Houses Divided


In Afghanistan, Mohammad Nabi Yusufi lived a prosperous life. Thanks to his burgeoning export business, he had one house in the capital, Kabul, and another in his hometown of Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city. He held a post in Muhammad Daoud’s government as an emir and was also the president of Kandahar’s Chamber of Commerce. Everything went well for him, that is, until the Soviets invaded in 1979.

“The Russians destroyed my houses, took my business, and killed my family,” he told the Voice last week. The Soviets slaughtered 12 of his relatives before Yusufi fled with what was left of his family to Pakistan in 1980 and, a year later, emigrated to America. Sitting in his mosque in Flushing, Queens, Yusufi, a slender man with a thin white beard and thick glasses, recounted the horrors of the fight against the Soviets. And then he turned to the recent terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, which, he said, have touched a deep feeling of sympathy in Afghans, who suffered through a decade fighting the Soviets and another decade fighting each other.

“Not only I, but every single Afghan I know shares sympathy and sorrow for what has happened,” he said. “We have been through all of this in Afghanistan, so we know how it feels to lose a loved one. The reason we came here is to live a peaceful life, but now we feel like a target, too.”

His son, Hamid, drives down on the weekends from Albany to take his parents shopping or, occasionally, to take them on a tour of upstate New York. “But now I can’t,” he said. The glares and hostile gestures from strangers have left him afraid to take his parents anywhere. A week after the attack, Hamid and his mother stood in line at Wal-Mart and heard a couple say, “Aren’t those the ones who bombed the building?” Crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge on the way home, cars passed by blaring their horns. “Everybody was flipping us off,” he said.

Yusufi is the imam of Sayed Jamal-ud-din, a mosque that occupies two floors of his three-story, red-brick house in a stretch of Flushing defined by trimmed hedges, sidewalks fenced in by trees, and houses for prayer. A block away is the Korean Unitarian Universalist Church and the Lutheran Church of St. John. A few blocks further is a synagogue. His mosque is one of two that serve the thousands of ethnic Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras who make up the city’s Afghan community. Their divisions and rivalries, thousands of miles from Afghanistan, reflect the same forces that have torn their country apart: There are those in Flushing who defend the ruling Taliban government, and those who back the Northern Alliance in its ongoing war against the Taliban. What they share, despite these differences, is an overwhelming fear that if their adopted country attacks their homeland it will mean more misery for a people who have known only war, famine, and grief.

“Bombing Afghanistan won’t solve anything,” Yusufi said. “They don’t even have food. And if you bomb Afghanistan, people will be more angry with the United States for killing innocent people. We want America to have friends, not enemies.”

A mile north of Sayed Jamal-ud-din is Flushing’s other Afghan mosque, the much larger Hazrat-I-Abubaker. Its blue-and-white-checkered dome sits on a building made of gleaming white rock that looks plucked from a Mediterranean island. Like Yusufi and the majority of Afghans in the United States, Ghulam Noorzad, one of the 5000 members, left Afghanistan to escape the Soviet invasion.

Most of the mosque’s members consider the Taliban akin to the Soviets. Their sweep through the countryside in the civil war destroyed what little the Soviets had left standing. And to Noorzad, the Taliban, whose rank and file trained in Pakistan, are also an invading force. He blames them for the devastation. “People have no food, no money, nothing,” he said. “They are hopeless. If the United States wants to do something, they should pressure Pakistan. Pakistan is the Taliban’s biggest supporter.”

The imam of Hazarat-I-Abubaker, Mohammad Sherzad, has strong ties to some of the Taliban’s toughest rivals. He was once the U.S. representative for Burhannudin Rabanni, whose government the Taliban overthrew in 1996. Sherzad also called the late Ahmed Shah Masoud, Rabbani’s greatest general, a “very close friend.” Masoud, until his recent assassination, led the Northern Alliance, who still hold a pocket of territory, against the Taliban. Members of his congregation believe that Osama bin Laden’s group carried out Masoud’s assassination on September 9.

“The Taliban’s hands are just full of the Afghan people’s blood,” Sherzad said. “For the last 10 years, all my speeches were against the Taliban. And all my teachings to my followers were against the Taliban. This is my fight.”

The Taliban had their unofficial mission to the United Nations on Main Street in Flushing until this past February, when the United States ordered it closed because of their failure to hand over Bin Laden. Sherzad said he always refused their requests for a meeting. “I told them, I don’t want to talk to you about the situation in Afghanistan until you are out of Afghanistan.” Yusufi, however, claims many Afghans in Flushing accepted them as part of the community.

The Taliban started in his hometown of Kandahar in 1994, imposing Shariah (the body of rules guiding Muslim life) law where previously feuding warlords held sway. “They brought justice to Afghanistan,” he said. “Before, people just grabbed a gun and said, ‘OK, I’m the law now.’ People liked them for that here and in Afghanistan. They thought they were helping the country.” But, he added, “If there are supporters of the Taliban here, I don’t have any idea who they are.”

In the days after the U.S. attacks, as word filtered into Afghanistan that the United States had started assault preparations, Afghans hoping to flee were trapped: Neighboring countries Pakistan and Iran sealed their borders. Those Afghans who made it to Flushing in the past 20 years rarely hear from their relatives in Afghanistan, which has few phone lines and no mail service. Noorzad’s brother-in-law managed to call from Kabul recently.

“It was a week before the tragedy,” he said. “He told me the family has nothing to eat. I guess he’s in hiding somewhere now, before the bombs start to fall.”

“We’re all Americans, you know—Afghan Americans—all of us together. We are suffering through this tragedy. We don’t want to have another one. If the Americans bomb, they have to hit at the right time, the right spot, and the right person. But I’m afraid that they’ll kill innocent people. You shouldn’t kill civilians.”