Exile On Charles Street: Restaurateur Qayum Karzai's life is split between Baltimore and his native Afghanistan

City Paper

Last September, Hamid Karzai, the outgoing president of Afghanistan, made a number of disparaging remarks about U.S. involvement in that country. “America did not want peace for Afghanistan because it had its own agendas and goals here,” he said after pointedly leaving the U.S. out of the group of countries he thanked for helping during the course of his largely U.S.-backed administration. John Oliver, the former “Daily Show” correspondent,  responded on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” by reading a series of negative Yelp reviews of The Helmand, one of the four Baltimore restaurants owned by Qayum Karzai, the president’s older brother.

“It was a funny joke,” Qayum says, pulling up in front of the restaurant in what he calls his “mujahideen Jeep—because you can only jump in and jump out.”

“They did not do their due diligence,” he adds. “It is known to everybody that my politics is not the same as my brother. I’m sorry that [Oliver] is thinking about collective guilt. My brother is a different person.”

In fact, when Qayum ran for president at the end of his brother’s second term, the incumbent failed to endorse him, though there have been suggestions of a dark conspiracy between the brothers to use their apparent opposition to increase the family’s political power. 

“My brother opposed me in the election,” Qayum says without bitterness as he feeds coins into the meter. “I was always critical of his politics even when he was in the jihad, because one day I remember that an article was done by Newsweek or Time magazine. He was quoted as saying, ‘We are proud of our jihad and even our children are being trained on Kalashnikovs.’ I called and told him this is bad. This will haunt you in the future. Children in war is a very dangerous proposition. It just came to me saying it, that we might happen to be in war because of that for years and years to come. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Most of Qayum Karzai’s life has been defined by an overlapping of Afghan politics and business in Baltimore. As we walk toward The Helmand, the flagship restaurant, which City Paper awarded with a Best of Baltimore Hall of Fame award in 2013 because it had won Best Restaurant so many times, he notices a patch of ice on the brick sidewalk in front of the restaurant and pauses to examine it before walking in.

“Hi David, hello, how are you?” he says as he enters. He knows every waiter and busboy by name. He walks around, talking to everyone in the warmly furnished Charles Street stalwart of the city’s dining scene. “Is Assad here?”

“He is off today.”

“Oh yes. It is Tuesday. How was last night?” Karzai asks. He is a small man with a sandy complexion, a bald crown, and a small graying mustache. He is quiet, dignified, and slow moving. He speaks like Marlon Brando, in a quiet, husky tone—until he wants to make some emphatic point. Somehow, he carries himself like he could be both a restaurateur and the leader of a country. 

It is early, 5 o’clock, and only one couple is eating. They are seated beneath a traditional Afghan dress hanging from the brick wall, their faces flashing with the warm glow of a candle on the table.

“Eighty,” one of the employees in a starched white shirt says of the previous night’s reservations. 

“Eighty?” Karzai asks, sounding a bit suspicious.

“Sixty-seven,” says another man. 

Karzai nods. “Sixty-seven,” he mutters to himself as he bends down close to the floor and begins rubbing a spot with his thumb. When the spot doesn’t disappear under his thumb, Karzai makes a microscopic gesture with his head, a sort of nod, and someone takes care of it. Then he walks to the back of the restaurant to chat with Marvin, who is making the delicious naan, the flat bread that is a bit thicker than the Indian bread of the same name,  in a brick oven that seems to cast a warmth over the entire interior of the elegant restaurant.

“I need some salt,” he says. “For outside.” Then he walks outside and stands beside the spot of ice, warning passersby to be careful, until someone brings out a plastic container and he takes it and pours the contents over the ice. “Make sure to send a dishwasher to buy some salt over there,” he says, pointing at the Mount Vernon Supermarket across the street. 

The Helmand has been in this location for more than 25 years, making Qayum Karzai an elder in Baltimore’s restaurant scene. Last year, the Sun’s food critic Richard Gorelick wrote, “I can think of few restaurants that have changed, fundamentally, as little as has The Helmand . . . Rather, I can think of few restaurants that have changed so little and that I’d still care to visit on a Saturday night.”

Things may not have changed much at The Helmand—but that is about the only thing in Karzai’s life, and the Baltimore dining scene, that hasn’t changed. 

The Karzai Family (J.M. Giordano)

 

Qayum Karzai was one of eight children of Abdul Ahad, an elder of the Popalzai Pashtun tribe, in the town of Karz near Kandahar. Although being an elder was a position of great respect, the family was very poor and Qayum, who was born sometime around 1947—“there is a dispute about my birthday,” he says—was rarely able to eat the kind of rich, flavorful, varied food he serves at The Helmand. “Nothing was there, you know,” he says of Karz. “We would be so happy to come home from school to have sauteed Chinese leeks with bread. To have an egg was like heaven for lunch. There was no way you could eat meat every day for lunch. Not even rich people. Only vegetables. In the wintertime, we had dried vegetables. and on Thursday nights which was our Friday night, was a meat and rice night.” 

When an American construction company began to build a road between Kandahar and Kabul, Abdul Ahad borrowed some money and invested in land. He started building houses for the Americans to live in. “Our lives took off from there,” Qayum recalls. “My father worked in parliament and would buy houses and land, so he made a good living for us. He always trusted this ancient notion that you never go wrong by buying land.”

Under the King Zahir Shah, Abdul Ahad served as the deputy speaker of the National Assembly, Afghanistan’s parliament. The king did a great deal to modernize the country, but there was still a lot of in-fighting among various factions. Qayum recalls his own political awakening and it is touched by the sense of exile that has partially defined his life, split between Baltimore and his home country. He was in the ninth grade and the new democratic constitution had just been introduced. During the process some students were killed outside of the parliament building in Kabul. “So the next day I went to a government printing house that was right across the street from our house,” he recalls. “And I had a little knife, and there were these majestic evergreen trees, we call them Russian cypress trees, and I took that knife and I sort of wrote [on the tree] that this country was not for me to live in.”

Qayum Karzai wanted to be a doctor. During his first year of college, he heard that the Afghan air force was going to send seven students to America to study medicine. By the time he took the exam, those seven slots had been filled, but he passed the test to become a pilot and would be trained in America. 

He studied English first and was eventually stationed in Oklahoma for nine months. He learned how to fly the jets, but his motion sickness eventually grounded him. “I started saving my money and I bought a 1956 Chevrolet, it now is a very famous car,” he recalls. “I took that car and drove from Oklahoma to D.C. I parked in a closed gas station and I slept there in my car.” 

The next day, he found a hotel at 15th and Connecticut. “I arrived when it was darkish and I went to the booth and I remember there was a gentleman at the hotel, the manager, he said that I need help because this place is not safe. He helped me with my suitcase. And then my life started the next day. I went to the embassy and applied for my visa and then got enrolled in Montgomery College and started to do work. I used to put my money in my socks, it was not safe.”

He eventually found an apartment in Dupont Circle, where he became friendly with his landlord’s daughter, Patricia Morgan. Vivacious and outgoing now, Qayum says he was shy at the time. Still, after Patricia, who was from Pittsburgh and had no previous ties to Afghanistan, began to help him with his English, he eventually asked her out. “It was not exactly a date,” he says. “A pre-date or half date.” 

When they began to talk about the future he told her he was going to get a Ph.D. and become a professor. They got married in 1973. “I was marrying a person who was working on his political science degree,” Patricia says now. But, as soon as they were married, the political dramas that have defined their lives together began. “In the same year we were married was the year the king was exiled, so the troubles started then.”

While he studied politics and economics at American University, Qayum worked in restaurants, primarily as a busboy and waiter. “When Qayum started out early on he was subjected to mistreatments and lack of respect,” Patricia says. “It’s always been his ideal when he was in a position of management or ownership to make sure he was never subjected to that.”

“I newly became a waiter in the Devil’s Fork restaurant in Washington, D.C., very famous restaurant,” he recalls. “Senator McGovern, Humphrey, all these famous people used to come there for meetings and breakfasts and lunch. I was promoted from being a busboy to being a waiter. I was taking a course on American government and I was very taken with it and they were talking and I had coffee. . . there were four owners, and they were talking about politics.” 

One of the owners was talking about a political concept and couldn’t remember the word.  Karzai happened to know it and piped up. “He didn’t like that, so he says, ‘Ohh, you speak English,’” clapping very slowly and sarcastically. “I wasn’t hurt or anything, but I thought, ‘My God, how childish is this.’” Since then, he says he has realized that of all priorities in the restaurant business, “human dignity is the most important.”

The description of Qayum Karzai as an éminence grise is not entirely out of place at Pen & Quill, where he exerts a quiet, but pervasive influence. (J.M. Giordano)

 

In the meantime, things were getting worse back home. When a communist regime took over before the Soviet invasion, they imprisoned Qayum’s father for three years. Hamid was in school in India. Then, when the Soviets invaded, they freed his father, along with all of the other prisoners, to distance themselves from the previous regime. Still, Abdul Ahad knew he could not stay in the country and sought asylum with his son in America.

During this period and over the coming years, various family members would come and stay with Qayum, his wife Patricia, and their new son, Helmand, named after the longest river in Afghanistan.

“This family lost everything—they lost their position in life, the position he had worked so hard for and was born into,” Patricia says of Qayum’s father, who lived with them for eight months. “How do you have such a dignified person living with you? Yes, we gave up pork, that was not a big deal for me and I didn’t drink, so it didn’t bother me not to have alcohol around the house. We did it out of respect for his parents.” 

Qayum says that the Afghanistan he remembers and loves was not obsessed with religious rule or purity in those days and he has never had any trouble for serving pork or alcohol at his restaurants. But at home, he was willing to do what he needed to do to show respect for his parents. His mother, who was illiterate, would spend her days running her finger over the words of the Koran and fasting. 

Even if his mother fasted, everyone else was eating well, because it was in this period that  Qayum began cooking. Sundays were his day off and people would gather at his apartment and he would cook along with whichever family member in exile was staying with them, filling the apartment with the smell of pallow, Afghan rice, which is boiled and then baked with lamb, raisins, and a julienne of carrots. “Even little Helmand was quite fond of my cooking,” Qayum recalls. 

Afghanistan has a unique cuisine. It’s always been a trade route because it borders China, Pakistan, Kashmir, and several former Soviet republics, so it shares aspects of a wide variety of cuisines. But its own deep agricultural roots—much of the land of the villages is devoted to growing pomegranates, dates, and grapes—its rich culture, and sense of hospitality have all come together to create some of the most delicious food in the world. Kaddo Borwani, baby pumpkins pan fried and then baked and served with garlic and yogurt, is like nothing else you’ve ever had. Aushak is a ravioli stuffed with leeks and covered with yogurt, tomato, and beef, while mantwo is a slightly larger dumpling stuffed with beef and onions and topped with carrots and yellow split peas. And the bread, a flat bread that’s like a cross between Italian bread and Indian naan, is unbelievable. Qayum began to think that America was ready to try it. 

“There was one Afghan restaurant in Washington, D.C.,” Qayum recalls. “It had a very bad reputation, not sanitary, lazy.” 

He and his brother Mahmood began to plan.“Both Mahmood and I would ask, ‘why did quote-unquote ethnic restaurants not do good?’ We used to go eat different foods, the food would be fantastic but the atmosphere and services wasn’t there,” Qayum says. “We made a decision, that we would put those three components together.”  

He quit his job and moved to Chicago with Mahmood and they both started working in a fancy restaurant, learning more about service and saving money as they looked for a place.  

“We had $46,000 combined, no more than $50,000. We found a place on the corner of Belmont and we built the restaurant,” Qayum says. “When we opened, we were behind on the rent by two months, and we almost lost it. And then we used our credit cards for the first day of inventory. It was almost a miracle. It took off from day one, the first day we opened, December 15, 1985, we ran out of food by 7 o’clock.” 

Qayum says after a four-star review in the Chicago Tribune, “people were waiting in the snow because we didn’t have enough tables.” 

There was only one restaurant in town that Qayum felt could compete. It was called Café Ba-Ba-Reeba and served Spanish small plates called tapas.

Patricia and Helmand were still in Maryland and he wanted to move them out to Chicago. She worked in the insurance industry and when she went to quit her job, her boss offered her a share in the company. “There is nothing like owning your own business,” Qayum says. “So I came back.” 

When he left, his half-brother Ahmad Wali Karzai ran the Chicago restaurant until he returned to Pakistan in 1992. He told the Chicago Tribune that it was the political talk of expatriates at the restaurant that got him “fired up” about politics. Qayum says that he and Mahmood did not get along as partners, so Mahmood went to the West Coast to open another restaurant. 

Kaddo Borwani, baby pumpkins pan fried and then baked and served with garlic and yogurt, is like nothing else you've ever had. (J.M. Giordano)

 

When he came back to Maryland, Qayum knew he would open The Helmand in Baltimore. He looked at a place in Fells Point, but it was too small, and he quickly settled on the building at 806 N. Charles St. (City Paper had offices above the restaurant at the time.) Before it opened in October 1989, Qayum was not sure he’d made a good decision. “I used to sit in the window and used to see that there would be nobody on the street. How I didn’t have a heart attack. And then when we opened, the same thing that happened in Chicago happened. We used to do unbelievable business. Three hundred and forty customers a night. People would wait outside after close and say, ‘we ate already but could we come in for a drink?’ It was so pleasant, white tablecloths, candlelight, flowers, stuff like that. It created a lot of buzz in the city.” In December 1995, he bought a farm and used it to supply fresh ingredients to the restaurant, years ahead of the farm-to-table trend. “We had a sign that said ‘picked this afternoon,’” Qayum recalls. 

The success of the restaurant still couldn’t take Qayum away from Afghan politics. After the Soviets were defeated and his father had returned, there was a great deal of infighting between the various factions that had made up the mujahideen. Abdul Ahad and Hamid were prominent in the royalist faction, though early on Hamid supported the Taliban as the only group that could unite the warring factions. That had all changed by the late 1990s, when Hamid and his father had begun to speak out against the influence of the foreigners such as Pakistani intelligence agents and Osama bin Laden on the Taliban. And then, in 1999,  Abdul Ahad was assassinated in Quetta, Pakistan. 

“Hamid, our younger brother, called me. He said our father’s assassinated,” Qayum recalls. “He was going from the mosque. There is a particular time in the villages. Between the late afternoon prayer and the sunset prayer there is an hour—usually an hour. People usually come close to the mosque. They sit, there are mud streets, on high hills, like mud patios, they sit on each side so they can hear each other to share information. My father kept that. Although he was modern he kept that practice. After the sunset prayer he was walking to the house and some people on motorcycles shot him and he died instantly.”

Mahmood was not surprised. “I had always screamed on the phone at them this might happen,’’ he told The New York Times in 2001. “The two of them were there criticizing Pakistan as if it were a democracy.’’

Qayum says that hundreds of vehicles amassed to drive his father’s body across the border in defiance of the Taliban, who had been threatening the family. The convoy took the body into Kandahar, and on to the cemetery in Karz, where he was buried.  

Hamid replaced his father as the leader of Popalzai Pashtun tribe and began to organize resistance to the Taliban. Qayum bought a big piece of property in the village next to his native Karz. “[My father] was a big believer you would never lose with land. But it also showed the Taliban that traditional society was not gone.” He also founded a nonprofit, Afghans for Civil Society (ACS), and worked diplomatic connections in Washington and traveled to consult with the exiled king. 

A few months after the assassination, he came across a restaurant in Pisa, Italy. It was very small, but he saw it as the perfect restaurant, with an almost miraculous charm. 

He was looking rather closely because he had been thinking about opening another place, recalling the tapas he’d eaten in Chicago. And he wanted it to feel like this place in Italy.

One night, The Helmand was slammed. Every table was full and people with reservations were waiting. A table got up to leave. One of the men thanked Qayum on the way out, but came back a minute later. It was James “Buzz” Cusack, who operates the Charles Theater. “He said ‘I’ve got a place for you to look at,’” Karzai recalls. He was so busy that he agreed without really thinking of it. When Cusack called the next day, Karzai drove up to the theater. “When I saw it, I thought of the place in Italy. It was perfect. I held out my hand and said ‘I’ll take it.’ We’ll negotiate later.” 

He may have made an immediate decision, but there was still a lot of deliberation. “To call [Qayum] deliberate is an understatement,” Cusack’s daughter, Kathleen, recalls. “He does nothing without considering every single outcome.”

When he opened Tapas Teatro in the space beside the Charles Theater in 2001, that stretch of Charles Street was much different than it is today. In fact, because of bridge construction, it was a cul-de-sac and there were only a few businesses surrounding the Charles Theater and Club Charles. He had no way to know that in a year, it would be designated an arts district, and 10 years later, would be flooded with money. Nor did he know that only a couple months after opening, his family would be thrust into the center of world politics following 9/11. 

As you watch Helmand in Pen & Quill, as he samples wines in the afternoon or moves around the dining room in the evening, it is clear how much he loves it. (J.M. Giordano)

 

“It’s funny thinking back and how that style of eating wasn’t mainstream,” recalls Helmand Karzai, who started working at Tapas Teatro early on. “And he knew right away what he wanted the concept to be—he said ‘this is gonna be tapas.’”

Like Qayum’s other restaurants, Tapas Teatro was an immediate success with its small, European-feeling interior with exposed brick walls, arched doorways, a chandelier and other glass work by John Gutierrez studios, the huge arched window allowing light to pour in, and, of course, tables lining the sidewalk. 

The food too was spectacular—and turned dining into a social experience, with customers sharing small plates of  whole sardines grilled in such a way that their salty flavor is pushed to the front with just a bit of char, or chili rellenos, where skinned red peppers are stuffed with a sweetish cheese. Or maybe the monkfish medallions wrapped in serranos or the baby octopus. People spent hours lingering over their dishes, talking and drinking sangria. 

Though he was into computers, Helmand began to grow passionate about the business.“It’s funny because my dad was like ‘you don’t wanna be in the restaurant business, you should do something else,’” Helmand recalls. “He said it was too many hours and he never got to see his family, and I think that was his conscience talking.” 

But in late 2001 it wasn’t the restaurant that kept Qayum away from his family. Even before 9/11, things in Afghanistan were at a crisis point. On the day of the attacks, Qayum was meeting with the exiled king in Rome, trying to get him to get involved. “When the attacks happened, every Afghan knew immediately that Afghanistan had something to do with it.” 

Qayum, who is not a citizen and has a green card, was nervous when he flew back to the states with his Afghan passport, but says he was not questioned and no one ever attacked or threatened the restaurant. As Afghan politics began to take Qayum increasingly away from the new restaurant, American business allowed Patricia, who has still never been to Afghanistan, to become more involved. 

“In late 2001, the insurance companies really went crazy with the losses that occurred, the losses of life in New York and of property, and they had never encountered this before,” Patricia says. “And so there was a lot of meetings, I was on several boards—how do we insure this for the future?—and they were trying to develop exclusions in the new policies, beginning in 2002, so that if someone threw a brick through your window they’d consider it terrorism and exclude it. And many of my clients who I had for many years, their premiums were doubling, tripling. So I was going to go out in January and put some of my clients out of business and I started thinking, ‘I can’t do this. These are my friends now.’”

She knew her husband wanted to rejoin his family to help rebuild the country and she wanted to help him. “I said, ‘Maybe I should help you with [the restaurants] and finally give up the insurance business instead of doing what I’d have to do with my clients,’” she recalls. 

So Qayum went to Bonn, Germany, for the International Conference on Afghanistan at the end of 2001 and then returned home to Afghanistan to take part in the loya jirga, or grand assembly, a tribal model of conflict resolution that still deeply influences his sense of politics. “I’ll stay as long as I’m needed there,’’ he told The New York Times in a 2001 story about the crisis in his country.

Among other things, the loya jirga would decide who would be the interim president from three favored candidates, including the exiled king, a former president, and Qayum’s brother Hamid, who was favored by the U.S. and some influential leaders of the Northern Alliance. According to The New Yorker, Qayum called his brother and asked, “‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ Hamid replied, ‘If not me, then who, is going to do it?’”

Eventually, Hamid became president. In 2002, he was leaving his brother Ahmad Wali’s wedding when gunfire erupted and several other people were killed in an assassination attempt. 

It took the family a while to persuade Ariana, left, to enter the business, but now she's training to take over her mother's work, which both describe as "doing everything." (J.M. Giordano)

 

During these years, Qayum ran his nonprofit, ACS, and brought in a woman named Sarah Chayes to help run it. Chayes fought against corruption and lived unconventionally, wearing the traditional pashtun dress for men. “At a traffic stop, when a cop would usually ask for money for a bribe, she would hold her hand out first and ask him for money,” Qayum says, and they would be shamed into letting her pass. ACS ran a radio station and worked on schools for girls, among other things. Chayes wrote a book “The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban” about her time working for Qayum, in which she described the goal of ACS as helping Afghanistan “regain its ancient role as a connector of empires, facilitating the exchange of riches, people, and ideas between them . . . we never espoused the traditional humanitarian credo of political neutrality . . . we wished to promote awareness, understanding, and mutual appreciation between Afghans and Americans.”

In January, Chayes published a second book “Thieves of State,” in which she claims that during her time as field director of ACS, she came to realize that there was not corruption in Afghanistan because the administration was incompetent, but rather because it was so competent—at corruption, which she sees as its very purpose. And at the center of the kleptocracy, she sees the Karzai brothers, and especially Qayum. “Not for years would I begin systematically comparing [Qayum’s] seductively incisive words with his deeds,” she writes. “Welded to his brother’s interests, he behaved in ways that contradicted his language so starkly that for a long time I had difficulty processing the inconsistency.” 

The book is compelling and offers many details of alleged Karzai family corruption—she claims that she personally witnessed the CIA give money to Ahmad Wali—but the book ultimately fails to tie specific allegations directly to Qayum. So I reached Chayes, a former NPR reporter, in Nigeria, where is working for the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to ask her for more details. 

She elaborated on her wide-ranging allegations about the Karzai brothers—from claiming that Ahmad Wali indeed facilitated the opium trade to suggesting that Hamid Karzai was actually instrumental in the Taliban’s initial rise to power—but her allegations against Qayum came from her personal observation of the relationships between the brothers. “The brothers, although they will often criticize each other in public, what became clear to me is that they were quite tightly welded behind the scenes. So that was one difference,” she says. “I saw occasionally fights over one thing or another—sometimes it would be over money actually—but they never fundamentally challenged each other’s mode of functioning.” 

According to Chayes the padded accounting of ACS—which she says was founded in Delaware to make this easier—allowed for syphoning of funds for personal gain. But, she says that ACS was not really a money-maker and that “Qayum, in my view, was into much much bigger corruption schemes.”

Her primary evidence of Qayum’s involvement in family dealings surrounds Aino Mena, an expensive gated community for the elite in Kandahar. “One of the early projects was to try to get USAID [United States Agency for International Development] money to try to fund a housing development, allegedly as housing for displaced people, but in fact this thing turned into a giant gated community on which they made a whole lot of money.” She also says that Qayum tried to use ACS to create anti-Taliban village militias and act as a facilitator between the military and militias. “It was very inappropriate for a developmental NGO to play [a] semi-governmental role,” she says. “He also wanted to set up a lobbying office connected to the office of our NGO, which confuses the status.” 

Qayum, according to Chayes, is an “éminence grise” behind the family’s power structure, with a secretive compound and a helicopter pad on the land he bought in the 1990s outside of town. “It’s not like Qayum would speak and everyone would salute. But I would say that his influence over Hamid and how the family functioned was very strong,” she says. 

Others have made similar claims. A 2010 Toronto Star story called him “among the most influential of the siblings in Kandahar politics.” The story begins with a man running for his life as thugs chase him, shooting, through Kandahar. The man, Naseem Pashtoon Sharifi, who owned billboards and a newspaper in the city, claims that Qayum took control of the city’s media and exerted undue influence over the mayor—his paper published a cartoon of Qayum holding the mayor, Ghulam Hamidi, like a dog on a leash. 

Sharifi claimed he thought highly of the Karzais until he tried to open a radio station that would compete with that of ACS and was shut down. Later, he said the mayor raised the taxes on his billboards tenfold. 

Chayes, who worked with Qayum to found the radio station in Kandahar, confirms some of this account, claiming that the station was independent under her control, but that when she left ACS Qayum took it over and eliminated its editorial independence. “He pushed me to start a radio station and I know pretty well that after I left, he started calling the shots. There were reporters who found themselves caught in the crossfire between the Taliban calling them up and saying you can’t report this and Qayum telling them you can’t report that. They were under as much pressure from Qayum as they were from the Taliban.” 

Qayum and I met on two separate afternoons, sitting both times on one of the big leather couches by the large windows at Pen & Quill, specifically to discuss these allegations, all of which he adamantly denies. 

He says that ACS was originally incorporated in Washington, D.C. and subsequently in Maryland—its 2001 tax documents confirm that it was incorporated in Glenwood, Maryland—and not Delaware. He says that he has never been involved in the Aino Mena development—except to help mediate between Mahmood and another brother, Shah Wali Karzai, who have been involved in an internecine conflict over the development since Ahmad Wali’s assassination in 2011. “Absolutely no involvement,” he says, taking a sip of sparkling water. 

As for the claims about Qayum’s role in the radio station, he says that Sharifi was not paying taxes on the fortune he was making off the billboards—which the Toronto Star article makes clear were new to the city—and he blamed Qayum when the city tried to collect. And, far from intimidating journalists, he says that he was training them in modern, objective journalism and would indeed tell them they could not run a story if it was not well-sourced and documented. 

Other allegations surrounding contracts coming to him through two companies, Daman Construction, or Technologists Inc., which are supposed to have made a fortune off government contracts are, according to Qayum, complete fabrications. “Not a penny,” he says, though he admits that the owner of Technologists Inc. lived with him in Kabul. As for the secret compound, he says it is the land his father urged him to buy in the mid-’90s to protest the Taliban. 

“Politics, I don’t agree with my brother,” he says of the so-called secret alliance within his family. “I consider this to be very extraordinary in Afghanistan that a family can have different politics.” 

From here, there’s really no way that I can determine whether Karzai or Chayes is telling the truth. Chayes’ claims are based on the premise that Qayum is secretly allied with his brothers—something which she cannot prove except by her own personal experience. And, for Qayum’s part, it is quite difficult to prove a lack of secret involvement. 

Qayum did give me a series of email and letter exchanges between him (and his wife Patricia, who types his messages and was involved in the leadership of ACS) and Chayes from late 2003. The messages present a picture of a deeply divided organization torn between two charismatic figures who came to heads. Chayes seems to see Qayum as fickle and disorganized. Even in her first book, Chayes describes Qayum as inspiring, but frustrating in his ability to follow through, while Qayum’s letters accuse Chayes of “a cut throat conduct of business upon which you know globalization is built” and rails against the NGO system that spends its money “for salaries in the U.S.” instead of in Afghanistan. The exchange could almost sum up the recriminations that passed between the U.S. and Afghanistan over the course of Hamid’s administration.

And, despite Chayes’ claims to the contrary, both ask the other for proper accounting in their letters—though it is late in the relationship between the two and she claims that, though he would set up a meeting to discuss accounting, in the end, they would have dinner and drinks and never get around to it. For his part, in the letters, Qayum suggests that Chayes may  have acted as she did for the benefit of a future book. 

But even if Qayum may not be some all-powerful éminence grise, it is not hard to see how he would amass power through the mixture of his family’s position and his own American money. At one point he writes to Chayes “you, better than anyone else know how much can be done with $5000. [sic] in Afghanistan,” and then goes on to discuss how much of his personal money he has put into the activities of ACS in Afghanistan “and we are not factoring in the unknown costs inflicted on my businesses from my extensive absence.”

Qayum’s messages to Chayes also provide an interesting statement of his philosophy as a restaurateur. He says that his businesses use only one checking account. “We have yet to spend a penny to audit my business’s [sic] because of this simple form of banking and administration procedures.” He also says “the biggest mistake that I did was to over delegate with ACS, although over delegating in my business for the last fifteen years has proven to be fruitful even with my extensive absences relating to Afghanistan.” 

"I think we really wanted to fit into the neighborhood [and] kinda put a little more color in here," Helmand Karzai says of Pen & Quill, in Station North. (J.M. Giordano)

 

In fact, things were going so well in Qayum’s absence that the Karzai family decided to open another restaurant in Baltimore in 2003, b bistro, which moved into the Bolton Hill space that Spike Gjerde’s restaurant jr. just moved out of and specialized in bistro or New American food. “Nearly everything in the restaurant is made in-house and it shows, from the spongy focaccia-like bread to ice cream in flavors like cardamom and honey to the pretty strawberry shortcake ($8), all butter-laden biscuits and sweet berries tucked into a tiny cast-iron skillet,” wrote Mary Zajac in our review of the restaurant.

Still, there were some concerns at first. “When we opened b,” Helmand, who was now old enough to take a much greater role in the planning of the restaurant, recalls, “It was like ‘oops, I’m running a restaurant, let’s just see how it goes,’ and one thing we learned from that, when he opened up b we opened up lunch, dinner, brunch and that might have been too aggressive—but people were desperate for restaurants and it was fine.”

Even if it would have been wiser to start with just dinner, the brunches were a huge success, especially the eggs from the Howard County farm, where they raised 120 chickens. They eventually gave up that farm, but bought one in Pennsylvania, which they hope to begin farming soon. Eventually Ariana, the family’s youngest child who is now a striking woman with flowing, thick dark hair and an elegant cosmopolitan look, even managed the restaurant for a while, but she did not like it. She studied history and “wanted to do something entirely different.” Eventually she married Yusuf Karzai, who has the same last name because he is from the same village. After a brief stint in Dubai, where he did business development, he came back to Baltimore and started managing b. “At this point he’s in too deep in the restaurant business to do anything else,” Ariana says. Like their mother, neither she nor Helmand have ever been to Afghanistan and both seem a bit leery of the prospect. “I would not want to go as a Karzai,” Helmand says.   

Which is understandable, because things in Afghanistan things were growing ever more complex for the Karzais as the American pullout grew closer and Hamid’s reign was coming to a close. Mahmood was implicated in the collapse of the Kabul Bank due to fraud that has been compared to a Ponzi scheme. And there was Ahmad Wali’s assassination, which led to a wide range of recriminations within the family, especially surrounding the gated housing complex, the value of which would only increase when there was no more official American security apparatus, because of the safety that such a compound would provide.

Hamid was growing increasingly hostile to that security apparatus, railing against the U.S. government and talking about the “Deep State”—an “X-Files”-like level of control that exceeds both the State Department and the military.

By 2013, many observers assumed that  Qayum would run for president once his brother’s second term was over. If Hamid endorsed him, many thought, Qayum would win. William Dalrymple wrote in The New York Times, “When I first came to Kabul in the spring, everyone was talking about how Qayum had been anointed as Karzai’s successor at a family wedding in Dubai. When he entered the reception, Mahmood reportedly announced, ‘Behold the next president of Afghanistan.’”

Qayum says that he felt he had to run. His position came from his belief in the Afghanistan he grew up in. “If you were to define a structure for the society I was growing up in, first and foremost was the presence of God, independent of anybody, it was individual faith in God,” he says, claiming this old sense of religion has a “very simple meaning for me now, like the scarcity of food, like you don’t throw bread on the floor, you pick it up. Leave it where it can be eaten, whether by humans or birds. Now it’s ecological. You were raised by a village, a family, with respected elders. All this structure that really gives you a normal sense of balance, of life.

“The second thing was individualism, the dignity of the individual, and then private property, and then decision-making by consensus . . . So basically those value structures were of pluralist society.”

He met with his wife and children about it. “We had a motto,” says Patricia.

“She had a motto,” Ariana corrects, distancing herself from it. 

“May the best man not win,” Patricia finishes. “Because selfishly we didn’t support his desire to run for the presidency. Even when he ran for parliament we did not, we had family talks beforehand and expressed our views to him. We didn’t necessarily agree with it, but we support it.”

 

While Qayum was contemplating a run, his son Helmand, a gregarious bon vivant who is more interested in wine and art than international politics, was trying to expand Tapas with a wine bar by pushing it over into the empty space that is now the Red Parrot Asian Bistro. “I just wanted to do a takeoff of what Tapas is,” he says. “It would be more beverage oriented with some food. I kind of wanted a place that two or three people could operate as opposed to a really big place.”

The neighborhood was on the verge of drastic change, as Johns Hopkins, MICA, and a series of private developers and nonprofits began to invest heavily in the area surrounding North Avenue.

The Chesapeake Restaurant, which had once been a gem of the city’s dining scene, had been empty since the 1980s. When the city forced the old owner of the building to sell it, developers Ernst Valery and Michael Schecter bought the building for $2 million, according to the Baltimore Business Journal, and invested another couple million before Valery reopened the restaurant. When it became clear that the Chesapeake would fail, they approached the Karzais to see if they were interested in taking over the space.

“The Chesapeake was the center of their economic projection,” Qayum recalls. “So when I was negotiating, how to get this spot, they were seeing the bigger picture about the building above it and apartments behind it, [but] they sort of lost the local flavor of this place. They were talking as if this was about space, like in Broadway in New York or in D.C. And I said if you make me fail, this building will be a failure for times to come. And, you know, they submitted my name and moved the process forward.” 

“We were hesitant,” Helmand says. “Because it was such a big space, so I think what made us do it is to do a completely different concept than the [restaurant] before. And the one thing with a large space was we tried to make it so to try to attract as many different people, to give people as many options as possible, that’s why we designed our menu with light fare, and bar foods, to appeal to as many types of people or the same people doing different things.” 

Once they decided to do it, they knew that would not use the Chesapeake name and they didn’t like the interior, so Helmand hired his friend Dustin Carlson, CP’s Best Solo Art Show in 2011, to redo the dining room—though they kept the large marble bar that defines the space, using reclaimed wood from a warehouse that Carlson is rehabbing. “We wanted to focus the energy in the center of the room instead of at the sides,” Helmand says of the redesign.  

“I think we really wanted to fit into the neighborhood [and] kinda put a little more color in here,” he says. “I think all in all this is the best neighborhood in the city to do something because it has a foot traffic, you don’t see that [other places]. There’s a great mix of people, whether it’s age or demographic, there’s everything you want here.”

As you watch Helmand in Pen & Quill, as he samples wines in the afternoon or moves around the dining room in the evening, it is clear how much he loves it—even on the crutch that a recent hip-replacement surgery requires. While preparing for its opening, Helmand had made most of the decisions regarding the menu concept, the staff, and even the name (whose initials P&Q happen to also be those of his parents) while his father was overseas campaigning for president. 

When it came time to find the staff, Helmand stayed close to home. He was living with the actress Naomi Kline, who worked at Tapas, and he turned to her to manage the bar. Kline’s sister, Bella, was working as a chef at a restaurant in Chicago and the concept of Pen & Quill—New American, locally sourced—was what she wanted to do. Naomi had always wanted to work with her sister. She mentioned it to Helmand and he was into it. They called Bella and she accepted. When they had a pop-up at Artscape with a limited menu, the beef-tongue buns were a sensation. 

Helmand has exercised a great deal of influence over the feel of Pen & Quill but the entire family is deeply invested in the restaurant. It took the family a while to persuade Ariana to enter the business, but now she’s training to take over her mother’s work, which both describe as “doing everything.” 

“My mom doesn’t get enough credit,” Ariana says. “She takes care of all the little things, the crazy things that happen, the random things that happen. Even Assad at The Helmand, he knows everything, it goes perfect, so smooth, but still there’s some things only my mom knows the answer to. I have big shoes to fill.”  

 

Eventually, Qayum dropped out of the presidential race and returned home. His brother Hamid failed to endorse him. Sarah Chayes suggested a month before the election that Qayum and two of the other 11 candidates were surrogates for Hamid and that all but one of them would drop out and throw their support to the remaining candidate, who would win, increasing the chances that Hamid’s relationship with the new president might resemble that between Vladimir Putin and his Russian successor Medvedev. And indeed, after Ashraf Ghani won, the state is building a home for Hamid near the palace, ensuring he will maintain some kind of role.

For Qayum this is nonsense. It is natural that he and his brother, whose lives have been quite different, would have different political views. “He is the most modern of the brothers in culture,” Qayum says of Hamid, citing his love of Mozart and Shelley. “But politically he is the most backwards, because of the jihad and all this.” 

He is sitting on one of the long, horseshoe-shaped, leather couches in front of the wide Charles Street windows. He takes a sip of coffee. “Do I have to kill him to show [Chayes] that we disagree?” he asks. 

Still Chayes’ description of Qayum as an éminence grise is not entirely out of place at Pen & Quill, where waiters walk down the bar making sure the candles are in a perfectly straight line because they know he will notice. It is clear that he does not need to directly assert his influence. Here, at least, he rules out of respect rather than fear. 

Qayum and I stop talking just as Bella and Naomi hold the staff meeting to discuss the menu for the night. 

“I took the whole rabbit, with gnocchi and maitake mushrooms,” Bella says.

“What was the cheese in the gnocchi again?” a waiter asks. 

“The Thomasville Tomme,” she replies and then moves on, her elbows on the white marble bar, a baseball cap on her head. “I took the whole rabbit and deboned it so it was all still together, seasoned it with garlic, fennel pollen, salt, and pepper, and then wrapped the whole thing back up again. So it’s made like you would make a porchetta.”

“And you do that by wrapping the meat?” someone asks. 

“Yeah, so it’s the seasoning with the garlic and herbs and you wrap it.” 

“It’s night two of restaurant week,” Naomi says. “Last night was kind of dead, but I think people are going to come out.” 

My wife meets me at the restaurant for dinner and there is no question, we are going to order that rabbit. It is one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, outrageously good, with the deep and salty umami of the mushrooms, the exquisite tenderness of the rabbit—which if anything is not gamey enough—and the cheesy gnocchi helping to balance it all out and add a bit of starch.

I have been to Pen & Quill a few times before and it was always been good, but never great. This meal is great. But it isn’t just the food. I keep thinking about something that Patricia said when we talked. “Qayum is the best restaurateur I’ve ever seen,” she said. “And not just because he’s my husband. His feelings about the guests, I think it’s inherent in the Afghan feeling of hospitality anyway, when you have guests in their home, it’s real renowned how they’re treated.”

Perhaps Qayum Karzai really isn’t cut out for politics and it is here, in his restaurants, that his political vision of the Afghanistan he grew up in has come to fruition. At any rate, he says that he is done with politics. 

“I’m not even sure you could accomplish good politics,” he says. “Now, I just want to farm.”


Click here for a look behind the scenes of the Karzai empire.

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