The small man with dark, slicked-back hair moves quickly through the narrow school-like hallways of the Islamic Center, conferring with others, craning his neck to search for latecomers to a special morning meeting.

He has taken several days off from his job to be here. "I have an understanding company," he says. Calm and somber, he pours coffee for those who have walked quietly into the gathering of Afghans planning last week's anti-Soviet demonstrations.

But when he begins to talk about his native Afghanistan, his English comes out in rapid-fire bursts strung together so quickly they sound almost like his native language.

Two years ago, he was a deputy minister in the government of Afghanistan, a civil engineer with a nice house in Kabul. Then a coup in the spring of 1978 put Marxist premier Nur Mohammed Taraki into power. The Soviets came quickly to Taraki's aid. The former deputy minister was put under house arrest. But in December of 1978, he escaped on foot to Pakistan with his wife and three young children.

He walked to Pakistan over the Nuristan Mountains, giving his children sleeping pills to keep them from talking. Their speech would have revealed that they were not from the tribal area through which they were fleeing.

His father and mother and another son still live in Afghanistan but he will not reveal where. He speaks to them only through an intermediary who relays messages. Now that a full-fledged Russian invasion is under way, he worries about what will happen to them.

"I don't think you can find any Afghan here who does not lose sleep," he says. "We cannot forget the people with tanks. There is a funeral in every family. The luckiest families in Afghanistan have someone who escaped to Pakistan -- and now, they don't know where he is."

He continues: There is no law in Afghanistan. If you see Russians in Afghanistan, you kill them."

His is one of the many faces of grief in Washington's Afghan community. Between 1,000 and 2,000 Afghans live, work and study here -- no one knows exactly how many. They have come for better jobs, for higher degrees. For some, these are only temporary forays away from the homeland; others have settled in.

But all suffer the expatriate's anger, watching, half a world away, their homeland ravaged by war, powerless to help. And no matter how Americanized they may have become, the Afghans say, they feel tied to the turban-clad gun-carrying rebels on the mountain sides of Afghanistan, now suddenly familiar in the news.

"I recall a story that is told," says Khalil Rahmani, an Arlington restaurant-owner. "An Afghan was sent to a foreign country, and he insisted upon staying. His father wanted him to come back, but the son insisted on staying.

"The father tried everything to convince him to come back -- letters, phone calls from friends. Nothing worked. Finally the father sent his son a letter with dust of the country in it.

"The day the son received the letter, he was on a plane back home."

Mohammed, an Afghan graduate student at North Carolina State, has driven all night to reach the Islamic Center by Friday morning. He looks rumpled, in flannel shirt, his eyes tired and sad.

But he has had a vision that guided him as he drove.

"I was always thinking of the smooth snow-capped mountains of my country and seeing faithful mujahadeen [Afghan freedom fighters] with guns waiting for the Red army," he says, his troubled face breaking into calm. "And I was wishing I was with them."

Afghanistan is a country where people are traditionally heavily armed. "You just don't live out in that part of the world without arms," said the State Department's Afghanistan desk officer Ron Lorton.

It is a country of high, snow-swept mountains, difficult to cross, with names like Hindu Kush. It is the land of the famous Khyber Pass, the steep-sided route connecting the Afghan capital, Kabul, with the city of Peshawar in Pakistan.

It has been a buffer state in southern Asia -- bounded by the Soviet Union to the north, Iran to the west, Pakistan to the east and south, and a tiny portion of China to the northeast.

For centuries, successive conquerors have invaded Afghanistan, a key possession for those who have wished to dominate the Asian continent.

Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane have marched through. Turkish dynasties, Persian dynasties, the Arabs, and the British -- with whom the Afghans fought thre wars in the space of less than a century's time -- have all tried to rule Afghanistan, with little success. But mostly, the Afghans have fought back hard, finally winning their independence from the British in 1919.

The Russians are the latest -- if perhaps the most formidable -- invaders, with tens of thousands of troops. And they are fighting not only the Afghan rebels, but a centuries-old tradition of resistance as well: So long as a cry of pain lingers upon my lips. There is still a string left in the heart's broken lyre. If the gates of hope are shut before me, Yet there is death, like a crack in the wall. -- from "Quatrain" (translated) by a contemporary Afghan poet, Khalilulla Kahlili, now living in the U.S.

"The Afghans who've been here for years would never fight," says one observer of the Afghan community here. "This sort of confirms that they did the right thing coming here for good jobs. They've given up their loyalties to Afghanistan. But they would never admit it.

"I've actually seen Afghans get in fights where one accused the other of having a greed card (for resident aliens). To have a green card was to be a traitor."

At Khalil and Nadia Rahmani's Afghan restaurant, Kabul Caraban in Arlington, the fronts of the menus are covered with color photographs of Afghanistan, the walls are covered with tourist posters of the mountains, and the stereo carries the hypnotic Middle-Eastern sounds of dol (drum) and rabab (guitar). "We try to find ways to introduce our country to people," says Kahlil Rahmani, late last Thursday night.

The people of the country are called Afghans. "Iranians call us Afghanis," said Rahmani, "but it's Afghans."

The capital of the country is Kabul (pronounced like the world 'cobble'). The major languages are Pashto and Dari, a Persian dialect similar to Farsi, the language of Iran. They are overwhelmingly Moslem.

"You're required to pray five times a day," says Rahmani, a sheepish grin playing at his lips. "Of course, sometimes you can't make it because of work. It try to make it once or twice a week."

Afghan food is very distinctive, Khalil Rahmani explains. It is not hot like Indian, and it is not Middle Eastern. The food of the Middle East has lots of kabobs and rice. So does Afghan food. But the difference, Rahmani wants you to see, is in the cooking, the spices, the way the Afghans marinate the kabobs. Somehow, it's something between Indian food and Middle Eastern, he says.

Khalil Rahmani is handsome, his dark hair cut fashionably in layers. He learned English from British teachers in Kabul and speaks the language with a faint British accent. He worked on a graduate degree in agricultural economics at the University of Maryland before opening the Kabul Caravan 2 1/2 months ago with his wife, Nadia.

One afternoon less than two weeks ago, a customer came in and told Rahmani he had heard on the radio that the Russians had invaded Afghanistan. "You feel like you're dreaming," said Rahmani. "I think I ran back and told all the Afghans in the kitchen."

Since then, he and his wife dart back to the office in the restaurant to watch periodic TV news shows throughout the day.

There are no telephones or mail connections with Afghanistan. Nadia Rahmani's parents, expected to arrive in Washington last month, have yet to appear. Khalil's campaign to quit smoking deteriorated.

"I was down to one pack," he said puffing on a cigarette slowly. "After the coup, I was up to two or three. Last night I felt a tightness in my chest. I thought is it the worry? The smoking? I cut down again. Today, I've only had three cigarettes."

Rahmani says business in his restaurant has increased since the Russian invasion.

"All you can hear is talk about the Soviets in Afghanistan," said Rahmani, his eyes darting to a lively group of seven having dinner in a corner.

"A customer came in a week ago," says Nadia Rahmani. "He was American but he was speaking very fluent Farsi. He has lived in Afghanistan 20 years ago.I asked him 'Sir, what do you think should be done?' He started crying."

Every Afghan in Washington has family in Afghanistan, Rahmani says. "But they're not talking about families as much as they're talking about the land and the people. "I have faith in my people," says Rahmani. "We've been invaded by the British, by Genghis Kahn. We have always been successful."

The Rahmanis gaze expectantly outside the window of the restaurant for a moment, talking of snow. "We like snow," says Khalil Rahmani, grinning. "Snow on the mountains makes it that much harder for Russians fighting the Afghans."

A Kabul Persian Proverb: "May Kabul be without gold rather than without snow." To the desperate, pleas and sadness are all the same. Sweetness and bitterness make no difference to the dead; And should the feet of our camel sink deep in the mud. What matters if our home be near or far? -- Kahlilulla Khalili