The life of Ishaq Shahryar, the California success story who now finds himself in the unlikely role of Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, has had more twists and turns than Highway.
In his latest incarnation, the 66-year-old solar power entrepreneur has taken up his country's most-important diplomatic job in a post-Taliban world. America's security shield and public and private economic aid are keys to the future for the government of President Hamid Karzai as it tries to rebuild a nation devastated by two decades of war.
Karzai figures Shahryar's success as a capitalist, which one Afghan expert said had made him a legend among fellow emigres, his fluent English and previous life in America made him a good choice as his nation's top diplomat in Washington.
Long before, Shahryar was a Kabul-born child of Afghanistan's privileged class who King Zahir Shah sent to California to study in the mid-1950s, first at UC Berkeley and later at UC Santa Barbara.
Shahryar then worked as an engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, became a proud U.S. citizen with a wife and two children and founded a photovoltaics firm, Solec International, that he sold to a Japanese multinational in the early 1990s.
Shahryar also was a member of the Rome Group, the informal circle that advised Zahir Shah after the king fled Afghanistan for two decades of exile in Italy.
He was a delegate to last December's congress in Bonn, Germany, on creating Afghanistan's first post-Taliban government. Karzai asked Shahryar, who had become one of his top advisers, to turn from the good life in Pacific Palisades and take up the ambassador's job.
"You never know where life leads you," Shahryar said recently. "I never dreamed I'd be an ambassador, on top of everything else."
BRIDGE BETWEEN HIS HOMES
Perhaps the most wrenching part of Shahryar's decision to help his homeland was that he had to give up his U.S. citizenship.
"It was a very difficult decision. I love this country. But when you commit to serve, you have no choice," said Shahryar, who now carries an Afghan diplomatic passport.
"And on top of being ambassador, I have to live in cold Washington," he said, bundling up in a heavy Navy-blue overcoat that he bought about 20 years ago for winter business trips to Europe. He says he sorely misses California, especially in the November chill.
Although Shahryar had lived in California for 45 years until taking up his new post, he says he is nostalgic for the Kabul of his childhood, untarnished by a quarter-century of war.
"When we were kids, there was no crime," he said. "We could run around outside all night.
"No one was starving. There was no poverty."
As part of Shahryar's mission, he has to rebuild his nation's impressive three-story, red brick embassy in Washington, and its adjoining residence. The building had been shuttered since the mid-1970s, when Washington broke relations with the Afghan regime of the time.
The ambassador is still living in hotels, and his offices are a construction zone, even on weekends, as the sounds of banging and buffing fill the air along leafy embassy row in Washington's Kalorama neighborhood. The embassy phones are still in chaos.
war on terrorism, a sophisticated web of security cameras now stud the building.
"I've run bankrupt companies before, but never a bankrupt embassy," he said.
"We're making progress."
A BERKELEY EDUCATION
Shahryar first saw America in the summer of 1956, when he arrived at the UC Berkeley International House for classes, concentrating on learning colloquial English.
"People asked me how I liked being around Americans," he recalled. "And I said, 'I don't know. All we do is hang around the I-House and play pingpong with Arabs and Iranians.' "
Shahryar decided he needed to leave Berkeley to get to know America and headed to UC Santa Barbara, then a new, tiny campus in rural California. He earned degrees in the unlikely combination of physical chemistry and international relations before setting forth to make his fortune.
The envoy's success has given him an international reputation among Afghan emigres.
"He is a legend among Afghans, a whiz who made a lot of money," said Thomas Gouttierre of the Center for Afghan Studies at the University of Nebraska, who has spent decades studying Afghanistan.
Shahryar says his biggest tasks now are to keep the Bush administration and Congress interested in the country they liberated from the Taliban and al Qaeda and to encourage the international community to fulfill its pledges of $4.5 billion in aid, including $2 billion from the United States. And he wants to convince private investors that even with its long list of problems, Afghanistan is a good place to put their money.
"Economic growth will bring stability, and stability will bring democracy," he said, adding that he realizes the questionable security situation outside the capital city of Kabul -- where multinational peacekeepers operate -- is scaring off potential business and aid organizations.
A MAJOR TASK
When he appears around Washington, Shahryar is up front about his homeland's extensive problems.
He ticks off some of the Afghan litany of woes: 5 million refugees, tremendous hunger, woefully inadequate health care, scarce jobs and shadowy elements of the Taliban and al Qaeda.
It's all enough to give an ambassador sleepless nights; Shahryar's aides say he works 12- to 14-hour days.
Still, "we have so many reasons to be hopeful," the resolutely optimistic ambassador said. "We are quite literally building a new country."
Steve Faryabi, president of the Afghan-American Association in Fremont, just back in the East Bay after two months in his homeland, says the ambassador has his work cut out for him.
"America is doing nothing -- I'm very disappointed," Faryabi said. "The American military presence was all I saw, and that was barely visible."
His fledgling association is reviewing how it can best help Afghanistan and plans to start by raising $50,000 to rebuild a school and clinic for women and children. But showing he shares Shahryar's boundless optimism, Faryabi is toying with a much bigger idea, trying to help Afghanistan's once-proud Ariana Afghan Airlines expand its tiny fleet of one Airbus A300 and two Boeing 727s.
Shahryar, who hosted President Bush at the reopened embassy in September, says he hasn't lost faith in the administration, which is now focused on a potential war in Iraq.
"Our relationship with the United States is special," he said. "It's a partnership. The United States defeated the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union. This time, the United States came again and liberated Afghanistan from the hands of terrorists.
"If Afghanistan wins, America wins."