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A Place at the Table
Comments () | Published January 23, 2012

Mahmood with former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. Photograph courtesy of Ray Mahmood.

Ray and Shaista have what’s often called “a pseudo-arranged marriage,” meaning the match was only partly preordained. Their fathers met at boarding school in Delhi and stayed friends through the time of greatest turmoil on the subcontinent—the Partition of India, which led to the creation of Pakistan in 1947. For months, riots swept across every part of the new border between what was to become mostly Hindu India and majority-Muslim Pakistan. Ray’s father, Zafar Mahmood, was the only member of his family to survive the Partition because he left Delhi right at the creation of Pakistan and moved to Karachi to establish the country’s first foreign office.

“Ray’s father was a pioneering diplomat for our country,” Shaista says as her husband shifts uncomfortably in his chair at the praise. Still, he’s clearly also proud of his father’s accomplishments: accompanying Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—father of Benazir Bhutto—to the United Nations in the 1960s and helping to arrange national-security adviser Henry Kissinger’s visit to Pakistan in 1971. When Zafar Mahmood was posted to the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, he brought his family with him. Ray attended Albert Einstein High School in Kensington.

After high school, Ray moved back to Pakistan to join the military but was rejected. In 1973, as he was finishing his bachelor’s in economics at the University of the Punjab, his father asked him what he planned to do next; he said he wanted to move to Washington to work for the World Bank. When his father asked how he’d manage alone in the United States, Ray said he was actually hoping to bring someone along with him—Shaista, daughter of his father’s best friend.

“So my father picked up the phone and called Shaista’s father and told him my plan,” Ray says.

His wife continues the story: “And then my father asked me—he asked me, he didn’t tell me—whether I’d like to be married to Ray. Quite amazing that he gave me so much input, considering that I was only 17.”

Ray was just 21, so the couple waited three years before marrying at Shaista’s parents’ home in Lahore. Then Ray brought her back to Virginia, where he’d been trying to establish himself. It turned out that his plan to get hired at the World Bank was a pipe dream. “Of all the things that didn’t work out in my life, that may have been the best one not to,” he says with a smile. “Perhaps even luckier than my not making it into the Pakistani army.”

Instead, he looked for a company to buy, having heard that was the way to get a green card. His ambitions didn’t go over well with his father, who had hoped his son would take the foreign-service exam in Pakistan. “My father kept calling from Pakistan to remind me that no one in our family had ever been in business before,” Ray says. “He didn’t like the idea at all.”

"I used to joke that I had married an American, not a Pakistani, because Ray didn't have any Pakistani friends." 

For Ray Mahmood, the decision to become an American was about being liberated from the class strictures that traditionally bind generations of a family into the same profession in South Asia. He says that during his teenage years in Washington, without being aware of it, he had developed American ideas about shaping his own destiny.

But his new bride found it harder to adjust to life in the States.

“We didn’t know many Pakistanis when we first came here,” Shaista says. “I used to joke that I had married an American, not a Pakistani, because Ray didn’t have any Pakistani friends.”

Ray smiles. “There weren’t any other South Asians when I went to high school here, and I had to make friends,” he says. “These were the people I connected with when I moved back. It was a big change for Shaista, though.” It wasn’t until the couple started having kids a few years later that they sought out other Pakistanis.

They gave all four of their children Pakistani names but made only a limited effort to impose a Pakistani lifestyle on them. They wanted their kids to grow up feeling at home in America.

Ray and Shaista’s children still live in Washington. The sons, ages 30 and 33, work in real estate and at AOL, respectively. The couple’s 27-year-old daughter works for a company that contracts with the State Department, and another daughter, 20, is an undergraduate at Catholic University.

When the kids were young, Shaista made sure the family ate Pakistani food a couple of times a week, and she tried to teach them Urdu. Although she can read and write in the Pakistani national language, Ray can’t, because much of his education was overseas.

His interest in all things American had a lot to do with forming a friendship with Congressman Jim Moran. When they met in 1975, Moran was a budget analyst for the Nixon administration, living in Del Ray, and would often stop by Ray’s Sunoco station and chat.

“Ray was still new to the US,” Moran says. “We discovered we were interested in similar things—foreign affairs, housing issues, the economy.”

They became good enough friends that Moran, a single parent at the time, would leave his three-year-old daughter with Mahmood at the station while he walked his five-year-old son to kindergarten. Then Moran and his daughter would take the bus into DC.

Mahmood remembers being impressed by Moran’s work ethic: “He always had folders full of stuff to read on his commute.” When Moran ran for Alexandria City Council a couple of years later, Mahmood made sure to hang JIM MORAN signs outside his properties so they could be seen from the road. When Moran ran for mayor of Alexandria in 1984, Mahmood’s daughter worked for the campaign and he and his wife hosted fundraisers.

“He’s why I got into politics,” Mahmood says. “He showed me how great it can be.”

Moran compares Mahmood to Esther Coopersmith, the longtime Democratic fundraiser well known in Washington for bringing people together from opposing parties at her home near Embassy Row.

Says Moran: “When Ray hears people complain about something, his instinct is to say, ‘Let’s get the person you’re complaining about in the room with us.’ ”

Susan Allen places Mahmood’s power in his “willingness to share contacts and desire to meet people of all kinds—he and Shaista are basically really good networkers.”

Not all Pakistani-Americans see Mahmood as a major powerbroker for their community. Some even suggest that he’s simply fulfilling an egotistical urge by shaking hands and getting his picture taken with politicians.

But Saud Anwar, a physician and local politician in South Windsor, Connecticut, who used to work as an unpaid advocate in Washington on US-Pakistan relations, says Mahmood understands how Washington works: “Ray’s influence comes from his ability to get people together. He sees that everything is about relationships in Washington.”

For instance, two years ago, Mahmood helped lobby Congress to pass the Kerry-Lugar Act, which sought to provide Pakistan with $7.5 billion in non-military aid over five years. He made sure that Congressman Howard Berman, then chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, met with Pakistani-American lobbyists such as Anwar.

Mahmood was there, too, and Anwar recalls being impressed at his artful way of turning the conversation back to the difficult issues: “I always want to take a hard, data-based approach, but you’d never hear Ray hammering away about something. He doesn’t feel it’s his responsibility to nail things down right away—he understands that taking things gently will do him more good. Ray knows that just getting Chairman Berman in the room with us to talk about our issue—in that case, civilian aid to Pakistan—was half the battle. And he was right.”

Not only did Berman lend his support, but he agreed to cosponsor the act, which was known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act when President Obama signed it in 2009.

Irfan Malik, PAKPAC’s executive director, says Mahmood plays a role essential to every immigrant community: He helps draw Pakistanis out into the mainstream. Malik says that whether or not Mahmood’s political fundraisers make him a major powerbroker, they bring attention to the issues facing Pakistan and Pakistani-Americans, and that helps the community more than anything else.

Next: “We all have crazy uncles,” he says. “The question is how we deal with them.”

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Posted at 01:50 PM/ET, 01/23/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles