Its Own Country



E Gun Hill Rd & Boston Rd, Bronx, NY 10469

Neighborhood: Bronx, Outer Boroughs

A sloppy silver and rose sunset is visible over the bunker-like structure of the Whitestone Lanes bowling alley, whose sign says: PLAY AMERICA’S GAME/75 LANES OPEN 24 HOURS 7 DAYS.

Ahmadullah Raghbat, his uniform and sneakers in a polystyrene shopping bag, stands waiting for the bus. Raghbat is a young Afghani, and though he has lived in New York for most of his life, the city once again feels new to him. Today is his first day at a new job since before September 11, and he’s going to be late.

Twenty-one years old, handsome and outgoing, Raghbat, immigrated to the United States from Karachi, Pakistan, in 1992. Before that, he lived in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he was born. He attended PS 32, Junior High School 189, and Flushing High School, in Queens, and has completed one semester at Queensboro Community College. Raghbat has big plans, even if they are not completely in focus.

In addition to a career in acting, he has considered joining the U.S. Air Force, where he would hope to train as an engineer, like his father, Khwaja M. Raghbat. Before all of this, he submitted an application for a job at a home heating oil company, and had an interview there on Sept. 7. The woman he met with almost hired him on the spot, he says, when she discovered that he spoke six languages, including English and Pakistani.

“The company has a lot of Pakistani customers,” he says, “and this lady said I would be very good for the job. She said she would call me the following Tuesday.”

When Raghbat called a few days after the attack to ask about the status of his application, he says the same woman told him that the position was already filled.

Now he works the graveyard shift at the Kennedy Fried Chicken on East Gun Hill Road, in the North Bronx. He works from six in the evening until four the next morning, closing time. This is familiar work since Raghbat’s last steady job was at a Crown Fried Chicken. Afghani immigrants own almost all of these KFC knock-off franchises, many of which have bulletproof partitions and serve neighborhoods where this is a necessary precaution.

To get to work, Raghbat walks forty-five minutes from his modest basement apartment to the bus stop. The ride itself then takes another forty-five minutes. And though Raghbat couldn’t be more proud of his black, 1993 Mustang GT, he would rather walk and wait for the bus than drive his car.

“I save my driving for the ladies,” he says.

On the bus, he points to a fair-haired girl in faded jeans going into a video store. “I went out with her for a few weeks,” he says. “She’s American. We talked a lot, but we never fooled around. That happens sometimes. I don’t know how to make the first move. I don’t want to be disrespectful to them, you know?”

According to Raghbat, most of his friends are women. So it comes as a surprise when he mentions casually how he believes in certain teachings in the Koran that he says blame women for the presence of evil in the world.

“You don’t think it’s true?” he says. “Come on. Say you’re in an office, right? And a woman walks by. You’re reading or studying something and she walks by and she has legs, and she smells so good and you become . . . distracted. That is where it starts.”

Traffic on the Whitestone Bridge moves slowly as passing trucks are searched for terrorist contraband by members of the National Guard. It’s getting dark by the time Raghbat switches buses at Connolly Avenue.

“Did you know that the Bronx is the only part of New York that is attached to America?” he asks. “I like New York City. It is its own country .”

He’s had some head shots printed up. Looking them over outside the Kennedy Fried Chicken, he says, “I have a very flexible look. I could play an Italian, a Greek, and, obviously, a terrorist.”

Then he goes to work.

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