Sag Harbor Shop Owner Raises Funds for People in Afghanistan

Temur Zamani, proprietor of Zamani House of Heritage, photographed in his Sag Harbor store. MICHAEL HELLER

When Temur Zamani opened his rug and tapestry shop, Zamani House of Heritage, in Sag Harbor, he knew he was living the American dream. Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, and educated in Afghan public schools during the Russian occupation of his country, Mr. Zamani’s father and grandfather were in the business of arts and crafts. And in their time, Afghanistan was a mecca of cultural expression and beauty.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, Afghanistan was an open and moderate society,” Mr. Zamani said. “Tourist groups from the U.S. and Europe were common, and fashion designers were inspired by Afghanistan.”

By the time Mr. Zamani was growing up in the ’80s, though, things had gotten bad. Russia had moved in to occupy the country, and U.S.-backed Mujahedin was fighting them.

“As a kid, I couldn’t sleep,” he recalled. “It was scary. You’d hear convoys of tanks, and occasional rocket attacks.”

Through his textile business, Mr. Zamani’s father was able to get the family to Saudi Arabia, where the business flourished. Mr. Zamani and his five siblings went to an American school, learned English, and ended up in universities in Europe and the United States.

By 2001, Mr. Zamani had continued the family business in the U.S., and he was proudly living the American dream. Meanwhile, the Taliban, a group that believed in an extreme version of Sharia law, had evolved from the Mujahedin, and was taking over his home country.

The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001 would change the world forever. But the ensuing 20 years in Afghanistan, which is often painted as an endless war, was actually a time of growth and rebirth in many ways.

“There were so many achievements in Afghanistan by the U.S.,” Mr. Zamani said. He recalled his last visit to Afghanistan in 2019, when he walked through the streets of his country for the first time in 30 years.

“I saw scars of war,” he said, “but I also saw girls in uniforms going to school in Kabul. This was so beautiful. This was education. Young girls were working in offices, the city was packed with women and girls. Things were open. And the U.S. helped. The U.S. was there.”

That was one of the reasons he wanted to open his shop in Sag Harbor in 2017 — to share the beautiful side of his home country and to tell the stories of growth and success that were happening there.

“You never saw those things on the news,” he said. “But there were so many achievements. Private colleges and universities for girls. Women starting to feel a sense of freedom. Girls opening businesses, business minded women wanting to invest.”

He talked about savvy young women that he followed on YouTube. He would watch their adventures as they traveled around Afghanistan, sharing all the hottest new things in the cities and towns, and showing the beauty of the landscape.

“There were so many of them getting into these professions, videoing traditions and foods and sites,” he said. “It was opening up. Now all of them are stuck in their homes. Their last videos, they were crying because they knew they couldn’t do it any more.”

Mr. Zamani sponsored three girls who showed great promise, and they all pursued their educations to the highest level. Two of them are midwives now, and the third studied international relations. But two of them have been told not to return to work, and the third is afraid reporting to the hospital every day under Taliban watch.

Much of American media is portraying an optimistic view that the Taliban has changed, and that they are so hungry for international recognition and legitimacy that they will not go back to their most brutal ways. Some higher up officials have said that women will still be able to work, and that those wishing to leave the country will be permitted safe passage.

But the reality on the ground is that people are afraid and very doubtful that that will give them much protection, Mr. Zamani said.

“It’s true that the Taliban is concerned politically,” Mr. Zamani said. “But their foot soldiers are not educated, and they can be trouble for the public. They’ve only been taught with extreme ideology, and they are not thinking politically.”

The other hope is that in the age of internet, the Taliban won’t be able to get away with things in secret. It’s a big difference from 20 years ago. But rumors on the ground are that the internet may be knocked out completely. If the world doesn’t hold the Taliban accountable, they could take the country into complete darkness.

The first women’s protest occurred on September 4. One-hundred educated women gathered in Kabul to peacefully request a place in the new Afghan society. They were met with tear gas and beatings.

“I want to see these women stand up for their rights,” Mr. Zamani said. “But I also don’t want them to feel abandoned. I want the international community to be right behind them. The best way is to make it clear that we stand with Afghan women, and they better have their freedom, or Taliban-led Afghanistan will be an isolated and unrecognized government.”

Mr. Zamani sent $1,500 to Afghan families the day Western Union reopened in Kabul. He will be sending 20 percent of all proceeds from his shop to Afghan families for the next month. Zamani House of Heritage is located at 78 Main Street in Sag Harbor, across the cove from SagTown Coffee.