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Lessons in Diplomacy at a Historic Dinner Party

Californians send off one of their own to become Afghanistan's ambassador to U.S.

July 04, 2002|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As guests wandered through the door of his palatial home just across Sunset from the Bel-Air gates, Jim Curley took the clueless and curious aside. He prepped them discreetly on the guest of honor. "He's the ambassador from Afghanistan," whispered Curley. "The first one in 20 years."

"To or from?" asked a guest.

On a luscious Tuesday evening, Curley and his wife, Marcia Israel-Curley, hosted a tiny dinner party for Ishaq Shahryar, the first Afghan ambassador to the U.S. in 23 years.

The party was a California send-off for the Afghan-born "sun king," who left Kabul in 1956 to attend UC Berkeley, became an American citizen and made a fortune in solar technology. He had not seen his homeland again until this spring. When he set foot in Kabul and saw the devastation, he cried for two days. He still chokes up talking about it.

Shahryar has lived for years in Pacific Palisades with his wife, Hafiza, and two teenage children. In his new role, he hopes to lure private investment to his ravaged homeland. Already, the U.S. Geological Survey is mapping out Afghanistan's extensive natural resources and so many businessmen are pouring into Kabul it is reminiscent of the California Gold Rush, Shahryar said.

The dinner was pulled together at the last minute by philanthropist and Republican Party stalwart Israel-Curley, a former model and founder of Judy's, a chain of fashion stores that was aimed at young women.

Buzz Aldrin (second man on the moon) and his wife, Lois, dropped by for drinks. So did Art Linkletter and his wife, also a Lois. Dinner guests included the consul-general of Morocco, Abdu Saoud, and his wife, Frances; actress Ruta Lee and her husband, Webb Lowe; screen legend Cyd Charisse and her husband, singer Tony Martin; former governor Pete Wilson and his wife, Gayle; and actor James Cromwell and his wife, Julie.

*

Curley hovered near guests, directing them to cocktails, feeding them background information, and even offering a befuddled reporter a tutorial on Afghan pronunciation.

"EEEEE-shock," he said, slowly enunciating the ambassador's first name. "I used to say, e-sock.... That's right.... Now just add in an 'h.'

"Now, for his wife, just think half-Visa. Good. Faster. Hafiza! Perfect."

"So, are you a Pashtun, or what's the other one?" asked one champagne-sipping guest who cornered the ambassador.

"Tajik," the ambassador graciously filled in. "I'm an Afghan. I made a pledge." He said he, Afghanistan's former king, Mohammad Zaher Shah; and Afghan President Hamid Karzai all agreed to put citizenship above tribalism.

"But are you a Pashtun," another guest persisted.

The ambassador, who is Pashtun, demurred.

*

Over drinks, Shahryar confessed to Pete Wilson that as a businessman he was not accustomed to public speaking.

"I guess I will just pull out my reading glasses and read," he said.

No, Wilson told him. Never put on the glasses. Keep it brief. No one was ever criticized for being too brief.

*

At one end of the table Jim Curley, who played the president in 1993's "In the Line of Fire," sat next to the former governor. At the other end of the table, Cromwell, who plays the president in "The Sum of All Fears," sat near the new ambassador. The real ex-governor and the celluloid presidents chatted animatedly about the real president, George W. Bush.

Attention was paid to every detail. In the center of the table, a lavish arrangement of peonies, carnations and roses scented the room. A tiny American flag stuck out of one end of the arrangement, an Afghan flag out the other. The guests toasted the hostess, the arrangement, the flags.

Shahryar smiled politely.

After dinner Shahryar whispered, "That's not our flag, you know

So why didn't he clear that up?

"I am a diplomat," he said.

*

Talk turned to Osama bin Laden. It was the most fascinating part of the evening. Unfortunately, the conversation was off the record.

*

"You know, I've been to Afghanistan," Cromwell announced over the salad course. He regaled guests with delightful tales of a 'round-the-world hitchhiking tour. In 1972, he rode across Afghanistan in the backs of Russian-made jeeps. It was during a drought so severe that Afghans in the mountains were selling their daughters for money. One family with nothing shared their last melon. He was incredibly touched by their kindness.

"Were you a hippie?" the ambassador asked.

*

To become ambassador, Shahryar gave up his U.S. citizenship, sold his businesses and is uprooting his family to Washington.

The day Shahryar presented his credentials to President Bush, a limousine flying an American flag and (the correct) Afghan flag pulled up to fetch him. Shahryar said it was one of the most moving moments of his life.

During their meeting Bush took Shahryar aside and told him, "Thank you so much for what you are doing for your country." He took him aside again and reiterated. Then once more. Finally Bush grabbed Shahryar's arm and whispered in his ear, "You can get your citizenship back in 10 years if you like."

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