The Kabul social scene

When I first arrived in Kabul I was struck by how much of the talk around town – the expat enclave of town that is – focused on where to eat, drink, shop and party. In those first weeks I was briefed less on the political situation, security or cultural awareness than on the best shops and which one always sold out of date food; the different places to go for brunch, lunch or an evening drink and the relative merits of their coffee or wine list; and which embassy or international organisations threw the best parties. There is even a magazine celebrating this ‘Afghan Scene,’ the Time Out and Hello! of Kabul with restaurant reviews, pictures from the latest parties and short feature stories on some other part of Afghanistan. My geography of the city grew up around visits to its culinary waypoints. The various Lebanese restaurants, the Korean place, the Chinese, the Thai, the German bar, the American ones: the international community seemed mapped and emplaced within Kabul through entertainment.

Afghan Scene

It was an enjoyable, welcoming introduction that made this strange, daunting city feel a drop more normal. Except it isn’t at all normal. Outside most of these places stand armed guards. Visitors are greeted by signs saying that no Afghans will be allowed in or politely requesting for weapons to be left at the door. From the tales I have heard a similar scene existed in several Asian countries after the 2004 tsunami and subsequent influx of relief workers, so maybe in certain situations the emergency sex, shopping, eating and partying of Kabul is normal, but I have experienced nothing like this in Khartoum or Kampala and for me it has all been new and very, very strange.

L’Atmosphere is the hip flagship of the Kabul social scene. There’s no neon sign outside for security reasons but the large number of imposing vehicles parked up opposite gives the game away. In summer Kabul’s beautiful people lounge haughtily around the swimming pool or relax in comfy chairs chatting with friends or their computers. In winter it moves inside, where people try to grab a table near the large open fire or else prop up the bar. The first time I went there I sat with my back to the wall, fresh fruit juice and book in front of me and, from under the shelter of a tree, watched and tried to make sense of it all.

To go from the poverty of Kabul, the plague of problems that beset the country, the news of more bombings and so on, to walk from there into the sunny, sheltered courtyard of L’atmo can be an awkwardly uncomfortable experience. It illustrates why many Afghans are not best pleased to have all these foreigners hanging around spending relatively vast sums of money on cars, drinking and debauchery. But while I felt uneasy with it at first I quickly got used to it, to enjoy the comfort and ‘luxury’ and to justify it to myself. If I have not immersed myself in the Kabul social scene and still find it slightly uncomfortable it is only because I’m an unsociable old git at times.

For me, coming back to Kabul after a month in Ghor say is a rare time to relax with a shisha and a beer, eat good food and catch up with friends at the Lebanese place. For those stuck in Kabul, well, there is sod all else to do in the evenings and an urge to escape. The foreigners who work here are mostly in the thirties or forties. They work hard during the day, live in fairly trying circumstances with few of the basic things and freedoms they grew up with and search for the few pleasures open to them, trying to stay healthy or at least sane. For women in particular, to be able to go to L’atmo or elsewhere and takes one’s headscarf off and relax is hugely important.

Still, the fact remains that this scene is totally divorced – aside from the occasionally whispered about liaison – from the lives of Afghans. Such a state of affairs is not healthy for either side, and cannot be productive for the country as a whole. There are so many foreign workers we are able to be insular in our socialising, while the social and religious strictures on Afghans makes it hard for them to join ‘our gang.’ Then there’s the language barrier, disparity in disposable income and a paranoid security environment. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ division is not always there and never clear cut, but the sign on the way into L’atmo saying ‘foreign passport holders only’ goes a long way to maintaining the gap.

The attack on the Serena has changed a lot, for now at least. I haven’t been there since, but I know L’atmo will be a lot quieter on a Thursday night than usual (and see this). Unless someone throws a hand grenade over the wall, things will slowly get back to ‘normal’ and in a couple of weeks it will be buzzing again. But there’s a growing fear that the party may soon be over.

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5 Responses to “The Kabul social scene”

  1. Bob Says:

    It has been nice to read your blog. Don’t you think this contrast in wealth and social liberties is there everywhere. There are the exclusive clubs, pubs, discos in every western country. I have been refused entry on the grounds of being dressed shabily, not rich or good looking enough.

    You can also have a nice meal with a beer and walk past a dozen of homeless people on your way to the metro in dozens of western cities. The contrast is always there and you look at it within a town from one part of a country to another, one country to another or divide the country into income levels or by ethnicity and see it. I think peoples liberties and cultural contrasts are a tougher to deal with.

    Look forward to reading more.

  2. harryrud Says:

    Hey Bob. Aye, it’s a good point, the contrast is always there. But somehow this feels different. Maybe it’s because I’m the one with the smart enough shoes being allowed in for a change rather than being kicked out!

    Also, the divide here is so acute, between a rich minority who make little or no effort to intergrate or speak the language and the residents of the place. And in a highly charged political enviroment where foreigners are often viewed with a great deal of suspicion (understandably so given the history of Afghanistan). Hmm…

  3. Frida Says:

    I think your post here is very even handed. I have been known to be much harsher about the Kabul social scene. But then again, spending Friday mornings in L’Atmosphere garden with wifi internet, coffee and no head scarf on probably kept me sane the first spring I lived in Kabul. Also – it was easy to be a little self-righteous when I lived in Herat or Ghor and didn’t have the same scene to contend with.

  4. James Says:

    I tried to be the typical NGO shallow ingratiator when I first lob into ‘Stan, ( That said I refused point blank to cut around in the Showlar Kamizz…Not only would I look like a 6ft whity dick, I draw the line at wearing something more or less designed for shitting in) But after a few months in a field office putting up with the best and worse that my Afghan staff had to offer, I couldn’t wait to get back to Kabulshit to belt a few beers and catch up with friends and pretend I was somewhere else. Sure, latmo and its ilk tended to fill with its share of twats but the key point is that there was a place for these twats to go and unwind… This brings me to the Afghan Scene. Too glossy to wipe your arse with, too banal to read on the toilet, on first sight I thought it was a goof and subsequent ‘readings’ haven’t changed my opinion

  5. Yadgar Says:

    @James:

    > Not only would I look like a 6ft whity dick,[/i]

    You couldn’t grow a decent beard?

    > wearing something more or less designed for shitting in

    Oh, go! Even most backward Afghans don’t actually shit into their shalwar-qamizes… and when it comes to wearing it, I never experienced any other garb so suitable for hot summer weather (not only in Afghanistan, which I unfortunately never had a chance to visit) than a shalwar-qamiz!

    See you in Khyberspace!

    Yadgar

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