It's been a quarter-century since Waheed Momand proposed three amendments during the loya jirga that created the first Republic of Afghanistan. Waheed, then a teacher and vice president at Kabul Technical College, was the youngest voting member of that 1977 assembly. As the Kabul Soccer League's representative on that historic tribal council of Afghan elders and community leaders, he helped elect Prime Minister Mohammad Daoud as his country's first president.
But that solemn accomplishment proved a short-lived cause for celebration. The following year, Daoud was killed in a communist coup that touched off more than two decades of civil war. And like many of his countrymen, Waheed ultimately felt compelled to escape the country of his birth, passing through dangerous mountains under the rifles of suspicious warlords to avoid the ever-watchful eyes of the communists.
Ever since, Waheed Momand has lived the life of an Afghan refugee -- not one on the edge of starvation, but part of a lucky minority that could afford to slip across the border to refuge in countries such as Pakistan, Germany, Holland, Canada, and the United States. Twenty-three years of warfare stripped away most of this Afghan middle class. Those who fled built new lives, clinging to their ethnic compatriots in places such as Fremont, where they formed loose communities largely ignored by the world.
For the past eighteen years, the 52-year-old Waheed has lived a reasonably uneventful life in Fremont, home to an estimated fifty thousand Afghans. It was a welcome time of quiet for the émigré, who commuted to his Silicon Valley software job, worked hard, kept his Muslim faith, paid his mortgage, raised two children, and helped provide for his nearby parents and in-laws. Until recently, he was unknown to more outspoken local Afghan scholars and activists, many of whom closely monitor Central Asian politics.
The events of September 11 thrust Afghan exiles back into the spotlight. Many would have preferred to stay hidden in the shadows, but for Waheed, September 11 was a mobilizing moment, unearthing a buried history that finally cried out to be dealt with. In the months since, politics have become Waheed's calling -- and his struggle. The tall, bearded Pashtun was laid off from his job at Computer Associates on October 1, and hardworking as he is, he never looked for another job. Instead, he refinanced his home and dipped into his savings, dedicating himself full-time to the cause of his country. For Waheed, there was no turning back.
For the past ten months, Waheed has preached that it is time for Afghanistan to bury its past in order to rebuild -- forget about ethnicity; forget about acrimony. It's a message that once might have seemed reasonable and obvious, but Waheed believes it is lost on many of his own countrymen. In the months since September 11, he has struggled mightily to bring his neighbors together. From his post as the unpaid board chairman of the Fremont-based Afghan Coalition, which coordinates social services for a handful of nonprofits, he attempted to form an alliance of mosques and relief organizations to promote the idea of reconciliation among different ethnic groups. He traveled to Germany in December, where a temporary post-Taliban government was formed. He tried to spearhead elections to choose a delegation to meet in Washington, DC with Afghanistan's interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai.
But here in the East Bay, thousands of miles away from Afghanistan, Waheed's community has imported many of the same ethnic, historical, and political grievances that have existed among Afghans for decades, if not centuries. And Waheed's moves have been met with suspicion by many of his neighbors, some of whom criticize the cliquishness of his circle of supporters. Similar community disagreements in Southern California have become physical; police reportedly broke up one meeting after delegates resorted to hair-pulling.
Which begs an obvious question: If it's so hard to reach consensus among middle-class Afghans in America, what chance is there of reconciliation among the rubble of Afghanistan?
The Momands live in a quiet, hillside subdivision overlooking the East Bay. Their home is blue and lovely, decorated in a style that's neither Afghan nor Western. Stacks of unpaid bills and paperwork lay in piles on the kitchen table. Japanese figurines, Chinese porcelain, and Renaissance wall hangings crowd the living room. The various furniture settings, while perfect in their neatness, resemble a series of department-store displays; nothing quite matches, and there's a little too much of it. Even the price tags remain on the bottoms of the porcelain tea set. Perhaps for Waheed, the eternal newness of these items symbolizes an exile's dream of one day going home.
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