Monday, January 14, 2013

"Little Kabul", Fremont, CA

Fremont, CA is legendary. I was told it is a Little Kabul because of the number of Afghans who live here. I was waiting to visit it and immerse myself in its sights and sounds.

People migrated from Afghanistan to the U.S. in three major waves; first around the time of the Soviet invasion in 1979, not just in response to it but also in preparation for it. The pro-communist turn of Afghanistan's political landscape started pushing a lot of people to consider leaving the U.S. and when the troops arrived, the exodus began.

A few years ago I met an Afghan man who corrected my version of Afghan history according to which the Soviets 'invaded' Afghanistan. He explained that the Soviets had not 'invaded' Afghanistan, they were 'invited' by the pro-Soviet government. I understand what he meant, he was pushing for the historians of Afghanistan to point the finger at the Afghan rulers who made Afghanistan vulnerable to Soviet interference. Following that conversation, I feel very aware of the position I take when I refer to the Soviet period as an 'invasion' and not simply a 'period' or 'presence'. Even as the Afghan government had enabled the Soviet presence, they had not invited the destruction that the Soviet troops brought.

The second wave was during the period of Civil War, the Soviet troops had withdrawn and left behind a power vacuum that was filled by a chaos of political opponents who had previously united against the Soviets but now bickered to decide who would be on top. Some say that the destruction of the Civil War outdid the destruction by the Soviet troops because the arms and ammunition they had all been provided to fight the Soviets could now be used to fight each other.

The third wave of migration was inspired by the Taliban. Against a backdrop of human rights violations against women, ethnic and religious minorities, people scrambled to find their way out. The world saw what the Taliban did to Afghan women, but what the world does not always know (or talk about) is that the Taliban also broke down the spirit of Afghan men and Afghan minorities. For example, according to Ahmed Rashid (author of 'Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia'), the exports of fake beards to Afghanistan rose to an all-time high during the Taliban regime for the benefit of men who could not grow their beards well enough to satisfy the Taliban militia that identified men's adherence to Islam on the basis of how well they grew their beards.

However, beyond the frontlines of this war were the households that people made constant efforts to run. Against the backdrop of bombs and missiles were the regular lives that people strove to lead. People still cooked their food, visited friends, got married, had children, buried their dead. They lived with a sharp awareness of their own mortality. And when they had the resources, they migrated. I almost used the word 'escaped' instead of 'migrated', and I meant it in a good way but the word 'escaped' can also have strong negative connotations because of its proximity to its hedonistic cousin word 'escapism'. However, escapism underestimates the challenges of leaving Afghanistan. They left the bombs and the fear of death but they still carried Afghanistan and its memories. They escaped but also did not.

When I reached Fremont, CA and entered the Little Kabul grocery store (, I felt a lump in my throat and I avoided eye contact with anybody. I was taking in the little bits of Afghanistan that people were recreating beyond its borders, thousands of miles away. I saw how Afghanistan had traveled. An Afghanistan that exists despite the bombs and the political chaos. In doing the study that I am doing, I am trying to see THAT Afghanistan. I want to see it, hear it, touch it, taste it.

I am getting to do a bit of that each day. I met someone who graciously accompanied me to De Afghanan ( We ordered Bolani, Qabili Pallow, Firni and Sheer Yakh. The last two were dessert. When the Bolani arrived, I spontaneously said 'oh it's like Indian Parathas' and my companion said 'but it is Bolani'. I smiled inside and reminded myself of what Jiddu Krishnamurthi said about treating each experience as unique instead of trying to connect it what you already know. It's important, Bolani is Bolani, not like or unlike anything. It is Bolani.

As I sit at my laptop, writing this blog, I  think of my dinner companion who said he misses Sheer Yakh and I think of the man who started De Afghanan (which means 'Afghan village') saying that it was his attempt to recreate the flavors of Kabul. Food helps you travel to lands you cannot touch but so deeply crave.

I am thinking of what I flavors I associate with Afghanistan. I think of Nuqul , sugary with a roasted saltiness, and a touch of rose water. I think of Sheer Yakh, cold but with deep flavors from the milk and nuts. Bolani, wheat bread stuffed with vegetables that remind me of home. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Gitika,

    Thanks for writing about your work, this is really interesting. I'll be following your blog as you explore more!