From Statesmanship to Capitalism, Afghan Family Leads


One brother will be installed Saturday as the leader of a newly liberated Afghanistan. The other will be planning his newest restaurant in America.

Both are members of the Popalzoi, a tribe whose Durrani ancestors--part of the larger Pushtun clan--have been involved in Afghanistan’s governance for centuries.

To Hamid Karzai, 44, the head of Afghanistan’s post-Taliban provisional government, serving his country is a life’s dream, an opportunity to avenge their father’s death in a 1999 assassination the family believes was ordered by Taliban leader Mullah Muhammed Omar.

To his brother Mahmood, 47, serving his customers is a calling just as noble. “I’m the Adam Smith of my family,” he said, referring to the famed economist. “I really love that man.”


But if these two brothers--one Afghan, one American, one liberator, one capitalist--differ in temperament and values, they share an affection for country and an abiding love of their father that has made them a team.

Ask Mahmood about his brother and he talks about Hamid’s natural aptitude for the give-and-take of politics. “He’d make a lousy manager,” said the brother who owns restaurants in San Francisco, Cambridge, Mass., and Boston and is planning a fourth in Maryland. “And I could never be a good politician.”

Like many immigrants who come to America with hopes of economic achievement, Mahmood has not forgotten his roots, sending money home regularly to help those who stayed behind. In this case, though, the remittance money is historic. Mahmood’s belief in Adam Smith in effect helped fund Hamid’s conviction that Afghanistan could be liberated.

There are other siblings. Of the eight children of Abdul Ahad Karzai, four brothers and a sister came to the United States. Three brothers stayed in Afghanistan or Pakistan to fight the Soviets, then the Taliban.


Qayum, 51, who owns two restaurants in Baltimore, was the first to come to this country, in 1969. During the Taliban reign, he helped launch Afghans for a Civil Society, a charity to help the country restore its political and cultural fabric. He will be at Hamid’s side Saturday.

Fawzia, 49, runs Mahmood’s restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., named Helmand’s, for their home region. Abdul Ahmad, 52, is a mechanical engineer at the University of Maryland, and Wali, 37, is an assistant professor of biochemistry at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Mahmood, the closest in age to Hamid, was always the most protective. When Hamid went off to college in India, Mahmood supported him financially. “They were always very close,” Wali recalled.

Now, Mahmood worries about Hamid. “It’s dangerous,” he said, glancing at a photo of their father. “The only thing that comforts me is the presence of those international troops.”

Their father was killed two years ago while walking home from a mosque in Quetta, Pakistan, where he lived in exile from the Taliban. On his death, Hamid organized a 300-vehicle convoy of tribal chiefs and mourners and, defying the Taliban, drove his father’s body home for burial in Kandahar.

“My father was the greatest politician God ever created,” Mahmood said. “His gift was the art of people.”

Hamid, described by the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid as “an unflagging negotiator and conciliator willing to spend days to win his point amongst the tribes,” may well be his father’s protege. He speaks six languages--Pushtu, Dari, Urdu, English, French and Hindi. Mahmood, despite his years in America, jokes that Hamid’s English is better than his own.

Years before, Mahmood had urged Hamid to come to the United States, to work in the family’s restaurants. One trip to the kitchens, where he watched his older brother chop onions, was hardly persuasive.


To Mahmood, chopping onions was part of his education. “I started as a busboy,” he said in an interview from his large home of elegant furnishings in suburban Maryland. “I was a waiter. I know everything about the restaurant business. I know how to make cappuccino. I can take apart the equipment.”

He and his wife started in Chicago, then decided they liked the business opportunities in San Francisco. They opened Helmand’s, on Broadway, in 1989, just in time for the earthquake that turned out the city’s lights and delayed the World Series. “For the first month we had no business,” he recalled. Then a reviewer from the San Francisco Chronicle discovered the place, and “we couldn’t put down the phone.”

Now he is dreaming of opening a Spanish restaurant in Columbia, Md., halfway between Washington and Baltimore, with bakery ovens in the dining room and an open kitchen.

Mahmood thinks Afghanistan needs a lesson in democracy, Adam Smith-style. When he first read the Scottish economist best known for his “Wealth of Nations” philosophy, Mahmood Karzai saw for the first time that economics could be separated from politics. Wealth was not dependent on corrupt regimes awarding monopolies to cronies, Karzai decided, but on free trade.

What he hopes for his homeland is what he found in America: a political philosophy of human rights for women and voting rights for everyone; an economic system with minimum government interference and maximum reward for individual industry.

He is not blind to the inequities of the system, or to the demands it has made on his time. The American Karzais worked nights, sacrificed family birthdays, maintained three houses for Hamid and his fellow refugees in Pakistan.

“My husband never had a chance to attend the children’s games, and neither did Qayum,” said Wazhma Karzai, Mahmood’s wife of 23 years, mother of their four daughters and like him a member of the Popalzoi tribe. “That’s our contribution to Afghanistan’s freedom. Hamid deserves this. But the others do too.”