As their four kids grew up, Ray and Shaista Mahmood turned their energy to entertaining, charity, and each other. Photograph by Melissa Golden.
In the late 1970s, as Ray and Shaista started having kids—they have four, all now grown and no longer at home—Ray got his real-estate license and set up the Mahmood Investment Corporation, through which he began investing in properties in Alexandria. In 1980, he bought his first hotel, which led him to buy two others.
Today he presides over a booming real-estate business, with two property-management offices in Virginia and about 30 employees. He has dozens of condos, hotels, strip malls, and apartment buildings in Virginia and DC. He owns the whole block in Del Ray on which his original Sunoco stood. The station was recently demolished to make way for offices and restaurants, including a frozen-custard shop to which President Obama once took his daughters.
Mahmood prefers not to talk about his business success. Proud as he is of his large home, he considers it a means to an end—a way to host people in power and wield some kind of influence in Washington decision-making. When pressed for details about his company, he becomes almost taciturn.
The topic that animates both Ray and Shaista is politics. Now, with US/Pakistan relations at a low, both obsess over what they can do to improve ties between their two countries.
Relations continue to sour, months after US troops found and killed Osama bin Laden just outside a Pakistani military academy. In November, US-led NATO forces killed at least two dozen Pakistani soldiers in an airstrike, sparking diplomatic and public outrage across Pakistan. That incident came days after Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, resigned because he’d been associated with a controversial memo sent to Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, requesting American help in dealing with the Pakistani military. The memo referred to a possible military coup in the wake of the military’s humiliation over the American raid that killed bin Laden. Earlier last fall, Mullen had said that a Pakistani insurgent group was “a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI). And just before press time in early December, Zardari left Pakistan for medical care in Dubai, a move leading to speculation that he was being forced out of power.
The voices in Congress calling for an end to US military assistance to Pakistan—which amounted to more than $2 billion in 2010—are growing louder. Even those who trade on optimism about the US/Pakistan relationship are sounding a grim note. Taha Gaya, who runs the Pakistani American Leadership Center, a lobbying organization in Washington, characterizes ties between the two countries as “about to go over a cliff.”
Mahmood agrees with that assessment: “Of course it’s great that we got Osama bin Laden, but that seems to have ruined any trust we’d built up.” He’s otherwise so consistently enthusiastic about America that it’s surprising to hear him criticize his adopted country. “The US should have shared intelligence with Pakistan before the Osama raid,” he says. “We’ve had shared missions in the past and they haven’t been compromised.”
He cites the Raymond Davis case as precipitating the decline in relations. Davis, a CIA contractor, shot and killed two Pakistanis in Lahore last January, sparking months of hostility between the CIA and the ISI. “We in the US mishandled that whole situation,” Mahmood says. “And now Pakistanis in Pakistan have an all-time low opinion of America—and Americans’ opinion of Pakistan is overwhelmingly negative, too. It’s terrible.”
Irfan Malik, executive director of the Pakistani American Public Affairs Committee, or PAKPAC—of which Ray Mahmood is a board member—talks about how his work has changed. “We used to go to meetings on the Hill and hear, ‘How can we help Pakistan? Should we invest in education, infrastructure, health care?’ But in the last several months, what we’re hearing is more like ‘We have to wait and see if Pakistan is really a partner with the US.’ The question for them isn’t where to invest anymore; it’s whether to invest.”
Malik says the situation has cast a pall over Washington’s Pakistani community. Some Pakistani professionals—with good jobs in the area, who have raised children here—talk about returning to Pakistan. Anwar Iqbal, Washington correspondent for the English-language Pakistani newspaper Dawn, moved here in early 2001 and says that things are as bad now as they were right after September 11, when physical and verbal attacks on Muslims had Pakistani-Americans on guard.
“My American friends tell me that it’s wrong that Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan, and that’s valid,” Iqbal says. “But of course, we Pakistanis living here don’t want to be held responsible for that.” He says that as Pakistan’s image as a harborer of terrorists has been cemented in this country, he’s even heard Pakistanis wonder aloud whether the United States might set up concentration camps, as they did for Japanese-Americans during World War II, or force those of Pakistani origin out of the country.
“It’s hard now to believe how good things were between our countries just a few years back,” Shaista Mahmood says. “The US had such a positive reputation among Pakistanis after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.”
Following that tragedy, she and her husband worked with George and Susan Allen to raise funds for disaster relief. They met the senator and his wife in Islamabad, where they presented a check to a citizens’ organization they’d been working with and met some of the earthquake victims.
Ray Mahmood remembers one kid pointing at a picture of a Chinook helicopter: “And then he said to George, ‘The Americans saved me and my family.’ ”
To get to the Mahmood mansion, you drive along the boundary of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, then wind through a neighborhood of million-dollar homes. All the other houses seem to shrink once you reach Ray and Shaista’s. The wrought-iron gate opens to a plot of land that swoops down to the river, where a yacht—which can sleep six—is docked at the pier. The eight-bedroom, 11-bath home has unobstructed views of the Potomac from every room on the south side.
“We have many important stories to tell,” Shaista says, “but the most important is the purchase of this lot.” She and Ray are proud of the history of the land, whose first owner, Shaista says, was George Washington: He bought it for his nephew Augustine. It meant a lot to the Mahmoods to invest in a piece of American history—land that by itself is valued at close to $4 million, according to the tax assessment.
Shaista describes the decision to buy the property 15 years ago as a turning point that marked their coming into the life they wanted to live, as their four kids grew up and moved away and they began to devote more energy to entertaining, charity work, and each other: “When we were first deciding to buy this property, Ray said, ‘Look, it is on the river, just like the Taj Mahal.’ ”
The first time I visit the Mahmoods, Ray ushers me into the living room, where we perch on stiff-backed formal chairs. Despite a peaceful view of the Potomac, the room feels overwhelming, with its ornate European decor—paintings, chandeliers, gold candlesticks, mirrors. Gilt-framed photographs speckle every surface: Ray and Shaista shaking hands with an earnest-looking Bill Clinton, Ray and Shaista and their children standing awkwardly with Al Gore, Ray deep in conversation with former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf.
After a while, Shaista appears. Rather than presenting herself as the stereotypical silently supportive Pakistani wife, she joins the conversation, occasionally correcting her husband. Although she offers tea, she doesn’t immediately get up to fetch it. She and her husband operate as equals in many ways—coordinating their fundraising and hosting efforts and strategizing to help with the major issues in Pakistan.
Three years ago, Shaista was approached by Congressman Howard Berman’s wife, Janis, at a cocktail party. Janis Berman told her she wanted to get to know more about Islam, and she thought some other Congress members’ spouses would, too. The two started holding regular meetings at the embassies of Afghanistan, Egypt, and Syria, among others—dubbed the Muslim Women’s Dialogue—to which they invited the wives of Muslim ambassadors to mingle with US politicians’ wives.
“The Muslim Women’s Dialogue is the softest backroom diplomacy,” Shaista says. “We all go home and talk to our husbands about who we met and what they taught us. And we hope it makes a difference in some way.”
After we’ve been sitting in the living room for about half an hour, Shaista suggests—to my relief—that we move to the much homier kitchen, where she says they spend most of their time. We sit at a large wooden table in a room full of light, as their housekeeper bustles about making tea.
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