Sitting at his desk in a sunny, downtown-Detroit apartment last week, lawyer Khalid Sekander stroked his sleek gray cat as it tried in vain to distract him from tragedies at hand. A big-screen television behind them flickered with news of a possible United States invasion of Afghanistan to kill or arrest Osama bin Laden, wanted in the Sept. 11 attacks that left more than 6,000 people dead, and to punish the Afghan government for harboring him.
Sekander, who spent a privileged childhood there and his adult life here in America, wastes no time. His life’s mission has been reignited by the recent events. He wants Detroit, America and the world to understand his homeland as he does.
He wants to scream to anyone who might hear that “we must separate the government of Afghanistan from the people,” and that those people, already suffering, impoverished and starving, are going through what Sekander calls “a holocaust.”
“To me it’s a disgrace what Afghans are going through right now. It is not typical to the culture,” Sekander said. “Bin Laden is not Afghan. The Taliban are not Arab. They are a result of war and anarchy in Afghanistan and the people are suffering. The suffering will only increase.”
Few in number
Afghans are a relatively small, little-heard minority in the United States, numbering approximately 150,000. Their country has only sporadically received the attention of Americans — and never so much as now. For some Afghans, it seems imperative to get a message out. Pacific News Service writer Fariba Nawa of New York City has expressed her fears that Arabs and Afghans will become “targets of hate as Japanese-Americans did during World War II.” San Francisco-based Tamim Ansary has written of “true fear and trembling”: “We’re flirting with a world war between Islam and the West.”
Sekander wants America to move cautiously — and with a sense of history.
Unlike the war-torn Afghanistan ruled by a very strict form of Islamic law that Americans are just learning about today, Sekander tells of a different land.
As a child in Kabul, the capital, in the 1960s, Sekander recalls a large mud-and-wood compound with 30-foot walls where he lived with his extended family. He remembers playing croquet with the children of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers who were friends with his parents. He said many Americans and hippies would come to Kabul to see the sights and to smoke the renowned native hash.
He remembers horseback riding, mountain climbing and swimming in deep blue lakes. He ate the staple diet: yogurt, and vegetables and meats with different sauces over rice pilaf. He loved nibbling on pistachios and sugar-coated almonds, and going to the Fanta store, where he would marvel at the bright, shiny soda bottles. He’d always order orange.
It was a better life than most had in the medieval, feudal society, a constitutional monarchy in which he says the peasants “were stamped upon.”
A descendent of the five brothers who established Afghanistan 500 years ago and ruled it for most of the time since, Sekander grew up learning about his ancestors. Two great-great-great-grandfathers, warriors from the mountains, successfully fended off not one, but two British invasions, he says with pride.
Other family members — part of the main Afghan tribe of about 6 million people, called the Pathan or Pashtune — were involved in chasing out Persians, Russians, Soviets and others.
The last of Sekander’s immediate family to rule Afghanistan was King Amanullah Khan and Queen Soraya, who governed from 1919 to 1929. But the king was overthrown by a peasant from the north, Sekander said, and, after that, another relative, backed by the British, became king. His son, King Zahir Shah, ruled until the Soviets invaded in 1979.
Fighting with a pen
Part of the “old” ruling family, and not the “new,” Sekander’s family lived like the middle class. For one thing, in country where 99 percent of the people were illiterate, Sekander was among the few who went to school.
On the other hand, there was no electricity or running water, and he remembers staying warm in winter by lying around a fire and stove with his family, all covered to their necks with blankets.
Sekander’s father was a journalist working for the Ministry of Information when the family left the country in 1970, fearful that the Soviets would invade; the family was very pro-American. They spent time in France and Germany, finally settling in Texas.
The Soviet Union invaded in 1979, inspiring Sekander to act. He tore up a Soviet flag in downtown Dallas at the John F. Kennedy memorial. He supported the anti-Soviet “freedom fighters,” the mujahadeen. Back then, he says “everyone,” including U.S. officials, loved them. After graduating from Southern Methodist University in 1986, he moved to Washington, D.C., and got a job transcribing congressional hearings. He said he began “informal lobbying” to try and get humanitarian relief for Afghans stuck in the war and his family served as a halfway house for Afghans trying to immigrate.
“I fought with the pen, not the sword,” Sekander said, explaining that he wrote papers, talked to people in Congress about what was going on, urging anyone who would listen to help the mujahadeen. He demonstrated in the streets and joined the World Anti-Communist League.
When the “muj,” assisted by the CIA and bin Laden, beat the Soviets in 1989, they became “the golden boys of the Muslim world, heroes,” Sekander said.
Then Afghanistan fell into anarchy as factions warred with one another.
In 1990, he testified at a congressional meeting of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and pleaded for U.S. assistance in forming a peaceable government in Afghanistan.
“As long as the United States, Pakistan and other assistance-providing nations formulate policy in a self-interested and unsynchronized fashion, all efforts towards reconstruction, redevelopment, self-determination and freedom for the Afghan people will be restricted,” he testified.
He criticized U.S. policy as inconsistent, pointed out that in January 1990, a $33 million food program was suspended and that in 1989, a critical arms shipment to the mujahadeen was cut off at a crucial point in the war.
His claim, then and now, is that the United States and other nations shirked involvement and allowed bin Laden to gain influence in Afghanistan.
Dedication and passion
The rise of the strictly religious Taliban — widely criticized for, among other things, not allowing women to go to school or work or to leave home uncovered — was due to the unchecked anarchy and violence in the country, Sekander said. People wanted order.
And in the ’90’s, Afghanistan has come to resemble ground zero at the World Trade Center, he said, a land of “devastation upon devastation.”
In 1993, Sekander moved to Michigan to go to Cooley Law School in Lansing. Since 1997, he’s been living and working in Detroit and has increasingly concentrated his practice on immigration and international law while trying to educate those around him about Afghanistan.
“I’ve known about his passion for Afghanistan and his concern for the humanitarian needs of its people for years,” said his former boss, Jeffrey Nutt, executive director of Wayne County Neighborhood Legal Services. “Almost all I know about Afghanistan, except where it is on the map, I know through him.”
And what does Sekander think should happen now? Rather than an all-out military assault, Sekander is hoping that America and its allies will support the anti-Taliban forces in the country, particularly the Northern Alliance group. And once the Taliban is overthrown and bin Laden is ejected, he hopes that the old king, now in his 80s, would be brought back from exile in Rome as a unifying force.
That is his best-case scenario. Like many others uncertain about the future, he fears for the worst.Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected]