Fleeing the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1978, the son of one of the richest men in Afghanistan learned what it's like to work your way up from the bottom.
By Tony Abrahim with Martin Booe
Chicken Street, the site of the ancient and international bazaar located in Kabul, Afghanistan, came into existence around 2000 BC. Alexander the Great marched his army through it, Marco Polo traded spices and fabrics, and Genghis Khan poached its artisans and lured them to Manchuria. The English invaded it in the 1800s, and the Russians overran it in the 1900s. Despite the iron grip the Taliban maintains on the country, Chicken Street remains a mecca of trading. It was here, amid the rug and spice dealers, the camel traders and the gold merchants, that Miswah Said Abrahim’s character was forged. Growing up, he spent most of his days in Chicken Street, playing, working for his father, and learning how to trade in the ancient way, as his ancestors had always done.
Said Abrahim —who later changed his name to “Tony”— and his twin, Sam, were born in February, 1960 as scions of the richest family in Kabul. Growing up in the peaceful opulence of Afghanistan of the 1960s and 1970s, they were pampered twin princes, with servants to press their suits, cooks to squeeze their pomegranates, concubines to satisfy their adolescent desires, and most important, chauffeurs to steal them away from the lush rose gardens and marble floors of their family estate to the hot, felonious squall of Chicken Street. They couldn’t foresee that Chicken Street was preparing them for a future of violence, betrayal and resurrection in the greatest and cruelest marketplace on earth: New York City.
When the Afghani communists took over, to be followed shortly by the Russian invasion, Tony escaped to New York. He expected to fall comfortably into the safety net to be provided by his older brother, Ozzie, who’d been in the states since 1964. But things didn’t work out that way. Ozzie had become a compulsive gambler and had, with both hands, thrown away the nest egg he was charged to guard for the family’s escape from their native land. Living in utter squalor with his derelict brother, Tony, the formerly spoiled rich kid, was forced to make a go of it on his own.
Much of the action of the book takes places during the coke-fueled, “Greed is Good” frenzy of the eighties, during which Tony ascended from dishwasher at an Italian restaurant to manager for one of New York’s hottest discos. He mixed with mobsters and misfits. His boss was a former hit man for Mossad who was associated with the Gambino family. While trying to bring other members of the family to America, one by one, he and Sam opened their own nightclub on the Upper East Side, populated by Wall Street’s highest rollers. All was well. The brothers rented a penthouse, charging exorbitant fees to big spenders who wanted to keep the party going after the club closed. But trouble loomed: an odd character named Michel, an Egyptian and self-proclaimed “Muslim Brother,” reported to the DEA their fictitious boasts of millions in cash, kilos of cocaine, and large stashes of machine guns. In short, the brothers were framed (there is documentation of this), and forced to work as Narcs for the DEA. Subsequently, their fortunes are hilariously lost and gained in New York, San Francisco, the Arizona desert, Istanbul and Hawaii.
But underpinning all of the action is the real story of the twins trying to reunify their family and hold onto their culture, amid betrayals and theft by other brothers. And their perplexity as to why this ancient family, so close and mutually protective in their homeland, fell prey to avarice and self-interest once relocated in America. It is, in many respects, “Kiterunner” in reverse.
“Chicken Street” is much more than a “Riches to Rags to Riches” story. It illuminates Afghani culture in the way that the brothers fell back on their family’s ancient tradition of hospitality, repackaging it for the frenzy of 1980s Wall Street. Stripped of that, they take to the road, following the tradition of their ancestors on the Silk Route, trading watches, rugs and jewelry and turning it into profit until they regain their footing. They opened stores, lost them, made a killing as day traders, went belly up—but always bounced back. The story is also a lense through which to view the changes that have taken place, culturally and economically, in America, through the late 1970s, through the calamities of the Twin Towers, and up until today, when Tony Abrahim finds himself embarking for China: the new Chicken Street.
I'd laid down for a nap around 3 p.m., and fallen into a deep sleep. My mind was somewhere at the crossroads between memories and dreams. Images of Kabul, of my parents, of Chicken Street, of the life I'd left behind, all flashed in my head, clear as a movie. I'd been overdoing it and was close to nervous exhaustion: too much work, too much partying, the endless demands of running the hottest nightclub on the upper Eastside. I was starting to fray. The carpenter, Jim, had been doing some touch-up work on the penthouse. I told him to take a rest too. My twin brother Sam was out shopping with his girlfriend and would be back soon. Finally, some time to myself…
About an hour later, something stirred me awake. I pried my eyes open to find five hulking DEA agents surrounding the bed. A fist crashed into my nose, and it gushed blood like an open hydrant. They hoisted me up and tied me to a chair.
“Where’s the coke, Towel Head?” they demanded. “What about the guns? We know you’ve got a big stash of machine guns!”
I had no idea what they were talking about.
Now there were twenty or so agents, all bruisers weighing between 200 and 250 pounds. They swarmed through the penthouse, ripping up the furniture, ransacking drawers and closets.
The beating continued, the interrogation persisted. I couldn’t see through the veil of blood clouding my eyes. And then things went black.
Water splashed into Tony’s face. I must have been in shock. There was no pain, I felt nothing, I was totally numb. I looked across the expansive living room and saw my brother Sam lying on the floor. He was beat to a pulp too and his hands were tied behind his head. Same with Jim. The front door bore a gaping whole from forced entry. It looked like they’d shot a cannon through it
“We got the shit on you, mother fucker!” one of the agents bellowed. “How much cash you got stashed? A half million? A million? Where is the goddamn cash?”
“You’re crazy! You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. I ain’t got no goddamn drugs. I ain’t got no gun. I ain’t got no cash.”
And then, another crack to the head, another punch to the gut. I figured out from some of their remarks to each other that most of them were Vietnam vets. Trained killers. What I couldn’t figure out was what the hell they were talking about, why they were even here, much less why they were beating the goddamn daylights out of me.
And then I looked over toward the kitchen, where Michel, the Egyptian, my “Muslim brother,” stood, coolly drinking a glass of water. Muslim brother, my ass. Michel flashed a self-satisfied grin, or maybe it was more of a sneer. Then it started coming back to me. The stupid, crazy boasts Sam and I had made to keep Michel at heel, whatever the hell Michel was up to. The ridiculous stories we'd made up just to fuck with his head. Michel, his pockets bulging with bags of cocaine. Always wanting to party with Sam and me. Always making like he was our best friend.
I could never pinpoint what it was about Michel that gave me the creeps. Now it all made sense. Fucking Michel: a filthy dog whose only mission was to save his own hide.
The beating went on and on. It was like ‘The Deer Hunter” movie, I thought. I had to come up with something to stop it, or I'd be one dead Afghani. Finally, I remembered the words my father had said before the communists had forced me to flee Kabul. Squinting through the blood, I looked at the head guy said:
“So why don’t you take a bullet and shoot me? Just get over with it man. If you don’t shoot me, you don’t have any goddamn balls.”
I said whatever I could think of to get this guy to shoot me. “You don’t have the balls to shoot me! Go to hell, you coward. You got no guts to put a bullet in my head. Just give me the gun and I’ll shoot myself. Hey, why don’t you put one bullet in the gun and let me play Russian roulette and we bet on it.”
He popped me in the cheekbone again, knuckles like they were made out of ball bearings.
And then I said: “Shoot me, you goddamn pansy. I’d be proud to die by an American bullet instead of a Russian bullet.”
The interrogator gasped, like all the air had been knocked out of him. The room went quiet. They all looked toward me like they’d been slapped silly.
Then the head guy yelled, “STOP!”
I’d pushed the right button. The head agent said it again: ‘Okay, stop beating the kid. Stop beating the kid NOW.’”
I’d wrapped myself in the flag. I loved America, and that was the only thing I had in common with these guys, who’d been through hell in Vietnam and were now opportunistic dirtbags fighting Nancy Reagan’s War on Drugs. And it was just instinct. It just came out of my mouth. I’d be proud to die by an American bullet.
I hit them in the sweet spot and if I hadn’t, I’d be dead. It saved my life.”
KABUL, SEPTEMBER 1978
“Brother, there’s just one thing I have to say to you,” Sharif Abdi told me on the way to the Kabul airport in his 1959 Chevy. “When you get to America, don’t look back. It’s over here. Done. You have a new country. A new life in a land where you can start over and thrive. But remember what I say: Don’t look back.”
I bit my lip. It was all I could do to keep from crying.
“He’s right,” All agreed solemnly. “You’ve got your brother Ozzie waiting for you in New York. He will be your father now, and you know he will take good care of you.” This really didn’t need to be said. In Afghan culture, when you lose your father, your older brother takes the role. That’s how it was and nobody questioned it. My father was still alive, but in America, Ozzie—16 years older than me—would be there to guide me, house me, and help me adjust to my new country.
The night before, there had been a tense shish kabob party at our home in Kabul. My relatives hung about glumly; no one could decide whether to act like they were going to a wedding or a funeral. The fact that I was getting out was cause for both celebration and mourning. It signaled my salvation, and it foretold of a family —as well as national—Diaspora. That morning I said goodbye to all of my relatives, and now two of my favorite people were driving me to the airport: my second cousin Sharif and my brother-in-law, All Balki. I had no idea when or if I would ever see them again. “America will give you the opportunity to become a lawyer—or even a doctor!” my mother had said optimistically. “There, you’ll be able to make something out of yourself.”
“I’ve decided I want to be a lawyer,” I told her. “I think I’d like that.”
“Then reach for the sky, son! Reach for the sky! Your brother, Ozzie, will be waiting for you.”
Ozzie was the star of our family, the brilliant one, a genius in mathematics. First he’d studied in London, and then he became one of the youngest students at Columbia and the only Afghani who’d ever won a scholarship there. He’d gotten his doctorate in mathematics and published books, papers, and his thesis. He shocked the family when he married a Jewish teacher, but together they bought a beautiful house in New Jersey. He’d already been in America for 15 years, since 1964, and he was a great success. So our father had entrusted him with a big chunk of the family fortune, had even helped him open three import stores, just in case things went wrong in Afghanistan, which they certainly had. I hadn’t seen him since I was five years old, but like everyone else in the family, I was in awe of him from a distance: I’d seen pictures of his big beautiful house in the suburbs, his pretty wife and two kids. In fact, I really only knew him from photographs. In one, he was wearing a slim pinstriped suit and was standing in front of two Ford Mustang convertibles parked in front of his Jersey home.
It looked like he was living the American Dream.
Nothing wrong with that, but the truth was, nobody in my family had ever cared much about the idea of going to America. We listened to Elvis and the Beatles. My older brothers’ favorite was Tom Jones. They had stashes of Playboys and drank the best imported liquor. My sister wore mini-skirts. The west had come streaming into our lives, but we were happy to let it come to us. The American Dream didn’t hold that much appeal for us because we were living our own dream. We were very fortunate in this. Afghanistan has always been a poor country, but our father was a big shot.
I really never wanted to live anywhere but Kabul.
I looked out the window. The streets like always were clotted with the usual assortment of rickshaws, camels, mopeds pulling carts piled high with vegetables or trinkets, peddlers trudging on the side of the road, on their backs—like ants carrying crumbs three greater than their own body weight. And then we pulled onto the road to the airport, 16 kilometers outside Kabul, and I gazed back at the Hindu Kush Mountains. Hulking, jagged peaks, khaki-colored at the bottom, dry as a giant heap of fresh coffee grounds, with out-croppings sharp as arrowheads, and peaks that were snow-gilded and haloed with brooding, iridescent clouds. Those mountains were where we skied in the winter and in the summer sought refuge from the heat of Kabul.
Sharif could feel my mood sinking and he tried to lighten things up.
“Think about all that American pussy, Brother!” he said. “You’ll get some blonde stuff for a change! I envy you. You know what they say about those American girls, don’t you?”
“No, what?” I asked.
“They’ll fuck you swinging upside down by their feet from a chandelier.”
That made me chuckle a little bit. I was 18. Sharif was a lot older than me, but he’d always treated me like his friend, his equal. What I remember most is how he couldn’t bear to hurt any living creature, human or animal. He was such an incredibly sweet, gentle man. I loved him dearly, and All too.
I was already homesick and I hadn’t even left town yet. I thought of my mother, Zahara Ibrahimi, so generous and compassionate. If she heard about an employee’s particular hardship, she’d make arrangements to put it right, always anonymously. If someone complimented her jewelry or an item of clothing, she’d give it to away on the spot and tell them to enjoy it. My dad was the same, donating money to the mosques to feed thousands of hungry people through Ramadan.
And my God, how was I going to get by without my twin, Sam, who was like my second self? We dreamed the same dreams, got the same illnesses, everything one of us experienced would come back on the other sooner or later. We fought like bastards, played like best friends, hit each other until we bled, backed each other up so that no one, no one would fuck with us. We were a team. I’d miss the family picnics, the beautiful mosques, but in terms of the town, what I’d miss most was Chicken Street.
It was typical of my dad to have the kind of foresight to stash money away in another country, in this case with my brother, Ozzie. We led an idyllic life in Afghanistan, but Father was a fatalist. He never trusted things to remain the same.
The crisis had started brewing in 1974 when the king, Zahir Shah, went to Rome for eye surgery. His cousin, Sardar Daoud Khan, launched a bloodless coup, unraveling 45 years of benign monarchy. Khan announced himself as a progressive and a reformer (like hell he was), and both Sharif and All decided to make the best of it, going to work for the government in the sincere belief that they could make things better through trade, economic development, and education.
Sharif had become head of the Chamber of Commerce after the King was deposed and the government turned into a republic. All was an economist who’d been educated in Germany. They were both good men, working for the good of the country, progressives who were really committed to modernizing Afghanistan and bringing it out of poverty. None of us had wanted to see the King deposed; life under him had been beautiful for us and we respected the monarchy and its traditions. But when the regime changed, they were called upon to help, and they decided to pitch in and do what they could.
Then came the communists.
The KGB had been agitating undercover, helping to spark a class war and a communist uprising. The communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan now seized the reigns, and they took a lot of pages from Stalin’s playbook.
They called it the Great Saur Revolution. Sardar Daoud Khan and his family were slaughtered that year in 1978. It was the year before the Russian invasion. I was getting out one step ahead of the real violence, but already they were turning the society upside down. If you had money or property, they confiscated it and redistributed it to the poor. The educated, the wealthy, and the upper class—for them, the executions had already begun. The new Marxist government was drafting young boys into the Independent Afghan Army, and if you were from a well-off family, you were sure to be canon fodder in the front lines in the fight against the U.S.-backed mujahideen.
If I stayed, I’d be dead.
There was nothing to do but run away, and in the coming months, we’d all scatter to the four winds, to India, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Iran...and for me, the United States, where Ozzie and my oldest brother, Abdul, had already settled.
That year, in 1978, I went to Germany for a month to visit my sister, Lila; Afghanis didn’t need a Visa to travel there, and the Germans had done a lot for our country by building schools, roads and hospitals. As a nation, they were Afghanistan’s best friend. When I got back, things had taken a disastrous turn. Father was under house arrest. The communists had stripped away his assets like a masher tearing off a woman’s clothes. Father had only one goal at that moment: to get as many of the family out of the country as he could. So he pulled some strings with a friend at the American Embassy, hoping to get us all out, but at the end of the day he only got one Visa—for me. Not long after, his friend at the embassy packed up and left the country, as did most foreigners and any Afghanis who could find a way.
By that time, the communists had cleaned out his bank accounts, and he could only scrounge up $250 to send me on my way. Even with all this calamity, his pillar of inner strength betrayed no sign of crumbling. He pressed the money into my hands. “Do not even think of coming back here,” he said. “The country will be destroyed. America is a great country and there is enormous opportunity for you there. Your brother will feed you, house you, and pay for your education. It would be better for you to die in America than here at the hands of the Russian army.”
I listened to him closely and kissed his hand. Then he gave me my Visa and the one-way ticket to New York.
On the highway, we passed hoards of refugees in the making, entire families slogging along the road with their last belongings in bundles and bags. Before us lay the checkpoint, two makeshift wooden guard towers where sullen soldiers leaned wearily on mounted machine guns, eyeing the mass of people on foot. A barbed wire fence surrounded the airport and callow sentries patrolled its perimeter in pairs.
We pulled up to a gate reinforced by sandbags and guarded by seven dangerously bored soldiers with assault rifles. (I had started coming to the conclusion that there was nothing more dangerous than a bored man with a gun.) One gunner, his face stubbled with two day’s worth of beard, flashed a menacing smile, revealing a set of rotted teeth the color of cigarette filters. That made him seem all the more sinister. He stomped his boot up onto the bumper of the Chevy and amused himself by bouncing the car up and down on its shocks, then cackled self-consciously. These guys finally had the power of intimidation, and it was the only toy they had to play with. Then another soldier approached and Sharif rolled down the driver’s side window.
“Passports!” the soldier barked. “All of you!”
Hands trembling, I handed over the counterfeit Sharif had copped for me. After checking our passports against a long list of names, the soldier gave us a surly nod and waved us through.
The airport was a glass-fronted building with a single set of heavily guarded double glass doors. The line ran outside onto the sidewalk. Women wept and wailed as their departing husbands tried in vain to calm them.
“Well, here we are,” Sharif said in a hushed voice. He forced a smile and kissed my cheek, saying, ‘Good luck to you and I will miss you.’ He hugged me tight and kissed me again. I’ll never forget that moment. It was like he knew what was coming.
I grabbed my small suitcase, that contained only a few basic necessities, took a breath and joined the back of the line.
Now my mood shifted from melancholy to borderline panic. Making my way through the airport felt like walking barefoot over broken glass. The place was crawling with soldiers. Kids mostly— radicalized, uneducated, illiterate, drunk on power, high on revenge, and prone to go off half-cocked. I tried to keep cool. I couldn’t keep cool so I tried to at least look cool, act like nothing unusual was going on. But my nerves were crackling. The communist watchdogs had their eyes peeled for anyone trying to escape the country, and Kabul was a small city at that time. If you came from a well-known family like I did, well… that’s why Sharif Abdi had gone to the trouble of getting me a fake passport. But would it pass muster? If they looked at it too closely, or if anybody recognized me, which was really possible, I’d be history. They’d take me to the back and stand me up against a wall and execute me for trying to get out of there.
I skulked toward the departure gate, avoiding eye contact with anyone. I showed my ticket and my passport. I held my breath. There were a lot of bullets in Kabul then with the name Abrahim on them, and in fact, 14 members of my family would be executed in the coming months. But I guess they lost the bullet with my name on it that day. I naively tucked my real passport and the American visa into my underpants, and with my Ariana Afghan Airlines ticket in one hand and Sharif’s counterfeit passport in the other, I huddled anonymously into the long line waiting to pass through one final security check. I watched the inspector rifle through another traveler’s bags and scrutinize his departure papers. Sweat trickled down my neck. I imagined being jailed, or drafted into the Communist army. When the communists stopped a young man only a few feet in front of me, more machine gun toting officers came out and peppered him with questions. I nearly soiled my pants when they jerked him out of line and led him away.
I kept my head down.
I reached the front of the line and set my bag on the counter for one guard to paw through while another checked my passport. The second one looked about my age. I was sure his eyes were burning a hole through my passport, but it was my imagination. Our eyes locked but he didn’t say anything. The slightest trace of a smile crossed his lips. He calmly closed the booklet and waved me through. Only after I stepped past him, zipping my bag closed, could I remember to breath again.
And then I was on the plane.
Sharif Abdi was kidnapped and killed six months later. All Balki was taken away from his job at gunpoint, and most certainly lined up against a wall with some other targets, and shot in the head. We never found his body. To this day, his wife, Semin—my sister—still believes he’s alive somewhere and hopes someday to find him. There is really nothing you can say to her.
I didn’t hear about this for a year. When I got the news, I cried for a week, the worst week of my life. Sharif Abdi had given me my last hug and kiss in Kabul, and they took him behind a wall and shot him. After 30 years, I haven’t forgotten that kiss or his beautiful, kind heart. I still have nightmares about it.
I still don’t know how I got out of that airport.
One of my earliest memories: I’m six years old and walking with my father and the people are running up to kiss his hand. Black-bearded middle-aged men in their primes, old men with snow-white beards, poor people, beggars, even the well to do, all running up to kiss his hand. And I was walking behind my father and they kissed my hand too. I was so insulted, so embarrassed. Why were they kissing my hand? It was humiliating, I didn’t feel worthy of it. I walked in my father’s footsteps after all.
This was my father: a man of the people. And these expressions of affection were always happening to him on Chicken Street.
Chicken Street. Old as Kabul, which is 3000 years, and running four miles through the city. The last stop for Marco Polo. It was where traders flocked to from north, east, south, and west, from Iran, Egypt, and of course from every corner of Afghanistan. You saw people of every nationality — Afghani, Chinese, Mongolian, Indian, Persian — everybody!
Everybody looked different and they all stuck with their own tribes. Three blocks of Persians, three blocks of Indians, and so on. People selling every kind of ware you could think of: rugs, pipes, silk, textiles. The air was an unearthly mingling of scents: hashish from the hippies escaping Viet Nam, tea brewing from samovars, pomegranate, lemons, saffron, incense, lamb kabobs sizzling on grills. And wafting from the coral off to one side, the smell of camel and sheep dung, the smell of animals.
Chicken Street: canopied with fruit trees, populated with storytellers who still talked of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great, the ancient heroes of the middle east, and the people would gather around and listen for three hours at a time. There were children playing tog and the teashops were always full. The whole bazaar was a warren of clay huts, though some hawked their wares from beneath canopies. It was where you heard what was going on, the gossip, the news from Iran and Pakistan. It was where you played chess and cards and backgammon,
Here a man shopped for jewelry for his wife, the bridegroom shopped for his bride’s dowry, the rule being 5 camels, 6 sheep, clothes, shoes… It opened at 7 a.m., closed at 6 p.m. It was a beautiful feeling being in that marketplace bazaar. Haggling, but no crime, no police, just peace and love. Chicken Street: it was all about trade, and trade was a grand celebration, a magnificent party, a feast of abundance.
Chicken Street was where the people kissed my father’s hand.
Chicken Street was where our family’s fortune was made.
There were two kings in Afghanistan then. One was the royal king and the other was the king of money, and that was my father. He had shoe factories, candle factories, movie theaters… He was in charge of 46,000 employees, and was basically the Rockefeller of Afghanistan. Kabul was a small place then, with a population of a half million. You couldn’t miss a guy as powerful as him. He supported all the country, all the poor people.
But I still don’t know why they kissed my hand and I don’t know why this still bothers me.
I was six years old. My father was the leader, the king, the man, the richest man in Kabul.
He was like Mohammed. Everybody respected him. He put food on people’s tables and supported their families.
They called us the Paper Family because paper meant money.
He is 6-2 in height and tall and strong, and nobody can miss him when he walks in Chicken Street. He dresses like a western businessman, though a bit more rakishly: always in a fine Italian double-breasted suit with a Homburg cocked over his fine head. He had style and dignity.
And because of our family’s wealth, my brothers and I grew up like little princes.
Having our way with the housemaids. Smashing Cadilliacs and Mercedes. Playing the Beatles. Three drivers. A 40-room palace of Italian marble. An American style toilet that actually flushed.
And all thanks to Chicken Street.
Our family didn’t come from royalty. In fact, my father’s side of the family came from Mongolia; family lore has it that my great-great-great-grandfather was the khan. But we started from scratch. My great-grandfather traveled the Silk Road on camelback, trading carpets made in his village, Mazar e Sharif, in the north of Afghanistan. He traded them for anything he could bring back and sell at a profit. He would take 40 camels, and the caravan would lumber through Persia, Baghdad, and even as far as Egypt. He passed the business down to my grandfather, who passed it down to my father, who used to tell the story of a journey my grandfather made in 1904 or 1905. Grandfather traveled to Egypt through dozens of villages over three months, moving only through the night in caravan with some other merchants because in the daytime the Berbers would rob them. This time, he pushed all the way to Russia, selling textiles and gold, then back to northern Afghanistan where the best artisans were. He was known as a man of honor, and the artisans entrusted only him to ferry their goods to Kabul, to Chicken Street, where he would sell them for them and return with their money. There was no road in those days, all travel was on camelback, and he made a fortune that way. My father started going along with him at the age of fourteen.
My father, Abrahim Ibrahimi, was born in 1889. He, too, came to Chicken Street as a merchant from the north of Afghanistan, following the family tradition of bringing camels and donkeys from the north to trade in Kabul. But his marriage had been arranged and he now needed to upscale his business, so he sought out previously undiscovered trade routes. He soon found a new path that enabled him to bring high quality rugs from Mazar e Sharif to Kabul. In 1908, my father moved the family business to Kabul, where all the trade was, and eventually began exporting rugs from Mazar e Sharif to London and the United States.
His first marriage—the first of four—was in 1906 when he was 17. The couple had four children, but they all died of disease, very common in those days when there were no doctors or modern medicine in Afghanistan. After five years of marriage, his wife died too. He married again and was again widowed, though his second wife gave him two girls and a boy, my half sisters and half brother. He spent a number of years focusing on business, but by 1937, he was ready again for marriage. So he hired two women to scour Kabul for the most beautiful girl in town. These fine ladies combed the public marketplaces like they were looking for a needle in a haystack, and after weeks of searching, they finally found one: an 18-year-old beauty with the physique of a ballerina, deep, liquid brown eyes, and curly, raven hair. Her great-grandfather had been accountant to Russian King Nicholas II, and the family had come to Kabul in escape of Stalin.
My father used business as an excuse to meet her and her family; he bought the family’s property and the marriage was arranged in 1938. He’d wanted more sons, and he hit the jackpot; she gave him seven in all, including my twin brother, Sam, and me, who were the youngest; and three daughters. For every son born, he would organize a 40-day celebration. For every daughter born, he’d leave on business for 40 days.
While continuing to specialize in carpets, Father had expanded his trading empire to chinchilla farms, sheep and karakul skins, which he sold in Russia and India. By 1915, he’d become Trade Commissioner for Northern Afghanistan. His first shipments of carpet and tails were sent to London and the USA in 1935. In 1940, he opened a Manhattan showroom on West 23rd Street and sent his younger brother Habibual to the United States to run the operation. Over time, he grew richer and richer, and forged a close relationship with King Zahir Shah. They acted as silent partners in everything from sheepskins to real estate. In the 1950s, he expanded into shoe factories and opened a second movie theater in Kabul. He had a big setback in 1958, lost several million dollars in the commodities market and had to close his New York and London offices. But he bounced back.
I think this was the most important thing I learned from my dad: how to bounce back. As my life went on, I would sure get a lot of practice at it.
And my brothers and I grew up like little princes.
Walking down Chicken Street as a kid was a rush. Being followed by my bodyguard or servant. People knowing I’m the son of Abrahim and people respecting me… it was just strange and exciting.
Except when they kissed my hand.
God, I hated it when they kissed my hand.
But I remember it as a place of love and peace. Of respect. People came to trade. It was festive, sensual and kind. There was no cheating or stealing, it was all about respect. I see my life as a walk down Chicken Street, because I too would become a trader. I learned how people did business with handshakes that were more inviolable than any 50 page legal contract. Your word was your honor, and I learned that from the real traders who came from the ancient tradition. Later, when I had my nightclub in New York, it was the same: Don’t pay now, sign this… it’s all about how you negotiate the business the deals the old fashioned way. That’s why my club was successful. I operated in a very ancient way. It was the same when I sold my rugs in trucks across the country, and when I opened furniture stores throughout California.
Your word is your honor.
I came to the United States with nothing and what I saw was a strange bazaar that I would somehow have to figure out. But I knew if I could bring something different to the market, I could sell it. It’s always been about connections. It’s all been about chance. It’s always been about how you present yourself.
But we are all chickens. We peck around like blind chickens, not ever knowing what we’re going to find.
My life, my character, my attitude—they were all forged on Chicken Street.
By the time I got on the Pan Am 747 to New York, I was starting to feel kind of jaunty and optimistic. I’d spent two days in Frankfurt, and blown most of $200 of my $250 on blowjobs. Yeah, blowjobs. These were unheard of in Kabul; for Afghan women of any caste, the act was regarded as unspeakable, perverse, a poisonous taboo. For a horny young Afghan guy like me, experiencing it for the first time, it was mind-blowing. I thought my eyes were going to explode in my head. I’d walked through the red light district of Frankfurt, practically hypnotized by the lovely painted ladies behind panes of glass. I had money in my pocket. So what? My ass was covered. Once I got off the plane, Ozzie would be there waiting for me.
As the plane shifted down in altitude, I looked out the window and got my first glimpse of New York. It was thrilling and frightening at a same time. At first I saw a jungle… a terrifying concrete jungle. Then my perspective shifted, and I saw something different. Now it reminded me of stone canyons, the buildings jutting up like stalagmites, and I flashed back on the Hindu Kush mountains, majestic and inscrutable. I started to get excited. During the flight, I had plenty of time to fantasize about what I’d do with my new life. Education, of course. In Kabul we used to watch “Perry Mason” and other lawyer shows, and I’d gotten it into my head that I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I liked that idea. Wheeling and dealing. Make a deal with the prosecutor, the judge, the client. Defend people. Win over the jury with my words and appeals. I’d had this idea for awhile and I’d set my sights on becoming a lawyer.
Finally, the plane touched down on the runway of JFK International, and soon was standing in a short line at customs. I had already dumped my phony Afghan passport in a men’s room trashcan back in Germany. Now I handed the visa and my genuine passport to the American customs officer standing behind a podium. In the distance, a blonde model wearing a lime green body suit seemed to say, “Hey, baby!” You didn’t see billboards like that in Kabul.
“Welcome to New York,” I imagined the portals read, though I couldn’t know for sure.
It was November 1979; a new decade was just around the corner.
I didn’t understand a word the agent said to me. He took my passport and visa, picked up his phone and mumbled into the receiver. I thought about the man who was led away in Kabul and I nervously fussed with my small travel bag, my only possessions in this new land. The other passengers were all dressed up; polyester suits on the men, dresses, double knit shifts and colorful silk designer scarves on the women. I felt out of place in my pair of knockoff American blue jeans, navy pea coat, white shirt, and fifty bucks left in my pocket.
The agent thrust his hand forward, signaling me to wait. The people behind me were already grumbling. The customs agent handed my passport and visa to yet another uniform. I swallowed hard. He was with the INS.
“Mirwais Ibrahimi,” the office said, speaking Farsi. “What brings you to New York? Are you traveling alone?”
“Student,” I said in Farsi, instructed by my brother-in-law what to say. “Here to live with my brother Osman. To go to school.”
“And you came from Frankfurt?”
“Student,” I answered back, pretending to be ense.
The questions, more like small talk, continued for another minute while the agent studied my face until he was satisfied I was neither dangerous nor diseased. He passed me through like he was happy to be rid of me.
Coming through the gate at JFK, I scanned the crowd for my erudite, professorly brother… until my eyes fell on someone who bore a vague resemblance to the sibling I’d last seen ten years ago.
He was a man in a grimy windbreaker, moldering tennis shoes, greasy hair and an unwashed face. Tall, thin, haggard.
“Ozzie?” I inquired tentatively.
“Welcome to New York, kid,” Ozzie replied, giving me a hug and a kiss. For the moment, I forgot all about his derelict appearance and began telling him about all of the havoc the communists had caused in Afghanistan, how the family was splitting up, how they’d taken everything away from our father.
“Hmmmm,” Ozzie said remotely. He seemed both disinterested, uninformed, and seriously preoccupied with something else.
“What the hell’s happened to you?” I finally asked.
“We’ll talk about it later,” my brother replied, his face ashen and his mouth turned down.
Outside the terminal, Ozzie flagged a taxi we and we trundled into Manhattan. Where was his Mustang convertible? I wondered. In an attempt at a welcoming gesture, Ozzie directed the driver through Manhattan to show me around. It was about three in the afternoon when we got out at 42nd Street, then the smell of urine and vinegar punched me in the face like a heavyweight boxer. The streets were crowded with people of all races and classes. Street kids blasted music from boom boxes as strange bursts of noise ricocheted off the impossibly tall, tall buildings. Yellow cabs honked like gigantic geese. Trucks idled where they pleased, fouling the air and indifferent to the fact they were blocking traffic. I gasped for breath. Just one street had more cars on it than I’d seen in my whole life. I stood awestruck, trying to count the number of floors the skyscrapers had. It was unthinkable. The tallest buildings in Afghanistan were five stories and made of brick or clay. We didn’t have such shiny, glass edifices. And what I found as exotic as I did intimidating was the presence of black people. There were people of every race, but I had never seen a black person before. I wondered what they were like.
I’d never felt like more of a stranger in strange land.
Only in the street merchants did I finally see something familiar: a glimmer of Chicken Street. In New York, they hawked their wares with the same guttural calls of desperation and greed. They sold kabobs and sausages, plastic replicas of the Empire State Building, sausages, umbrellas, hot nuts, watches, sunglasses, white tube socks, paperback books. I had to snap my head around to take it all in. This was Chicken Street times a thousand, times a million.
We’d walked about ten blocks when Ozzie asked in English, “Hungry, Kid?” He gestured to his mouth.
“You bet,” I said in Farsi. “What’s good?”
“Okay, surprise me,” I said.
We entered a Burger king, where Ozzie ordered us Whoppers and fries. “Here we go,” Ozzie said. “Your first American hamburger.” I was looking forward to my first meal in my new country, but I’d never tasted meat like this before. I wondered if it really was even meat. It sure wasn’t anything like the freshly grilled kabobs and lulus I was used to in Kabul. And the potatoes—they tasted like they’d been fried in some sort of oil created for racing cars.
I was getting more and more confused. Here was Ozzie, who on top of being a university professor, was supposed to have owned three import stores in the east village, funded and stocked by our dad—another facet of the family nest egg.
We made our way to Penn Station and took the train to Jersey City. It was my first and fastest train ride, but I was too tired to enjoy it. We transferred to a bus, then walked for what seemed like forever. My heart sank as I surveyed the blighted cityscape, the garbage-strewn streets, the graffiti scarred buildings, the hookers milling on most corners, the jaundiced men making furtive exchanges with dealers. Surely, it was just a bad neighborhood we were passing through on their way to some brighter suburban oasis.
Arriving at a six-story building that sagged with age and neglect, its paint peeling like excematic skin, we climbed the stairs to the second floor, where Ozzie was renting a squalid, one-bedroom apartment for $350 a month. It was filled with the stench of negligence and poverty.
Ozzie unlocked the door then had to slam it twice to get it to close. Once inside, he locked two different bolts and threw a chain latch across the door. I scanned the room. We were in prison. Two rooms and a bath. A small table and two mismatched chairs, very little furniture. Old black and white TV that probably didn’t work and had bugs—roaches, I would find out later—popping out of its vents. In front of the TV was an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts and an empty pizza box. There wasn’t even a couch. Sink loaded with filthy dishes. Broken toilet, rusted shower. I made the mistake of opening the refrigerator, hoping for a cold drink: instead what I saw was a science fiction movie. Bugs writhed in the moldy, green cavern and I slammed the door in disgust.
Worst of all, in the center of the bedroom lay two dirty mattresses, greasy and spotted with bloodstains. The whole scene was hideous.
Ozzie said, “Welcome home, kid. Welcome to America.”
My stomach started to rumble. The Whopper was turning on my digestive system like a rabid dog. I was sick to my stomach for days.
So much for American hamburgers.
I was stunned and shocked by what was unfolding in front of me! I finally asked him, “Where is your wife? Where is your home? What happened to your life?” It turned out he’d pissed all the money away gambling. He drove a filthy taxi by night, then spent the day at the track, and he’d already pissed all of the family money—a couple of million dollars— on horses! His wife finally had enough and kicked him out. He admitted he’d been lying for years, lying to the family about everything. I mean, this was Ozzie we were talking about, the smart one. He was my last hope to be educated in this country. Now he could barely even unzip his own pants to pee, so how was he going to help me? And the whole time he’s bullying me to learn English when there wasn’t a single white person in the neighborhood. I tried to sleep but couldn’t. I used my shoes as a pillow to keep my head off that filthy mattress.
My dreams of becoming a lawyer went up in smoke.
At night during those first weeks, I dreamed I was back home in Kabul. I could see my family so clearly in my mind. Most of all, I missed my twin brother, Sam. I heard my mother calling out for me, but in my dreams I would wander through the whole house looking for her, trying to trace the source of her voice.
I missed my country, its beauty, and the wonderful, privileged life we’d had before the communists had come. The fresh food, the servants, the comfort, the fun.
I missed Chicken Street.
Then I’d wake up in this disgusting apartment with no air conditioning, stinking of human grease and piss.
I wanted to go home.
I called my father and told him everything. And he repeated what he’d told me the day I left Kabul: “You have no country anymore. You have no home. If you are even thinking about coming back here, you will be sent to the front lines and take a bullet in the first five minutes. America is your home now, so be a man and make the best of it.”
I was incredibly depressed after that conversation. I took a walk in the park and cried. Cried for three hours. Cried all day and all night. My old life was gone for good.
So I told myself I had to make it here. I was just starving for a chance. I thought of Chicken Street. When you bring something from Egypt or Iran or Russia, you bring something new and you might sell it and make a few dollars. It’s all about new product, it’s all about what’s going on right now.
The fact was, I was back on Chicken Street. But this time around was different. No servants. No bodyguards. And I could sure be certain of one fucking thing: This time around, nobody was going to run up and kiss my goddamn hand.