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Afghans Who Fled Conflict Face Cultural Divide in U.S.

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

WASHINGTON – Aman Feda, an Afghan-born mortgage broker, cringed at his 13-year-old niece’s choice of music, the hip-hop blaring from the car radio, the lyrics grating on his nerves as they drove home after shopping at a mall.”Why not listen to some Afghan music?” Feda asked casually.”What music?” he remembers her saying with a shrug of her shoulders. “There’s nothing.”The exchange sparked Feda’s first thought of creating a magazine that showcases Afghan musicians, poets and celebrities in a way that enlightens his niece’s generation about Afghan culture and engages community elders eager to reconnect with their Afghan roots.Feda and his wife, Samira, who live in Springfield, Va., followed through on the idea three years later. They launched a magazine three months ago and found themselves negotiating what one Afghan native describes as the “cultural schizophrenia” that has plagued a community that began settling in large numbers in this country more than two decades ago, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.As Aman Feda, 32, tells it, many of them were well-educated professionals who scraped by as taxi drivers and beauticians when they arrived. They’ve raised doctors, engineers and now publishers. But calming the political tensions they brought with them, reconciling Muslim tradition with American lifestyles, and easing the resulting strain between generations proved tougher than the financial challenges they faced.Even the Fedas, who arrived as youngsters, grappled with the hyphen in Afghan-American. She was not allowed to date. So he had to ask her parents for her hand in marriage.Samira, 23, the editor in chief, and Aman, the publisher, decided on the name Zeba – the Dari word for beautiful. But they fretted about putting a woman on this month’s cover, Miss England 2005, the Afghan knockout (and Muslim) who caused a stir when she took part in the swimsuit competition.”We’re trying to be respectful of everyone, but we’re trying to push the buttons just a little bit on the social issues,” Aman Feda said. “And there are a lot of social issues the Afghans here don’t agree on.”In the Washington region, home to one of the country’s largest Afghan populations, “everyone” includes roughly 14,000 people who said they are of Afghan ancestry, most of them born in Afghanistan, according to a 2005 U.S. Census survey released this month. A sports federation in Fairfax draws throngs of Afghans from around the nation to its annual Fourth of July soccer championship.Afghans came in waves, bringing competing political ideologies, said Rameen Moshref Javid, 37, who splits time between Alexandria, Va., and New York, where he runs a nonprofit organization that promotes cultural and intellectual discourse among young Afghan professionals.When the Soviets invaded in 1979, Afghanistan’s ruling elite escaped immediately if they could. Intellectuals who refused to embrace the new party dogma followed in the 1980s. And when the communist regime collapsed in 1992, any Afghans associated with it fled and civil war broke out. Four years later, after the Taliban seized Kabul, the capital, still more left. Since 1999, about 9,100 Afghan refugees have arrived in this country, according to the Department of Homeland Security.”Each one of those waves formed the Afghan society we see in the United States,” said Javid, executive director of the nonprofit Afghan Communicator. “… There is always friction between those groups. Every time there was an Afghan gathering, there was a fight going on about something, and that alienated the younger people in particular.”Ethnic tensions played a role. Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras who jockeyed for a larger share of power in Afghanistan found themselves at odds here, too, Javid said.There also were financial strains suffered by well-to-do families that were suddenly penniless in a new country. Mothers and daughters and sons joined the workforce for the first time, sometimes earning more than the father and undermining his traditional role as breadwinner.”With their own money to spend, sons and daughters became more independent,” Javid said. “The fathers started feeling kind of useless. That’s still playing itself out. Many of our elders in their 60s and 70s have nothing to do but sit in the mosques. “As the father’s influence waned, traditional gender roles blurred and family dynamics shifted, said Fouzia Afshari, a member of the American Society of Afghan Professionals in Alexandria.Some of that came to play in Afshari’s own family when her father, a successful businessman in Afghanistan, set up a fruit stand in Washington to make ends meet after arriving in this country in 1992 with his wife and six children, ages 7 to 22. Those old enough to work found odd jobs and pleaded with their father to abandon the fruit cart.”We told him men of his stature should not do this kind of job,” said Afshari, a real estate broker in her 30s. “But he didn’t want to live off of us.”Besides, she said, her father, now deceased, always figured he would reclaim his life in Afghanistan one day.That yearning for home helped spur ethnic media in this country by catering to immigrants hungry for news about goings-on in their native lands, said Sandip Roy, editor of New America Media, a consortium of ethnic publications.Ethnic publications tend to evolve with the communities they target, Roy said. The first are usually launched in the native tongue by community activists passionate about politics back home. As a community settles in, publications start to reflect diversity of opinion.Some reinvent themselves, Roy said, as the Vietnamese Nguoi Viet Daily News did after the Vietnam War ended. Others put a greater emphasis on English, just as the bilingual Nichi Bei Times did this year when it launched an all-English weekly to target the growing number of Japanese-Americans who do not read or speak Japanese. Others – such as Zeba – turn to new topics.”Especially now that people can access information about their home countries on the Internet, readers are looking for more about their ethnic community here instead of what they’re missing out on back there,” Roy said. “That’s why you’ll see more about fashion, health, youth and lifestyle in ethnic publications. It’s no longer about a single point of rage.”The Fedas hope their magazine, which Aman Feda is bankrolling out of his own pocket for a year, will offer a refreshing break from the rage created by Afghanistan’s war-torn past. They believe Zeba can attract young and old alike because it is bilingual (half in Dari, half in English). They keep it largely free of the two most divisive topics: politics and religion.”God knows we needed something like this, especially for the younger generation,” said Diana Noory, 43, who moved to this country from Afghanistan with her husband at age 17. Noory, an Alexandria resident, said she was pleased to see Zeba’s story about Afghan designer Samira Atash because it brought back fond memories of happier days in Afghanistan, when women in Kabul wore the latest Parisian fashions and beehive hairdos.Her eldest daughter, Lida Sahar Noory, 24, said her “eyes popped open” when she saw Zeba because it captured the culture her parents identified with back then. “Our story is always told from the Islamic perspective,” Lida Noory said. “It’s always about the burqa. Nobody understands that it was an entirely different lifestyle before the Taliban.”Other Afghan women say they hope the publications evolve even further, not just beyond politics, but also beyond lifestyle and fashions and on to taboo subjects such as dating and cross-cultural marriages.For starters, Zeba plans to launch a teen-oriented “Dear Auntie” advice column.”It will be Islamically correct advice,” Samira Feda said. “We’re opening the doors slowly. We have to make sure readers fall in love with the magazine first so when these sensitive issues come up, they’re not turned off.”


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