Six years ago, Aman Nezam and his wife ran a women's boutique in Afghanistan, selling Mary Quant cosmetics, imported shoes, sportswear and dresses, changing the fashions four times a year.
Today, Nezam, 47, lives in Fairfax County. A businessman of another sort, he works 12 hours a day in a white apron to supply Washington area groceries, gourmet stores and others with "naan," the chewy Afghan bread of his native Kabul.
Working in a brick basement bakery in Falls Church, with a relic tandoori oven that sits unused in one corner and an Oriental rug from the north of Afghanistan on the office floor, Nezam and his family mix the cracked wheat dough all afternoon -- 1,000 pounds of it -- and bake long past dark.
By midnight each night, they have 800 loaves bagged and stacked -- some flat, some rounded -- all coming out of a 500-degree oven, toasted golden and sprinkled with sesame and black onion seeds. Nezam said his shop is the area's only supplier of the increasingly popular Afghan bread.
MacArthur Liquors Inc. in Northwest Washington stocks Nezam's bread. "It just runs out of here," said the store's Mike Stempler. "Everyone buys it, all kinds of people buy it."
Said Maeve Thorpe, bakery manager for Sutton Place Gourmet, also in Northwest, "It's usually the people who want it as a side dish for moussaka," a Greek dish of meat and cheese layers. "Some people buy it out of curiosity."
Nezam never aspired to be a baker, but in 1978, Nezam, his wife, Malal, and their three children packed up two cardboard suitcases, loaded them into the back of a black Russian Volga automobile, and fled Kabul following allegations that Nezam worked as an agent for the CIA.
They left in a hurry, taking with them two changes of summer clothes, $5,000, diapers and milk for the baby, and some knowledge of English.
Their plans were so secret that Nezam and his wife kept them from their children until they had set off. "The children were screaming, and said, 'Why in the world didn't you tell us?' " Malal Nezam recalled. "But, we could not trust anyone. My son started to cry because he had two dogs at home. My daughter said, 'My God, I didn't bring my homework.' "
The family traveled through Pakistan to London and eventually ended up in the Washington area. "I just came here," Aman Nezam said. "I just wanted to come to United States."
After cooking pizzas in the District for a while, and selling naan on the side, Nezam and other family members decided there might be a larger market for the loaves that they say are popular and plentiful from North Africa to Bangladesh.
Two years ago, Nezam joined with two other relatives, including his brother-in-law, Dawood Moosa, 49, another refugee, and the former owner of a Kabul distributorship that sold Toyotas, Michelin tires, Caterpillar tractors and other equipment.
They started small, baking 50 loaves a day, using the same recipe that was popular in Kabul, mixing the dough in a giant vat, then letting it rise on an aluminum table, under plastic to keep it moist.
The bread immediately did well in such places as Georgetown and McLean, Bethesda and Northwest Washington, despite cultural problems.
"We found that when we gave a piece of bread to the Americans, they really loved it, but they didn't know what to do with it," said Moosa.
The bread was long and flat, designed for Afghans who know how to tear off a piece and scoop food with it. "It didn't go with the American way of eating," Moosa said.
So, they adjusted the recipe slightly to accommodate American eating habits, making a rounded loaf as well as a flat one, and making the flat bread thicker so it could be sliced and toasted.
Today, the bakers sell to a 90 percent American market and have 54 retail outlets that include gourmet shops and major grocery chain stores, where a 20-ounce loaf sells for $1.55.
Barbara Ettinger, consumer affairs manager for Safeway Stores Inc.'s Washington division, attributes the bread's success to a new willingness on the part of Americans to experiment with different foods. "I think it's a general interest in specialty and imported items."
Rosalyn Johnson, 40, a Fairfax court reporter, buys three loaves a week. "I like the taste and texture," she said, "and, they use natural ingredients."
Darlene Showalter, 26, a Fairfax travel agent, bought some bread to take to her grandmother in Waynesboro this weekend. "The consistency is kind of chewy, and I like chewy breads," she said.
Another customer is Vic Fahringer, whose heating and air-conditioning equipment shop is next door to Nezam's ovens. And, said Fahringer, the aroma of freshly baked loaves that floats into his shop invites more than a few of his customers to ask, "Where's the bread?' "
"Of course, you get used to the odor of fresh bread, but still I go over there quite often and get a loaf of bread and start eating it right out of the oven," said Fahringer. "It's pretty darned good."