Today three of us decided that we wanted a change from guest house food, so we went to a restaurant for a meal. Such a simple statement and one which we tend to take for granted. We’re hungry. We’re with friends or colleagues (or both!). We decide to go and have something to eat. And off we go.
Not here. Here the first thing you must do is check ‘the book’. The book lists all the restaurants in the city that have been vetted and approved by the security folks at the various government and NGO offices. From the book you draw up a short list of five or six places that seem interesting.
Then you have to get on the phone. You call other people you know, to see if the restaurant in question is still open, whether people have eaten there recently, what is the food like? That helps you reduce the list to three.
Third, you look at a map of the city and try to figure out where those three restaurants are located. Street addresses are fun to decode, as they refer to a place being “the third lane on the left from Butcher’s Street” or the “second house opposite the Brazilian Embassy” or something similar. Once you are more or less confident you know where you’re going, and where it is in relation to where you are, then you phone for your driver.
Every project has a driver, and ours is no exception. Driving in Kabul is a skill not learned on Canadian roads! We are all incredibly grateful to the man who safely conveys us from place to place each day, and who somehow manages to keep a clean car, even with all the dust.
After you’ve phoned the driver, then you phone the gate. The driver arrives and comes in to the parking lot of the office. Well, not quite so easy. He arrives at a tall double gate made of steel, and beeps the horn. An armed guard approaches and asks him what he wants. He tells the guard who he is picking up. The guard checks that we’ve phoned down and are really expecting the driver. The gates are opened.
The car drives in and then stops, and the gate is closed. The car is given a thorough search. Only then is a second large steel gate opened, and the car allowed in to the car park. The gates close behind it, and we get in. The driver turns the car around, and we repeat the process to leave.
Once out on the streets we are in a dust cloud. It is like driving in a blizzard. There are no street lights, just the cones of headlights shining towards us. Pedestrians and cyclists loom into view and then disappear again. A car races past, its tail lights rapidly disappear. We try to explain where the restaurant is, second lane on the left etc., but luckily the driver has been there before because in this visibility we can’t see the edges of the road, let alone the side lanes. Now and then we see bright lanterns illuminating a small shop, or a stall selling fish, but often we’re just driving in a brown-out.
Eventually we arrive. There are armed guards outside, and a little guard house. The guards look at us carefully as we get out of the car. A door is opened and we find ourselves in a narrow corridor, with another door ahead. The one behind is closed before the one in front is opened. We enter into the restaurant.
There are linen tablecloths, and silver cutlery. Candles are on the tables. People are eating, drinking, talking. There are couples and groups, families and people on their own. From their clothes and their voices there are people here from Afghanistan, Germany, Australia, Turkey, England, Nigeria, Canada. The no smoking ban hasn’t reached here yet and there is the smell of cigarette smoke. Waiters bustle about, and walk us to our seats. We order soft drinks and look around.
Is this the Kabul that used to be, and will be again?