Return to a paradise lost

October 5, 2011

This story was originally published on May 20, 2002 and has been re-published below in its original form.

KABUL — Kabul Airport is a ghost of a vanished era. The luggage belt is missing its gears, looted by a marauding warlord. Signs in Russian promise flights that never come. Here, in this gloomy terminal, where the wires dangle like spaghetti and the smell of broken toilets lingers, is where Gina Hamrah has come to find a lost paradise.

“Smile!” yells Hamrah, snapping a picture of two scrawny porters. They stare, unsmiling, at this woman, who has the lustrous dark hair and almond eyes of South Asia but wears a black crepe pantsuit from Lord & Taylor.

After 23 years, Gina Hamrah is back.

Back to the land of her childhood, a place she remembers for its piercing blue skies and boulevards dancing with colored lights. Today, Hamrah is 39, with a lucrative hairdressing business, two American teenagers and a half-million-dollar home in Sterling, Va. But she has never stopped feeling Afghan. All these years, through Soviet occupation and civil war and Taliban rule, as more than 1 million Afghans were slaughtered and millions more fled, she lived in Virginia but dreamed of this place.

As Hamrah puts it: “You know when you’re a child, and something is taken away from you? You want to take it back.”

Recently, Kabul Airport has creaked to life. Afghanistan’s exiled middle class is tentatively returning, from Burke and Annandale and Los Angeles and Paris, their bags pushed along the broken luggage belt.

What do you pack when you’re reclaiming a lost homeland?

Some exiles carry tattered property deeds. Some haul thick plans to rebuild Afghanistan. At Kabul Airport, a large brown box, crushed into the shape of a ball, is shoved onto the unmoving luggage belt.

Gina Hamrah has brought a sink.

Back in her five-bedroom home in Sterling, it had seemed like such a good idea.

Two nights before her trip, Hamrah was stressed out and trying to pack. The family room is a high-ceilinged haven painted Pale Sage. But on this night, the carpet was covered with donated Tylenol and bags of Legos. Relatives were eating plates of lamb off a marble coffee table. The phone trilled away.

Hamrah’s son Abraham, a lanky 15-year-old, mounded packing material in a cardboard moving box. His cousin lowered a large, black porcelain hairdresser’s sink, its hose and spray nozzle attached.

“I hope I don’t go too much overboard,” Hamrah said.

A few months ago, she had been another working mom, with a black Mercedes SUV and a mortgage and her sons’ ballgames. Then came the war in Afghanistan. Night after night, she and her husband, Jahed, 42, sat down to CNN and MSNBC, with mugs of tea and a ball of Kleenex.

By December, they were despairing. “Enough of this sorriness,” she said. “One of us has to go back.”

They made a plan: He would go to Afghanistan to volunteer for six months. She, the family breadwinner, would work and take over the cooking, cleaning and shopping. She would join her husband in May for two weeks. Now that moment had come. She knew many people didn’t understand this trip, this passion, her longing for Afghanistan.

“Burqas,” she said with a smirk. “That’s what they ask me.”

But in the Kabul of her childhood, no one wore the enveloping shrouds. Her Kabul was a magical city shedding its old Islamic past. Her Swiss-educated father was chief of police. Her mother designed gowns for the queen and the diplomats’ wives. The couple was part of an elite that ate hamburgers and danced the cha-cha. Their daughter was named for Gina Lollobrigida.

“The lifestyle we had was next to royalty,” said Hamrah’s brother, digging into a plate of lamb and spinach.

Hamrah was 14 when the royal life collapsed. With the Soviet invasion in 1979, her family fled to the United States, their fortune swept away in the chaos.

Suddenly, they were nobodies speaking broken English. They were so poor, they owned one chair. When an old diplomat friend visited, Hamrah’s mother wept.

Her brother recalls being beaten up. “Fairfax was a predominantly white neighborhood,” he said. “They did not like foreigners.”

Hairdressing was Hamrah’s salvation. With talent and hard work, she climbed into the middle class, arriving at a half-million-dollar house that reminded her of Afghanistan.

In Sterling, she keeps framed photos of the old days: her stylish mother at Kabul Airport, bound for Europe; her elegant father, meeting with foreign dignitaries.

There are no photos of her father’s new life in the United States, sitting in the taxi line at Reagan National Airport, waiting for fares.

Hamrah wrapped and re-wrapped the beige silk scarf as her husband plowed through the chaotic Kabul traffic in his jeep. It had been a grim first day back. Kabul’s streets were a dusty, horn-honking maelstrom, swarming with rickety bicycles, women shrouded in burqas and ancient Toyota taxis that coughed black exhaust. Nothing like the orderly city she remembered.

She had expected destruction, of course. But not this: Buildings pancaked into stacks of concrete floors. Apartment houses with the walls torn off, like empty dollhouses. An old man sprawled on a blue blanket in the middle of traffic, his leg a stump.

“Oh my God,” she said. Her face was a stone.

At last, they arrived in Shar-e-Naw, or New Town, one of the few neighborhoods spared the destruction. Hamrah perked up. Instead of rubble, the streets were lined with shops: a furniture store, a dentist’s office, a bakery offering pyramids of cookies. The sidewalks might be pulverized and some windows blown out, but there was the reassuring bustle of commerce.

“Oh my God! I used to come here to the movies,” she cried, pressing her face against the jeep window. She drank it in. There was the Khalid Restaurant she had loved. They approached the intersection where her mother, now elderly, had once run her famous salon du mode.

“This is where my childhood basically was,” Hamrah declared, jumping out of the jeep.

Suddenly, she blinked. On the corner was a boutique, its window filled with pink and white polyester gowns. Above it was a sign: Gina’s Shop.

“My name’s still there!” she cried.

She gazed at the plate-glass window. These certainly weren’t the designs of her Paris-trained mother. But incredibly, the boutique had survived. A tiny woman in a blue burqa emerged from the crowd that had gathered around the foreigner. “This is Gina’s store,” she explained. “Gina went to America.”

“It’s me!” Hamrah shrieked. The woman tossed back the top of her burqa and broke into a broad smile. Her father had worked with Hamrah’s mother.

Hamrah glowed. Not everything was reduced to rubble.

Six days later, Hamrah was back, with a pile of glittering fabrics. She spread her arms as Abdul Khaleq Toriali, 48, the boutique’s owner, stretched the tape measure for her new clothes.

“Twenty-three years later, somebody’s measuring me again,” she chuckled.

Toriali was one of her mother’s old employees, as soft-spoken and gentle as ever. Even in the face of horror.

He was telling about the day the rocket hit, during the civil war that wrecked Kabul in the early 1990s.

“It hit the ground -- whoosh!” he cried, throwing up his arms. “And then a piece hit my head.” He pointed to the puffy scar. He hadn’t been able to sew much since then, he explained. That’s why he had asked a friend to help with her clothes.

It was like this everywhere, Hamrah found. Stories of war and death and want, scattered like mines across the landscape of her childhood.

Even her relatives had such stories. One day, at a feast prepared by her cousins, she was digging into some old Afghan favorites -- onion-stuffed pasta and raisin-studded rice. “I never dreamed I’d be back here like this!” she exclaimed.

The cousins smiled with tenderness. They asked, Did she hear what happened when their father died? The civil war was raging. So many rockets were raining down on the cemetery that they had to hide in his half-dug grave.

Hamrah nodded as though such stories were normal. But she was becoming increasingly anxious. What could she give these people, who were so stoic but whose dirty clothes, peeling homes and stick-thin children shocked her.

She had brought so much: medicine, toys from Wal-Mart, $ 4,000 from clients and friends. It wasn’t enough.

Toriali was finishing up. He wrapped the tape measure around Hamrah’s waist, her hips. “Sahis?” he was asking. Okay? He beamed at her. What a happy surprise.

All these years, he had maintained the shop’s name to keep alive her memory. But now he was in trouble. The building’s owner, an exiled businessman, had just returned from the United States. Toriali was being evicted.

“Steak or Afghan food?” asked Jahed Hamrah.

Kabul’s returning exiles meet at places like this, the roof restaurant at the Mustafa Hotel. The Mustafa has molded-plastic tables and a rough concrete floor. But the owners, Afghans from New Jersey, have added jaunty red-and-white umbrellas and menus in English. As the midday sun beats down, the tables fill with U.S. journalists and soldiers and Afghan exiles, part of the scene with their cell phones and Perry Ellis sunglasses.

Wafi Amin is telling Gina Hamrah about his anguish. He left 27 years ago and built a successful chain of gourmet burrito shops in California. Over the years, he pined so much for home that he helped run a Web site for Afghan exiles, Virtual Nation. But the real nation is an ugly shock.

“Even the accent is different,” he complains. Hamrah, her husband and the other exiles nod.

In two decades, Kabul has profoundly changed. Years of fighting have filled the city with rural refugees, with their traditional robes and animals. The social order has shattered. The exiles are flustered when mewling women in burqas paw at their arms. In their Kabul, women never begged.

Hamrah picks at her fries. She is trying to keep a positive attitude.

“We can’t expect to come here in a month or two weeks and get everything going,” she says. “We have to have hope.”

But what can they give, in the face of such misery? “I’m thinking major fundraising,” she declares. She’ll contact Oprah. Or ask Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s interim leader, for his dashing green-and-purple cape, and auction it on eBay.

So what if she is only a hairdresser? “I make my dreams come true,” she declares. She is a can-do American. But something else, too: a woman born into Afghanistan’s old ruling class.

For years, that meant nothing. But now the old Kabul elite reigns again.

It is a paradox: Many of the exiles feel foreign. But now, they are running Afghanistan’s government. They are the ones with Western degrees and training and experience. In a country where most people live like medieval serfs, where life expectancy is 45 years, they can talk financial flows with the World Bank.

In the United States, Hamrah may be another hairdresser. Here, she is the daughter of Abdul Abawi, who arrived back weeks ago from Northern Virginia. One day, she slips on her black leather Ballys and joins him for lunch with Afghanistan’s former king.

This change is especially exciting for her husband. In America, he was Jahed Hamrah, driver of a White Top cab. Jahed Hamrah, seller of carpets. And most recently, Jahed Hamrah, a would-be physician’s assistant studying at Howard University who minded the couple’s two children while his wife worked.

“Over there [in Virginia], many people would look at my face and say, ‘Here’s another Spanish guy or another foreigner here to make money,’ “ said her husband, a portly man with a deeply tanned pate. “Here I can be who I am.”

That is: Jahed Hamrah, son of Abdul Fatah Hamrah, the legendary Kabul doctor.

His family ties helped him get his job in the crucial area of foreign-aid distribution. He is just a volunteer but works hard. And there is that last name. He takes his wife for tea with cabinet ministers and Karzai, the Afghan leader, who is the brother of Jahed Hamrah’s best friend from seventh grade.

Gina Hamrah is impressed but a little worried. She wants her husband home in Virginia. They have a family life and a mortgage and her job.

When the commerce minister implores them to stay, to inscribe their names in the books of Afghan history, she smiles sadly. “I promise you I can help you from over there,” she says.

For 20 years, she has cared for clients suffering unemployment, bad marriages, cancer. She gives haircuts and hope. But Hamrah has never seen anything like this.

She has come to Kabul’s Red Cross hospital for the war-disabled with two 70-piece sets of Legos. In a small workshop, a technician shows her how limbs are made of putty-colored plastic.

“I appreciate the great work you are doing,” she tells the grim-faced workers in Dari. They stare. She tries to buck them up. “The darkness is lifting. The door is opening. The countries should all support Afghanistan.”

She smiles, and they smile back. She snaps their photo. But she is fighting the tears. In every room sit adults and children with those eerily smooth, mannequin-like plastic arms and legs, victims of the civil war of the mid-1990s or mines left by the Soviet invaders in the ‘80s.

She goes out to the patio. A plump woman in a brown robe and black veil is maneuvering around on metal crutches. Rocket attack, she tells Hamrah. It took her husband, her daughter and her leg. She was fitted for this new leg three days ago. She gazes at this visitor in green silk. Could she give her a job?

Hamrah lowers her eyes. No, she confesses. “We just want to help.”

She climbs back into the jeep, enveloped in grief. “It’s always the innocent people, like this,” she mutters.

The vehicle takes off. There is a loud thump from the back.

“It’s the sink,” Hamrah says.

The Humaira Beauty Parlor is a brightly painted salon on a downtown street edged with an open sewer. Inside, clients are ushered onto rusty kitchen chairs on a cracked cement floor. Shampoos are performed with a pitcher over a hole in the floor.

Hamrah knows about those shampoos. She saw them on MSNBC, in a segment on beauty parlors reopening after the fall of the Taliban, a piece that left her appalled.

She strides purposefully through the lace curtain into the salon.

“Have you ever used a sink?” she asks brightly.

Sanam Nurzai, 24, the owner, gazes in astonishment as the black porcelain basin is lowered onto the couch. It’s huge. “You hang it on the wall,” Hamrah explains, twisting the faucets to show hot and cold.

“This is from the shop where I work,” she says.

Her shop, Eclips, is an upscale salon next to a Sutton Place Gourmet in McLean. It is the kind of place where suburban Washingtonians are pampered by stylists who read “The Nordstrom Way” for the ultimate in customer service.

It is also the kind of place where a plucky immigrant can make $ 70,000, $ 80,000, even $ 100,000 a year. Beauty is about making people happy. To Eclips’ hardworking stylists, from Afghanistan and Iran and Vietnam and the United States, it is also about survival.

Hamrah hands Nurzai the supplies from Virginia. Rollers in three sizes. Hairbrushes. Emory boards. Styling gel. Two copies of the video “How to Make More Perms and More Money.” Nurzai’s big brown eyes widen.

Hamrah takes a strand of Nurzai’s sister’s hair and wraps it in blue rollers, demonstrating how the Synerfusion perm kit works.

Nurzai is telling her about how she gets neck pains from hairdressing. Hamrah nods. “Our work is the same,” she says.

You should stop wearing the burqa, she tells Nurzai.

“No one will say anything. And if they do, you should say, ‘Hey, are you my father?’ “ Hamrah says, squirting lotion on the curlers.

She looks at Nurzai. “You’re in the fashion business,” she admonishes. “You should take it off before anyone.”

The day after Hamrah left Afghanistan, the black sink was still on the couch at the Humaira salon. Like most people here, Nurzai hasn’t had running water in years.

Still, she was thrilled about the gifts. The richly lathering shampoo, the perm kits, the nail polish -- they would all help her business.

Nurzai had kept the salon going in secret during the Taliban years, cutting and perming in her living room. Now that beauty was legal again, business was booming. She was taking home nearly $ 140 a month, a decent salary here, and the only regular income for her seven-person household.

“When we use these things, we will be famous,” she predicted, gazing at the row of new bottles.

Hamrah left Kabul Airport with a bulging black suitcase. There were chocolates from the Humaira Beauty Parlor, and pistachios from her relatives, clothes from the tailor and six rolls of film, all used. Karzai, the Afghan leader, had given her his cape.

There was also a new black passport. It was inscribed: Mrs. Gina A. Hamrah, Spouse of the General Consul of Afghanistan in Toronto.

The offer had come during an intimate dinner with the foreign minister. The Hamrahs had stayed up nearly all night. It would mean a huge change. She couldn’t afford to leave her job and didn’t want to yank the kids out of school. So he would go to Canada alone. They would meet up on occasional weekends.

“They need people like him,” she said.

She had arrived at Kabul Airport with everything she thought she could give: a sink and toys and Tylenol. In the end, Gina Hamrah gave Afghanistan her husband.

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