By Kai McConnell
Deep in the suburbs of Alexandria, on the corner of Van Dorn and Edsall roads, is an 18-year-old institution with a story. Filled with treasures and secrets, it hints of a place an entire ocean and continent away. The Afghan Market and Kabob house is home to some of the most unique flavors and products this side of the Atlantic, and its diverse cliental make the market a cultural and community hot spot.
One regular patron said he shopped at the Afghan Market because the store sold products he was unable to find anywhere else.
“It’s an Afghan grocery shop, you can’t find something at another shop, [like] herbs and meat. For that reason, I come here,” said Sabar Aslangar, a 50-year old Afghan immigrant and patron of the Afghan Market.
“We have many things here,” said 40-year-old Jawed Abrahim, one of the men working behind the butchers counter. “Foods, spices, Halal meat, and a café in the back serving Afghani foods. It’s the whole nine yards.”
And it’s true – the store shelves are crammed with spices, fruits, nuts, assorted canned foods, and the occasional Afghan DVD. From hand-sewn and beaded clothing, to beautifully painted glass hookahs, the Afghan Market sells more than just the fixings for a traditional meal. It sells remnants of a home nearly 7,000 miles away.
“When I come here, I speak in my language,” Aslangar said with a smile, his sharp blue eyes almost buried beneath wrinkles. “With these people,” He added a few moments later, pointing to Abrahim and the other men preparing raw chicken behind the butcher’s counter.
“Everyone you see here has higher education,” Aslangar continued, as he moved away from the butchers counter and toward rows of nuts, candied fruits, and grains. “But they need to work, to eat, so …” He trailed off, waving his hand around the store vaguely.
“Sometimes, you know, the English skills, computer skills, they are not so good, and for that reason you can’t get a good job,” he said, mentioning that he worked at Total Wine and More, a local liquor store walking distance from the market.
“30 percent of our customers are from Afghanistan,” Abrahim said, by far the largest proportion. After that it is a mix of “ethnic people from all over the world,” he said, listing Pakistan, West Africa, Iran, and Morocco as other countries of origin.
“I would say 80 percent are returning customers,” said Rafi Habibi, the owner of the Afghan Market. “You can’t find most of these products at local grocery stores.”
“Some people, they come from as far as North Carolina,” Aslangar said. “They drive five hours, there to here, to get halal meat.”
Halal literally translates to “permissible,” and is used to mean lawful. Halal meat,is prepared in accordance with the rulings of the Quran. Aslangar likens driving several hours for halal meat to searching for a little piece of home in the form of food.
“When you go to Afghanistan for a long time, you want to go find something to eat, something American, say pizza” Aslangar began, “you take the newspaper and — Oh! New York pizza,” he said gesturing wildly, “So you drive five hours to eat that.”
Many Afghan immigrants find themselves living in America for the same reasons, opportunity, education, and freedoms unavailable to them in Afghanistan. But a growing number of Afghans are driven to America by something much less aspirational.
Abrahim came to America “for the same reason as everyone else: War.” Abrahim left Afghanistan over 20 years ago, hoping to escape the hardships caused by the Soviet occupation.
“Everyone wanted to go somewhere else, you can ask any man, and he will tell you that,” said Abrahim. He cited Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan as countries people fled to, and then from, on their journeys to safety.
“You want to save your life,” said Aslangar. “So you run, walk, move at night, go over mountains, don’t eat, don’t sleep.”
Aslangar went on to say that many Afghans choose America because of the comparative safety. “They come here, and now they have health care,” Aslangar said, “everyone wants to leave, to be safe. Here, they have safety.”
Like Abrahim, Aslangar was born in Afghanistan, but after graduating from Kabul University in 1982, Aslangar moved to Bulgaria where he received his masters degree in civil engineering. Fearing the political and social turmoil engulfing Afghanistan, Aslangar opted to try his luck in America.
“I came to the United States to see my mother,” Aslangar said, “I hadn’t seen her for 10 years because of the bad situation in Afghanistan.”
“I filed for a work visa as soon as the allowed amount of time pass,” he said. And then Aslangar waited. And waited. And then waited some more.
“My wife, she won the lottery just a few weeks ago.” The lottery, Aslangar explained, is scoring a green card. A few days after his wife’s application was approved, Aslangar received notice that he too, had “won the lottery.” He had been waiting since the mid 1990s.
The rich smell of spices, and the clamor of customers as they move through the cramped aisles brings Aslangar back to his original mission:”I came in today to get something from the café,” he said. Aslangar had been waiting for about half-an-hour because the man responsible for running the café had been called in to help behind the butcher’s counter.
“When we get busy, everyone helps each other, sometimes we are running from the register to cut meat, and then to serve customers,” Habibi said, hands opened wide.