Qayum Karzai, owner of the popular The Helmand restaurant in Mount Vernon and brother of a former president of Afghanistan, died Thursday at age 77.

The cause of death was a heart attack, said his son, Helmand Karzai.

The news of his sudden passing stunned his family, friends and the many people who knew him through his Baltimore restaurants.

“He’d been doing great,” Helmand Karzai said. “He’s been as active as ever recently,” and was closely involved with the operations of all three of his eateries. Qayum Karzai, who lived in Glenwood, had just spent Memorial Day weekend with his family and grandchildren.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Since opening The Helmand on Charles Street in 1989 — it was named after both his son and the river in his native Afghanistan — Karzai had a major impact on the city’s dining scene. But he also kept a close watch on the politics of his home country, even running for president at one point to fill a post previously held by his brother, Hamid.

Together with his wife, Pat Karzai, Qayum Karzai invested in Mount Vernon before the neighborhood was known for trendy eateries. “He believed in the vitality of the city, and that’s why he opened that first restaurant 35 years ago,” said Paul Dougherty, who manages finances for the Karzai family’s Baltimore restaurants.

From its first day in operation, The Helmand attracted a following both for its menu of traditional Afghan cuisine and its inviting atmosphere. “People love to be in there, to walk in that door and feel that sense of home and at the same time, something exotic, something different than anything else,” Dougherty said.

The Helmand drew rave reviews from writers around the country, including in The New York Times and The Associated Press.

Determined to have “a whole plate of aushak to myself on my next visit,” wrote AP reporter Beth Harpaz, “Qayum Karzai advised the following: ‘The best way to eat Afghan food is to share.’”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Born in 1947 to an elite family near Kandahar, Karzai conducted himself with a quiet dignity. “In Afghan society he was an aristocrat, but in American society he didn’t really come off that way,” said author Taylor Branch, a regular to the Helmand and Tapas Teatro, the Karzais’ restaurant next to the Charles Theatre. “He was so acculturated to America. You could talk to him about any American thing as though he had been raised in the United States,” Branch said.

At the same time, Karzai was deeply invested in the happenings of his home country. Radio personality Marc Steiner recalled how the restaurateur founded a group called Afghans for a Civil Society, dedicated to pursuing democracy in Afghanistan after the Taliban took over in the 1990s. “He was one of the truly great Afghan patriots who fought for a democratic Afghanistan,” Steiner said. “Because of Qayum, I got the first interview with Hamid Karzai when he first went back to Afghanistan.”

Qayum Karzai sometimes played a behind-the-scenes role in Afghanistan’s affairs. In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, he recalled how on Sept. 11, 2001, he was in Rome, trying to persuade the former Afghan king to return from exile.

Amu TV, a Virginia-based television station and digital network focusing on Afghanistan, reported that Karzai also returned to his native country for a time after being elected to Afghanistan’s parliament in 2004. After criticism over his absences, he resigned in 2008, the outlet reported.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a family friend and former minister of foreign affairs in Afghanistan, and Said T. Jawad, a former ambassador to Washington, D.C., London and Moscow, were some of the first Thursday to post remembrances of Karzai on social media.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“I pray to Allah to grant the deceased Paradise,” Abdullah wrote on Facebook.

“His principled stance in politics, modesty, courtesy, eloquence, commitment to democracy,“ as well as his passion for Afghanistan, “continue to inspire,” Jawad posted to X.

Diners in Baltimore were often curious to learn about the soft-spoken restaurateur and his life that straddled two worlds. But Karzai was more interested in learning about the world around him than talking about himself.

He took some people by surprise in 2014 when he ran for Afghan president as his brother left office. Physician Neal Friedlander recalled how he and other regulars of the Karzais’ restaurants, which then included B Bistro in Bolton Hill, feared a win might take him from Baltimore. “May the best man lose,” they joked. But Karzai quickly pulled out of the election, putting those worries to rest.

In addition to The Helmand and Tapas Teatro, Karzai also owned Helmand Kabobi near Johns Hopkins Medicine. The Baltimore eateries came after he folded a Chicago restaurant and moved east.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

He originally moved to the U.S. in 1969 with the intent of becoming a pilot. But his plans were derailed by a case of vertigo, and he got a job working at a restaurant in Washington, D.C.

He and wife Pat married in 1973 after meeting in Washington. They had two children: their son, Helmand, and a daughter named Ariana.

Helmand Karzai, who works with his family’s business, said his father instilled in him the importance of good customer service and being visible in his restaurants. “He’s kind of old-school in a way, that the owner should be present,” he said.

Dougherty recalled how the elder Karzai treated all of his employees, no matter their position, with an attitude of respect and a spirit of generosity, setting the tone at all of his businesses.

Qayum Karzai was humble about the fare he served and recognized that people went out to eat for reasons beyond dining.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Don’t assume that you have the best food,” Karzai told Baltimore magazine in 2019. “People are not coming for the food. People are coming in to leave the day behind.”

His persona had an impact on Baltimore’s larger dining scene, too. In the often competitive world of hospitality, his authenticity and kindness stood out. “He knew how to conduct himself as a person,” said restaurateur Tony Foreman. “It resonated with me from the first time that I met him. The graciousness, the thoughtfulness — it has nothing to do with rivalry or competition.”