A Taste of Power

By Jake Halpern | Boston Magazine |

As President George W. Bush readies himself for his many inaugural balls this month, newly elected presidents elsewhere will have a tougher go of it — and perhaps none more so than Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, who will be busy dodging car bombs and taming the region's petulant warlords. Despite the rough-and-tumble nature of his job, Karzai manages to keep up a chic appearance with his capes, tapered black suits, and Persian lambswool caps. In fact, according to Gucci's former creative director, Karzai is “the chicest man on the planet.” One could imagine him, under other circumstances, as the proprietor of a hip restaurant in Cambridge. And oddly enough, that's where Karzai might easily have ended up.

During the 1970s and '80s, as Afghanistan endured several coups and a Soviet invasion, Karzai's siblings did what disgruntled opportunists have done for decades: They came to America and opened a string of restaurants. Led by Karzai's older brother Mahmood, the family started traditional Afghan restaurants — all named the Helmand — including one in Cambridge.

As the restaurants prospered, Mahmood did what any good sibling would: He encouraged his kid brother to come to the West and join him. “I told him he could come here and work with me, but he was more interested in working with the mujahideen,” Mahmood recalls. “He wanted to be involved in the struggle.”

Looking back, Mahmood feels that his brother made the right choice — not only because he has become a founding father of the new, ostensibly secular Afghan state, inaugurated last month as president, but also because he seems ill-suited for working in the food-service industry. Granted, even the surliest of Boston diners may appear downright docile next to the warlords of Hazara, but according to Mahmood, managing a restaurant requires a certain autocratic instinct that is not in his brother's nature. “In democratic politics, it is all about negotiations, patience, and getting along with people,” he explains. “But in business, it is all about discipline, managing, and being in control. In that way, it is really more like a dictatorship.”

The Helmand in Cambridge is situated amid a row of old brick warehouses in the shadows of Kendall Square's gleaming high-rises. It's lit with the flickering light of a giant fireplace and the crackling glow of an even larger wood-burning bread oven. The floors are covered with ornate Afghan rugs, and the walls are hung with traditional Afghan musical instruments, like the tambour , which resembles a long canoe paddle with strings. And the meals, many of them lathered with baked baby pumpkin or yogurt garlic mint sauce, are exquisite.

On any given night, you may find Mahmood, 48, here, directing waiters, adjusting table settings, and tasting sauces. Tonight, he is seated at a small table in the corner. He speaks in a deep, gravelly voice. “We will taste all of the food today and tomorrow we will do the fixing!” he declares authoritatively. When I ask what exactly needs fixing, he points to a pastry item on the menu called the mantwo. “It is a very delicate dish,” he explains. “If you change the spices to the slightest degree, it will be completely ruined. Tonight it was slightly imbalanced — too much salt and a bit too much coriander seed — so we threw it out!”

“He gets very upset if he tastes something that he doesn't like,” says his wife, Wazhma, a strikingly beautiful woman who helps run the family business.

President Karzai has dined at the Helmand in Cambridge many times. “Whatever he eats, he likes,” Mahmood says, “but he does not eat much. For Hamid it is always healthy food and small portions. He has tremendous discipline when it comes to eating. I myself do not have that discipline.”

Mahmood travels frequently to Afghanistan to help his brother in the rebuilding process. In 1973, King Zahir Shah was ousted in a leftist coup, and a few years later the country descended into civil war. In 1979, the Soviets invaded and attempted to bring order, but their grip on power was never more than tenuous and by the early 1990s their puppet government had collapsed. Then came the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and the shock and awe of the United States Air Force. The result is a country with almost no infrastructure, so Mahmood — like many of his other siblings here in the United States — returns home to help out. In the last year, he spent roughly eight months in Afghanistan. He is currently overseeing the construction of a modern housing development in Kandahar where residents will be able to enjoy clean water and a working sewer system.

In addition, Mahmood has established the Afghanistan International Chamber of Commerce to teach some of his countrymen a little of what he has learned as a successful entrepreneur in America. “When it comes to business,” he explains in a professorial tone, “you need discipline, control, and . . . ”

“Assistance,” interjects Wazhma. “We all need assistance.”

“True,” replies Mahmood. “This is true.”