London Lives: The Afgan waiter

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Nasser Abdul escaped the Taliban by coming to Britain with fake papers. And, though London's Afghan community is divided, there's one thing they agree on, he tells Time Out – good food

  • London Lives: The Afgan waiter

    Nasser Abdul 'We cook green food for luck'

  • Nasser Abdul arrived in Britain in 1998, claiming asylum from war-torn Afghanistan with a fake passport he bought in Kabul for £6,000. ‘I’m telling you all this so you have an idea of what most Afghanis go through. To get a visa to Britain you need power or money. Most Afghanis have neither. Once we are here our asylum details can be properly processed,’ says Abdul.

    Abdul, 28, now works in an Afghani restaurant, Masa, in Harrow, but his story is typical of many of the 30,000 Afghans estimated to live in London, most of whom fled the country after the Taliban came to power in 1996. He grew up in Kabul. ‘It was difficult,’ he says. ‘There was fighting even before the Taliban came to power.’ Normal life, such as going to school, was virtually impossible. ‘The teachers would say “Go home, it’s too dangerous.” ’

    The situation for his family was precarious because his father worked for the anti-Taliban government. Then, in 1997, his 22-year-old brother Abdullah was killed. ‘We were playing in the backyard and a rocket hit the house. He was killed instantly,’ says Abdul. His family decided that Nasser should leave the country for somewhere safer, London.

    Abdul arrived, alone, at Heathrow in March 1998 and claimed asylum. Over the following days he stayed in a hotel while his claim was processed. ‘I felt very lonely. I wanted my family around me who I could speak to,’ says Abdul, one of ten siblings (‘My father married when he was 16’). Fortunately, he had already learnt English from his older brothers and sisters. But finding his way around was more of a problem. ‘All the houses looked the same. I thought: How can people ever find their houses?’

    Staying with distant family members he had uncovered in Wembley, he began working as a waiter: first, in a Pakistani restaurant; then at Masa in Harrow, where he started working in March this year. His asylum was finally granted in 2002.

    ‘There are so many Afghans here,’ says Abdul, who lives in a rented room in the area. ‘Eighty per cent of cab drivers are Afghan. They are becoming prosperous: now we have butchers, off-licences and restaurants here. In a few years, our community will be as successful as the Indians who came over here in the 1970s.’

    Although there is not yet a ‘little Kabul’, areas such as Harrow, Southall, Hounslow, Brent and Ealing are home to large numbers of Afghans. The community has been slow to establish itself, probably because many Afghans here still hope to return home. Afghanistan is also a country of strong regional identities, which makes its émigrés less likely to group together.

    Instead, Afghans congregate – often in their thousands – for festivals such as Independence Day on August 19, where they might go to a formal embassy event with speeches. New Year on March 21 is more homely. ‘We try and cook green foods, to symbolise good luck. We choose seven different types of dried fruit which we leave overnight in water. The next day we drink the juice from it, which is supposed to give you energy,’ says Abdul.

    Afghans aren’t big on alcohol – most are Muslim – so get-togethers revolve around food. ‘We have big meals in each others’ houses. When you get a group of Afghans together you can guarantee they will soon be planning the next meal.’

    During the interview in Masa, a stream of local Afghans pop in for lunch. Abdul recommends traditional dishes such as chopan kebab (lamb marinated on charcoal with onions) and ‘the most famous Afghan dish’– quabili palow (rice with lamb, raisins and carrots). Also good is mantoo, a pasta with onions, lentils, minced lamb and garlic, and arshak, a leek dish.

    Afghan weddings are more understated here than back home, where they can go on for days. Here, families usually hire a restaurant or hall. Traditional music by Afghan musicians such as Nashnas, or Farhad Darya is often played (the Afghan Music Centre in Southall is the place to pick up all kinds of the country’s music). ‘I would like to marry an Afghan girl,’ says Abdul. ‘But their nationality might not matter – if they are a good girl.’

    With a new generation of Afghans born here, old traditions are changing in other ways. ‘Some younger Afghans here have changed completely. I know Afghanis who used to pray five times a day and now I see them drinking every day, going clubbing, bleaching their hair,’ says Abdul. ‘Even I don’t go to the mosque as often as I used to.’

    And life in London has other challenges. ‘A while ago a young guy came up to me and said, “Are you a Paki?” I don’t know whether I was more upset because of his racism, or because he didn’t realise that not all foreigners are the same.’ Yet Abdul has great affection for his adopted city. ‘I really like London. It’s an old city and makes you feel attached to it. I recently went on my first holiday in six years but, when I got there, I missed London so much I ended up changing my flight for an earlier ticket back.’

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2 comments
Hameed ullah
Hameed ullah

i read this story. this ir right will be no doubt in this story. u know most of afghans people had this kind of problem and still most of people have difficult to live in afghanistan and looking for future good. but there is many difficult for them how to make good future. we are so most thankful from british govt which help with afghan people.

akhtar
akhtar

Just to clarify a confusion, Afghani is the currency and Afghan is the nationality.