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There Are Fears The Taliban Will Interfere With The Saffron Harvest

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Finding a safe house in Afghanistan for saffron - that's right, saffron. The spice was high on Mohammad's list as he watched the Taliban take over his home country. Now, we're just using his first name for this story because Mohammad fears for the safety of his family still in Afghanistan. Farmers for generations, they run a co-op that exports Afghanistan-grown saffron to the U.S.

MOHAMMAD: We used to cultivate mostly potato, corn, wheat, things like that in Afghanistan. But then after the fall of Taliban, United Nation, along with the U.S. Army, put this initiative that - how we can invite more farmers to cultivate saffron because it's the best replacement of poppy or opium since the production and the value of the saffron can compete with opium.

MARTINEZ: Mohammad worked on his family's saffron farm while attending high school. After graduation, he went to work with the U.S. military as an interpreter. He lives in Chicago now, and he told our co-host Steve Inskeep that those fields of saffron have stayed with him.

MOHAMMAD: It's a beautiful - purple flowers. Its beautiful - white, purple flowers. And it's a gorgeous field, I should say. You feel proud of yourself.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: And you can't run a - some kind of machine or harvester over them because the flowers are so delicate?

MOHAMMAD: Exactly, sir. So every flower is hand-picked, and they have these little sticks or stem - you know, they are saffron threads, the red one, which you have to literally pick them by hand. Saffron is a queen of the spices anywhere in the world, even in Iran, Afghanistan - which we produce a lot of saffron. It has been an honor or a most expensive spice.

INSKEEP: And what would the common price be if I walked into a store in Chicago to buy some of your saffron?

MOHAMMAD: In Chicago, you should be able to buy my one gram of saffron for $15. Now, you can buy the same one gram of saffron from Spain or India for basically $4. The problem is that those are not real saffron. It costs for me more than $8 to produce one gram.

INSKEEP: Yours is the pure stuff.

MOHAMMAD: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: What was the first sign that you had that there was going to be some trouble for your business?

MOHAMMAD: Well, the first sign is Western Union, the money transfer company - you know, we pay - we have 28 family farmers in our co-op. We call it the Heray Spice Co-op. We usually pay these people through Western Union. Western Union closed their office in - all of their offices in Afghanistan. They halted their services, then followed by MoneyGram. That's another money transfer company. And I was talking with my business partner. I told him to close the facility for safety reason, as well as bring all the saffron to a safe place because that's all our investment. And we are a small business. We can't lose that. The other big thing that happened to us was the FedEx. We went to FedEx and asked them if you guys are still active. They said there's no flight. There's only military. We don't have any capability to take any product out of Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Of even greater concern than the saffron is the people, including members of your family. How are they doing?

MOHAMMAD: Thank you for asking. I was able to bring my wife and my son out of the country. They are in Qatar. They came to this refugee Army base, and hopefully they will be in the U.S. soon.

INSKEEP: Great.

MOHAMMAD: The rest of my family, unfortunately, are in Afghanistan. They are safe. I wish Taliban or any group do not bother them because they are civilians. They did nothing wrong. You know, they work for a living of farming. And so I am worried. I am worried not only about my family, these farmers are calling us and they are like, you are our only hope. If the saffron production goes down and if there's no market, this is what we are doing for a living.

INSKEEP: What conversations have you had with people there? Are you actually on the phone with them every day?

MOHAMMAD: Yes - well, almost every day, sometimes few times per day. Yeah, I have been talking with my office manager in Afghanistan. My brother is also - he's assistant of office manager. So I have him. My mom - they are worried, sir. They are - the big concern that we have in Afghanistan is not necessarily the - basically the security or the safety of the lives. It's more the uncertainty. It's things that we don't know. Are Taliban changed? That's the big question. Are they going to be back like 1996, or are they really different? We don't know if this - if the FedEx will be back in Afghanistan, if Western Union will be back. It's a lot of, like - I have to give, you know, that dream, that persuasion for my farmers. And I don't blame them. But now we are doubting. We are doubting how the Taliban behave with us, with the small businesses, with people with past experience with the army. So, you know, we are a little bit worried, yes.

INSKEEP: I want to ask one other thing. You're a U.S. citizen now?

MOHAMMAD: Yes, sir. I am.

INSKEEP: So you can speak both as an Afghan and as a United States citizen to this next question. There was a peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban. The Taliban did not observe a commitment to keep down violence and instead attacked and took over the country. The United States went ahead and proceeded withdrawing, which is what the United States intended to do all along. Are you disappointed in your country?

MOHAMMAD: I am very disappointed as an American citizen, and I am disappointed as an Afghan citizen, as well. For the American side, essentially Trump administration, as well as Biden, they gave legitimacy for Taliban to come and talk with them. In the last two years, U.S. and Taliban have been talking in Qatar without even Afghan government being present. That, on itself, gives a bad message for the Afghan government that you are not important. Taliban are important, and U.S. is important. Essentially, right now, they're a government, but they used to be a terrorist organization. They killed more than thousands of lives of American, you know? They killed more than 100,000 military people in Afghanistan. They killed two of my cousins who were in the Afghanistan army. And now we are giving them legitimacy. So, yes, I am disappointed, and I'm sad.

INSKEEP: Are your parents still in Afghanistan?

MOHAMMAD: Yes, sir.

INSKEEP: When you talk with them in this terrible situation, has there been any bit of wisdom they've passed on to you that's been useful?

MOHAMMAD: Yes. My mom is - she believes a lot in democracy and education and basically dreams. And she told me exactly, don't lose hope. Keep doing what you are doing. We are fine. The one thing that I can tell you from my mom, because I lost my father against the Russian war a long time ago...

INSKEEP: Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.

MOHAMMAD: Thank you, sir. So my mom was telling me that - keep the faith, and do what you are doing. I am positive that things will be all right. Just don't worry because if you worry, you can't make good decisions. So the wisdom is - she is a support that I have hope and dream upon her so that I am also hopeful and can fight every day.

INSKEEP: Mohammad, thanks so much.

MOHAMMAD: Of course, sir.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIOJIDDIN JURAEV AND SALAR NADER'S "BILAK UZUK [BRACELET]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.