Arbab’s life revolves around rice. Every morning, the 71-year-old cooks up a huge vat of golden kabuli palau, the Afghan national dish, a combination of rice, succulent raisins, sliced carrots, and tender lamb, all of which will be eaten by closing time at four in the afternoon. His reputation for rice precedes him: you don’t get a nickname like Arbab, which means “the boss” in Persian, without being able to deliver.
It’s the quality of his beloved rice dishes, he says, that keeps the customer’s coming. Arbab doesn’t mind Tajik staples like smoky kebobs and thick meat soups, much of which are similar to his own northern Afghanistan cuisine. But he won’t eat Tajik rice: He’s convinced the way it’s cooked, with the pan burned black by the end, causes cancer.
Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s humdrum capital, unsurprisingly does not have a particularly exciting food scene. Still, there are pockets of flavors that hint at the region’s underlying diversity: Iranian kabob shops for the businessmen, Korean restaurants for a community dispersed during the Soviet Union, and Uighur noodles from across the Chinese border.
And then there are the Afghans. Over the last two decades, thousands have come and gone, crossing into their northern neighbor to escape the chaos unleashed by the Taliban, the United States-led war, and the subsequent anarchic politics. Tajikistan is considered the less dangerous and socially restrictive alternative to Iran and Pakistan, where far more Afghans have gone. It is also convenient because linguistically, Afghanistan’s Dari is similar to the Persian Tajik.
Arbab by his vat of rice. Photo: Miriam Berger
But it is no great haven: Tajikistan is the poorest country in Central Asia, and the repressive president Emomali Rahmon has ruled this mountainous republic since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the country’s ensuing civil war, which lasted from 1992-1997. The U.S. invests heavily in Tajikistan—recall its border with Afghanistan—but Afghans here struggle to find work, adequate housing and schooling, and a way out.
Arbab, one of three Afghan chefs in Dushanbe, has made it work by spending his day in a side room dishing out plates of his coveted rice. Given how hard it is for Tajiks to find work—over a million men each year head to Russia to find employment—it’s notable that Arbab is the boss of his restaurant. He doesn’t own the actual establishment, a Tajik does, and the other employees are all Tajiks as well. But he has been cooking here for five years, and now the restaurant—located in Farovin, an outer area of Dushanbe—is known simply as Arbab’s.
“When I eat here it feels like Afghanistan again,” Abrahim, a 16-year-old Afghan refugee tells me as he politely tries to balance his late lunch—a plate of kabuli palau—with answering my questions. Abrahim is one of those incredibly smart and motivated kids unfairly given the shortest stick: His family and eight siblings fled his home in Baghlan province in Afghanistan last year after the Taliban resurgence. In Tajikistan, his parents are unemployed and he has few opportunities to advance himself or continue his education. By law, Afghan refugees who arrived after a major influx in 2001 can’t live in major cities and, left without their own source of protection, face extra discrimination from Tajikistan’s notoriously corrupt and repressive state apparatus.