My Friendship with Sakhi Gulestan
by Andrew Person
April 22, 2018
When I first introduced myself to Sakhi Gulestan, my interests were strictly commercial. My Army buddy Eric and I picked up some handmade Persian carpets in Afghanistan and I was looking around for a good market to sell them. On the way to work, I noticed Sakhi had middle-eastern looking carpets for sale at his stand above the Q Street exit of Dupont Circle.
Sakhi and I chatted a while about the carpet business. He said his carpets were from Afghanistan, and that he was from Afghanistan, so we began a longer conversation than I expected. Sakhi looked as if he had recently arrived from some remote part of Afghanistan. His weathered face and beard reminded me of many villagers I had met during my tour. After sharing a bit of our life story with each other and throwing out a few phrases I remembered in Pashto, I asked him whether he knew of a place where one could buy naswar, a type of tobacco I had seen in Afghanistan. He said he’d track some down for me. And so began our friendship.
From then on we spoke every time I walked by his little table on my way to and from work. Often we just exchanged a few words because I was in a rush. Sometimes we’d talk a little longer. As I passed by Sakhi’s stand I was always amazed at the variety of different goods he would sell. When it was cold, he’d have a huge stock of winter gloves, hats, and ear muffs. On a rainy day, he’d have tons of umbrellas. On Valentine’s Day, he had a huge pile of roses. Sakhi was a well known figure in the neighborhood and somebody would always be taking to him.
If Sakhi wasn’t tending his stand, he was feeding the birds. He’d collect old bread from nearby bread stores, put it in a bucket with some water and distribute the mush carefully at a row of nearby bushes. Sakhi was always in motion. Occasionally he’d be injured, he had a crutch he’d walk with sometimes—but nothing would slow him down. He was a bundle of energy that never seemed to tire.
After a few conversations I realized Sakhi was homeless. He lived in a truck parked near Dupont circle and paid the parking lot owner for the space he parked in. He kept all of his wares in the back of the truck and loaded and unloaded his stand each night.
On one afternoon in early November I invited Sakhi to join my girlfriend, her mom and a few other friends for Thanksgiving dinner at my girlfriend’s apartment. He accepted right away and said that he had lived in the United States for 20 years and that this was his first invitation to a Thanksgiving dinner. He asked for my phone number and the address so he could get in touch for the details.
Life was hectic then and Thanksgiving Day snuck up quickly. I hadn’t heard from Sakhi in about a week. As we put the finishing touches on Thanksgiving dinner I thought that he might not show up after all. Then, my phone rang. Sakhi said he was on his way but needed help finding the place. I told him I’d be waiting for him outside on 16th street to flag him down.
It was an incredibly windy day. I stood outside wondering what I had gotten everyone into. I had a good feeling about Sakhi but I didn’t know him that well. Then Sakhi walked around the corner. The wind was howling that day. He was fighting to push a huge cart full of black plastic bags down the street toward me. The gusts of wind almost knocked him and his cart over.
I helped Sakhi bring his things up the stairs into the apartment. After I made a round of introductions Sakhi got right to work. He started unloading his cart. He had stacks of bread, pies, boxes of chocolates, and spices. We couldn’t believe how much stuff he had with him and how much he wanted to leave with us. He even brought hats and other gifts for everyone. Then he walked right into the kitchen, turned the stove top on, burned some incense and said a blessing. He explained what he was doing but it was tough to understand. He spoke broken English and often mumbled.
We all sat down for dinner and Sakhi only ate a little bit. He was clearly watching what he ate very carefully and meanwhile was telling stories about what it was like to live on the streets of DC. He said the city –even in Dupont circle—was very dangerous at night and that the police wouldn’t help him much. Thieves had broken into his truck before and stolen some of the few things he owned. He said he was looking around for a place to live but that the security deposit was tough to come up with.
After about an hour Sakhi said he was ready to go. We were all sad to see him leave—and were surprised that he left far more food with us than he had eaten.
That winter, I grew amazed at how tough Sakhi was. Winters are cold in Washington--especially when you sleep in your truck. He assured me that he was warm enough at night. His only complaint was that it was a chore for him to find a place for his religious washings. He was also spending a lot of money on gas to keep him warm at night. Occasionally he’d mention that he had been looking at nearby apartments but didn’t seem particularly focused on it. It was something he’d mention in passing.
One day, Sakhi asked whether I had a day free to take him to a doctor’s visit. We decided on the upcoming Saturday. That day I pulled up to Dupont Circle and he was busy as always; loading things into his van, letting me know he’d be a couple more minutes, feeding the birds, etc. After a while another friend of his arrived and he introduced himself as Idris. He was dressed in designer clothes, his hair was slicked back and he chain smoked expensive cigarettes. Idris and I spoke a while as Sakhi continued with his chores. An hour after I arrived I wondered when the hell we were going to get going with this doctors visit!
Then Sakhi said that he had to take some vegetables out to some friends in Virginia and started loading bags of produce, plants, and other odds and ends into the back of my car. I never really had a chance to figure out what our plan was so I just went with it. After we helped Sakhi load my trunk and the back seats with all kinds of different stuff, we hit the road. Idris told me where to go.
Our first stop was an Afghan restaurant near Falls Church, Virginia. The restaurant owners greeted Sakhi as a VIP. Everyone stopped what they were doing—waiters, people in the back, everyone greeted Sakhi in a very respectful manner. They asked me, “how do you know Sakhi?” As if I had been let in on a very important secret. We ate lunch there and then drove to an Afghan market which could easily have been anywhere in central Asia. They sold tea, dried raisins, and other goods you wouldn’t find in the US. Once again, Sakhi received a VIP welcome from all those at the store. The manager came out of the back to speak with Sakhi for a while. I started to realize that Sakhi was regarded as a holy man by this Afghan community. His devotion to his faith and his simple way of life seemed to inspire a great deal of respect.
We stopped off at a couple more shops in the area and at that point I figured the hospital visit was off. Sakhi spoke at length with each of the shop owners and then at nightfall we decided it was time to head back to DC. We agreed that the hospital visit would wait until another day. I dropped Sakhi and Idris off back in Dupont Circle and drove home.
Later that week, I saw Sakhi a few times but was always in a hurry. Late in the week, I said hi but told him I was running late and couldn’t chat. He smiled and sent me off.
The next Saturday morning my phone rang. It was Idris. He said that he was sorry to have to tell me such terrible news, but that Sakhi was found dead in his truck the night before. He said he would meet me over in Dupont. I headed over immediately.
When I arrived in Dupont, Idris was speaking with a crying woman I’d never met before. She walked right up to me with teary eyes and said “are you Andrew? Sakhi said you were a good man. Thank you. I’m Sakhi’s wife.” Another young guy with a serious face introduced himself as Sakhi’s son. I had no idea that Sakhi had a family.
Everyone was discussing how we should deal with the situation. I was surprised to hear the police hadn’t been called yet. Sakhi was dead in the truck and we were discussing how to proceed. Sakhi’s wife was worried that once the authorities were involved that Sakhi wouldn’t receive the proper Islamic treatment. She was equally as concerned that if the nearby Mosque helped out that she would be excluded from his burial because she was a woman. So, she was a nervous wreck and naturally in shock from her loss.
As we were waiting for the police to arrive, Sakhi’s son had tracked down a group of Buddhist monks that were protesting nearby. They performed some sort of blessing near Sakhi’s truck and then left. It seemed an appropriate recognition that something huge had just happened.
Once the police arrived they questioned everyone and a cultural liaison started explaining how everything would be handled to Sakhi’s wife. An ambulance pulled up and Sakhi was placed into the back.
Idris and I started talking about how his funeral would be handled. We figured the Mosque would be the best place to start since they have funds to take care of such a situation. Idris and I drove over there to find out. Everyone at the mosque was heartbroken to hear of Sakhi’s death. Idris tracked down the right contact to arrange for Sakhi’s funeral.
On the way back from the Mosque Idris explained a bit of Sakhi’s family situation. The information came in bits and pieces…He had met his wife in Afghanistan and they both moved to the US over 20 years ago… his wife is American…They had kids… Sakhi and his wife lived separately…Sakhi had a strained relationship with his sons…etc.
After Sakhi had been taken away everyone was sort of wondering what should happen next. Sakhi’s wife and sons began clearing out his truck. Everyone agreed that we should make a little tribute to him the next day to let the community know that he had passed away.
The next morning we did just that. Idris brought a nice picture of Sakhi and we hooked it onto the tree near where Sakhi normally set up his stand. We had flowers on a table in front of the photo with a note that Sakhi had passed away. Sakhi’s son played the guitar and the rest of us just hung around. Hundreds of people stopped at his sign and you could see the expression on their face. They knew Sakhi and they were so sad to see he had died. Some left flowers at the table.
Sakhi’s funeral was set for a week later. Idris and I drove over together to a funeral home in DC and when we arrived, others had gathered to talk outside. When we went inside I saw Sakhi’s casket in the back and chairs set up nearby. Sakhi’s wife came storming down the stairs yelling that we should all get out and go home. She was escorted upstairs by some people I didn’t know and Sakhi’s sons urged us to stay.
The funeral was short. One of Sakhi’s sons said a few prayers and said some remarks about Sakhi. Everyone took turns passing a moment by his casket and before long we all said goodbye. When I shut my eyes to think about Sakhi I thought of a clutch of birds, fluttering out of a row of bushes into the sky.
Idris and I kept in touch for a while afterwards meeting up for dinner and hanging out on a few occasions—always talking about Sakhi. I really miss him. Idris has returned to Afghanistan and just called me and said he had big news for me. He said he’d email me. I can’t wait to find out what it is.