanistan, an invasion which turned into America’s longest war, and one in which (as of 2015), 2,326 Americans and an estimated 92,000 Afghans have died.
Despite the creation of a unity government and renewed efforts at self-sustainability, Afghanistan remains highly unstable and the flow of refugees has increased since the war’s official end. Afghan-Americans include people of various ethnicities including Pashtun, Baloch, Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek, and others. As of 2014 there were an estimated 97,865 Afghan-Americans. According to census data, 9,711 arrived between 1991 and 2000; 13,533 arrived between 2001 and 2010. In California, the largest communities are in Aliso Viejo, Fremont, Irvine, and Simi Valley.
AFGHAN CULTURE IN THE US AND LOS ANGELES
Despite the US’s long and complicated relationship with Afghanistan, most of us probably know little about Afghans. My mother referred to the crocheted couch throw as an afghan and I knew what an Afghan hound looked like. In 1985, a portrait of a young refugee named Sharbat Gula was famously featured as the cover of National Geographic. James Bond and Rambo both teamed up with the pre-al-Qaeda mujahideen in The Living Daylights and Rambo III. In college, a pakol was briefly part of my winter get-up.
Even with their increased presence in the US, overt displays of Afghan culture remain rare and obscure. Nowruz, the widely observed Vernal Equinox/New Year, sometimes is the basis of cultural festivals in the US, although it’s more closely associated with Persians than Afghans. Occasionally an Afghanistan-focused photo exhibition will open, invariably of the war porn variety. In 2012, there was an event called Sounds and Rhythms of Afghanistan with Ballet Afsaneh, Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Despite the existence of an Afghan-American community, there are no locally based Afghan-American organizations that I know of. There are, however, a few prominent Afghan-Americans. One of the first, and most interesting, was Wallace Fard Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam, who may or may not have been Afghan. Little of certainty can be said about Muhammad. The FBI, who produced a good deal of spurious information about Muhammad, alleged that he used 58 aliases. Before he arrived in Detroit in 1930, where he went door-to-door in the black community, peddling silks and claiming to have come from Mecca, he lived in Los Angeles, where he was involved with the short-lived Moorish Science Temple and acquired a police record with charges including a violation of the “California Wolverine Possession Act.” His World War I draft registration card listed his birthplace as Shinka, Afghanistan — although at other times he claimed to be from New Zealand. Karl Evanzz, author of The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad, asserts that Wallace Fard Muhammad’s father was Zared Fard, a New Zealander whose parents hailed from a part of India now in Pakistan. The same author claims that the mysterious Muhammad died in Chicago in 1971, afther he disappeared from public in 1971.
Azita Ghanizada was born in Kabul in 1979 and her family left the country soon after the Soviet invasion. After receiving degrees in English and Journalism she moved to Los Angeles to work as an actress. She’s appeared as a guest star in numerous television series and as a regular on General Hospital: Night Shift and Alphas.
Daveed Kapoor is an sustainability advocate and architect who founded the architecture firm, Utopiad, which has given the adaptive reuse treatment to create homes, art spaces, offices. The green agenda has also extended to the creation of parcels and the proposal to cap freeways with parks.
Khaled Hosseini (خالد حسینی) is an Afghan physician, novelist, and former Angeleno. He was born in Kabul in 1965 to a diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a Persian language teacher at a girls’ high school. When Khaled was eleven, the family moved to Paris and, four years later, to San Jose. In Southern California, Hosseini earned his MD at University of California, San Diego and completed his residency at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. After ten years of practicing medicine he wrote a novel, The Kite Runner, which was adapted into a successful Hollywood film of the same name after which Hosseini retired from medicine to pursue writing.
Naim Popal (نعیم پوپل) is an Afghan composer and singer born in Kabul in 1954. In high school he formed the band, Lalaha, in which he sang and played keyboards. He worked as a sound technician at the state-run Afghan Film and a producer at Radio Kabul. In 1975 he moved to Tehran in the pursuit of stardom, only to flee to Los Angeles after the Iranian Revolution.
In 1990, a Glendale-born Afghan-American teenager from La Cañada named Yasmine Begum Delawari was chosen to be the 72nd Rose Queen for Pasadena‘s annual Rose Parade. Her Italian-Afghan-American mother, Setara Begum, met her Afghan father, Noorullah Delawari, in Afghanistan and the couple later married in London. Yasmine appeared in Curtis Hanson‘s 1986 film, The Children of Times Square, and later went on to appear in numerous films and television series, including as recurring character Yasmin Asmir on American Family. Her sisters, Soraya and Ariana are also both involved in the entertainment industry.
Traditional music of Afghanistan reflects the cultural influences of Arab, Chinese, Indian, Mongolian, and Persian music. The lute-like dombra is favored by Hazaras and Tajiks. The rubab, a forerunner of the Indian sarod, is widely thought of as Afghanistan’s national instrument. One of the instrument’s best known players, Homayun Sakhi, now lives in Fremont.
The Taliban banned most music but since their removal from power, Kabul and Herat have re-emerged as important Afghan music centers. Religious sects such as the Sufis and Shi’a make music in a variety of genres, including manqabat, mursia, na’t, nowheh, and rowzeh. Chazals, ragas, and tarana — collectively referred to as klasik (or “Classical music”) — are composed by muusicians reputedly descended from those of the Indian royal court.
Afghanistan’s first radio station was founded in 1925 and destroyed in 1929. Radio Kabul was established in 1940. Ustad Farida Mahwash, the “voice of Afghanistan,” was a pop singer who enjoyed fame in the 1970s, a period widely considered to be the golden age of Afghan pop. She now lives in Fremont. Since the removal of the Taliban, pop and rap have emerged and enjoy a degree of popularity.
Given the nearly continuous instability throughout much of the 20 and 21st centuries, it should come as no surprise that the history of Aghani Cinema is a slight one. The first film produced in Afghanistan was Reshid Latif’s Ishq Wa Dosti (Love and Friendship, 1946). The government began funding the production of documentaries in 1968. Afghanistan never had a film academy and under the Taliban, the nation’s cinemas were closed, destroyed, or turned into teahouses. The Taliban also destroyed many of the films in Afghan Film’s archives.
Although Iranian, celebrated director Mohsen Makhmalbaf‘s Afghanistan-set film قندهار (Kandahar, 2001) seems to have helped spur the reinvigoration of Afghan Cinema. Siddiq Barmak’s اسامه (Osama, 2003) received widespread international acclaim and attention. Since the fall of the Taliban, though, most films made in Afghanistan have been foreign productions like the British In This World or the Hollywood film, The Kite Runner. Afghan directors have, conversely, mostly worked outside Afghanistan. Affandy Yacoob and Ajmal Yourish‘s Al Qarem was filmed in New York. 2012’s سنگ صبور (The Patience Stone), directed by French-based Atiq Rahimi, opened domestically in New York and Los Angeles.
Afghan Cuisine is largely based upon barley, bread, chutney, grapes, maize, melons, milk, pomegranates, rice, torshi, wheat, whey, and yogurt. Kabuli palaw is widely regarded as Afghanistan’s national dish. Bata, dumplings, kebabs, korma, and quroot are also popular dishes and doogh is the most popular beverage.
The first Afghan restaurant in the US, Bamian, opened in Falls Church, Virginia in 1975. In Los Angeles County, Azeen’s Afghani Restaurant restaurant opened in Pasadena in 2004 and Afghan Express opened in Gardena in 2010. Sadly, Afghan Express closed in 2013 and Azeen’s closed in 2016. I swear when Agra Cafe opened in Sunset Junctions it advertised itself as both an Indian and Afghan restaurant but I can’t prove that and perhaps it was just a dream. Agra is, after all, a city in Uttar Pradesh, far from Afghanistan… although it is a Balti house, and Baltistan does border Afghanistan. There is a place called De Lux Cafe in Montrose, which has only one (positive) review on Yelp and is listed as Afghan.
There are restaurants which though not necessarily dedicated solely to Afghan cuisine nevertheless serve Afghan items (are are claimed to by the highly suspect experts on Yelp). Those include Ariana (in Tarzana), S Gyros & Kabob House and Khybar Restaurant (both in Reseda), Family Meat Market (in Northridge), Kebab House (in Panorama City), all of which are not surprisingly in the San Fernando Valley. UPDATE: There’s a new Afghan restaurant in Beverly Hills, Afghani Kabob House. Here’s an article about Ariana, Joshua Lurie‘s “Ariana Serves Glorious Afghan Cuisine in Tarzana“ and another about Afghan Kabob House, Joshua Lurie‘s “A New Afghan Gem in the Heart of Beverly Hills.”
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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, Boom: A Journal of California, Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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