Qayum Karzai, owner of The Helmand restaurant and Afghan politician, dies – Baltimore Sun

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Qayum Karzai, who brought baby pumpkin in garlic yogurt to The Helmand restaurant he founded in Mount Vernon and who once ran for president of Afghanistan, died of a heart attack Thursday at his Glenwood home in Howard County. He was 77.

“Qayum was the kind of man who always made you want to be your best self,” said a friend, Mark Caplan, who leased Mr. Karzai his Charles Street restaurant 35 years ago.

“He was so gracious,” said Mr. Caplan. “You would sit with him and be in a calm space. He would make you feel at ease. Over time, his background came out and you realized his story.

“He was inspirational and worked unselfishly. He would have been a great leader of the Afghan people. He felt more than just a patron, you were a guest. His quality was so high and the service so warm,” Mr. Caplan said.

Another friend, Stanley Heuisler said, “Legend has it Alexander the Great said ‘god must love Afghans because he made them so beautiful.’

“It is a fitting tribute to the civility, compassion and spirit of Qayum Karzai. He was born into a world of complexities, and he carried them all with dignity, respect and honor. He was one beautiful human being,” Mr. Heuisler said.

Qayum Karzai obituary photo. Owner of the Afghani restaurant Helmand that has been a mainstay on N. Charles Street in Mount Vernon since 1989.
Qayum Karzai was the owner of The Helmand, a restaurant that has been a mainstay in Mount Vernon since 1989.

Born in Afghanistan, he was the son of a tribal leader who later in life invested in real estate.

Mr. Karzai moved to the U.S. in the late 1960s with plans to train as a pilot in Texas. He immediately found he suffered from vertigo and that his flying aspirations were over. His life changed when his career in hospitality began.

He moved to Washington, D.C., and worked at the Gramercy Inn at its Devil’s Fork restaurant and was exposed to a clientele of politicians and lobbyists.

“They reminded Karzai of the village elders back home,” The Sun wrote in 2021. “The industry came naturally to Karzai. Where he grew up, near Kandahar, offering meals is a way of life. One doesn’t turn down an invitation for food.”

He also met his future wife, Patricia Morgan, in Washington, D.C. She was a Pittsburgh resident whose food tastes were traditionally American.

“In her new husband’s kitchen, foods she’d never liked before, okra and eggplant, layered with mint and yogurt sauce, became delicious. He cooked feasts for family and friends, meals they would soon share with paying customers,” The Sun wrote.

The first Helmand restaurant was in Chicago, where Mr. Karzai opened the business with his brother Mahmood in December 1985. It took its name from the longest river in Afghanistan.

In 1989 he opened another Helmand in Baltimore.

The old Park Plaza building at Charles and Madison streets had just been renovated by mother and son owners Connie and Mark Caplan. Mr. Karzai leased a spot on Charles Street, just north of the Washington Monument.

Connie Caplan suggested she could get the restaurant jump started by inviting Baltimore notables to a grand opening.

Soon people were talking about the lamb dishes, including broiled chops in spices, and a cardamom-infused vanilla ice cream, all served on tables laid with white linen.

The Sun’s food critic Elizabeth Large praised “the softly lit dining rooms,” describing them as “charming and serene.” She noted the “fresh flowers and candles” and the Afghan textiles on the walls.

“The restaurant feels comfortable, settled and inviting,” she said in a dining review in 2008.

Kaddo borani, the beloved pumpkin appetizer from The Helmand, is also on the menu at Kabobi.
Kaddo borwani, the beloved pumpkin appetizer from The Helmand in Mount Vernon. (Sun File Photo)

What were then exotic food choices found local patronage.  The restaurant secured a spot among international Johns Hopkins students and others.

Almost overnight, word spread that Mr. Karzai’s bright orange kaddo borwani, the pumpkin appetizer, was a must-try menu item.

Mr. Heuisler, the former editor of Baltimore Magazine and a past director of the Columbus Center, had lived in Afghanistan in the early 1970s.

“Afghan food is more than a meal,” he said. “You’re taking a bite of their civilization, in reality. Qayum took these Eastern dishes and made them lighter for Western tastes. His lamb and beef meatballs are exceptional.

“I have never seen a person exist in two worlds as Qayum did. He did it with humor, dignity and respect.”

Mr. Heuisler said the restaurant food was always consistent.

“The Karzais really know how to run restaurants, and they understand the hard work that it takes,” Mr. Heuisler said.

The Sun reported that in 1999 Mr. Karzai’s father was assassinated in Pakistan by a gunman his family believed was sent by the Taliban, the fundamentalist group that was taking control of Afghanistan.

Mr. Karzai, who had previously served in the Afghan parliament, went on to establish “Afghans for Civil Society” as a force for peace-building.

After the initial ouster of the Taliban in 2001, Mr. Karzai installed a new mural in the restaurant representing a hopeful future for the Afghan people.

His brother, Hamid, served as the president of Afghanistan from 2002 to 2014.

In 2014, the year Hamid left office, Qayum Karzai briefly ran to fill the post vacated by his brother.

It proved to be a decision he came to regret.

“I think I’m a little bit too idealistic for running for president,” he said in 2021.

The Karzai family opened other restaurants, including Tapas Teatro adjacent to the Charles Theatre and Helmand Kabobi at the Johns Hopkins East Baltimore Medical campus. They also opened a Bolton Hill establishment, B’s which is now closed.

Mr. Karzai spent his free time gardening.

Survivors include his wife, Patricia Karzai of Glenwood; a daughter, Ariana Karzai of Silver Spring; a son, Helmand Karzai of Baltimore; five brothers; a sister; and four grandchildren.

Plans for a funeral are incomplete.

Editor’s note: This obituary has been updated to correct the spelling of the Caplans’ last name. The Sun regrets the error. 

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