about emel


In my art, I embrace and celebrate the unpredictable nature of life through improvisation. I don’t have any plans. Every step is an intervention that more or less obliterates the previous stage. Through this process of destruction/construction, I uncover what’s hidden and try to find the common thread that reconciles and ties the different layers together.



Growing up in Afghanistan, I was raised to value art and music, especially the masterful improvisation that can be found in jazz, Indian classical music, and abstract expressionist paintings.

As a teenager, I dreamed of studying art in Paris or Rome, where I had spent some time as a child. Then came the coup of April 1978. Some members of my family were executed. The rest of us became political prisoners. The experience affected me deeply. It convinced me of the unpredictable nature of life and the futility of making plans. 

During my time in prison, I leaned on art and music to help me make it through the days. I had smuggled in a pen—writing utensils, books, and paper were not allowed—and then opened up my father’s empty cigarette packs and cartons to use as paper. I used the cartons to draw on, while the packs became writing paper. I wrote the names of all the musicians I knew, so that if and when I ever got out, I could seek them out.


Spending seven months as a political prisoner led me to embrace improvisation as a way of life. After I was released, I was forced into exile, which catapulted me to Switzerland. There, I finished high school, with an emphasis in modern languages: French, Italian, English, and Spanish. 

After high school I immigrated to the United States. One of my maternal uncles, who split his time between California and Minnesota, invited me to spend Christmas in Minnesota and encouraged me to visit the local colleges. At Macalester College in St. Paul, I was offered a scholarship. I enrolled for the fall of 1985. After taking a class in Spanish literature, I decided to study Spanish and Portuguese, but I didn’t discard my dream of studying art. I took a studio art class every semester.

My dedication to regularly creating art continued after graduation and marriage. My paintings decorated the walls of Khyber Pass Café, a restaurant my wife, Masooda, and I opened a block away from Macalester College. Little did we imagine that Khyber Pass Café would become a community gathering place serving Afghan cuisine for nearly four decades.


Although my only formal training in music was some sitar instruction while I was growing up, I enjoy collecting musical instruments and improvising with other musicians. My musical knowledge led to a long-running radio show, International Jazz Conspiracy, which I host on KFAI, a noncommercial community FM station in the Twin Cities. The show has been on the air for three decades and features music that defies definitions of genre. The main theme is music free from commercial constraints, music as a spiritual quest, where the human soul conspires to dissolve boundaries. Music, especially jazz, is the magic that truly wins hearts and minds across all borders.

Many years ago, when the restaurant faced some financial challenges, friends from the music world stepped up to help. One friend suggested bringing in performers for a couple of weeks to raise money for the restaurant. The plan not only worked, but it also started a tradition of Thursday night concerts.


Our Khyber Pass jazz concerts continued until the pandemic, when we closed the restaurant’s dining room, offering takeout orders only for more than two years.

The decision to close the dining room offered me a new opportunity. Covering the restaurant’s floor in plastic, I brought all of the tables together to create a large work surface for painting. It was a moment of growth, a blessing in disguise. Most of the time my work has no plan. If I do something that I like, usually I don’t know just how it happened.

In November 2022, Masooda and I permanently closed the restaurant, a St. Paul fixture for 37 years. Khyber Pass Café had been a huge part of our lives.

Although our restaurant has closed, Masooda and I are silently partnering with the new co-owners, who are using the space for a cocktail lounge and restaurant. This new concept features my paintings as part of the décor.

I continue to paint, host my radio show, and improvise.