Thu, Dec 25, 2014 - Page 5 News List

Kabul party over, expat ‘Kabubble’ bursts


The tennis club is deserted, the pool-side French restaurant is closed and picnic trips are canceled.

The US-led war in Afghanistan brought a flood of international aid workers, diplomats and security contractors to Kabul, creating a frenetic social scene that is now a distant memory.

A series of Taliban attacks on expatriate hangouts shattered any illusions that foreign civilians were safe in the city, and those places still open have bored waiters and empty tables.

As the US and its allies officially end their 13-year war on Wednesday next week, Afghanistan appears in the grip of worsening violence and the remaining foreign workers have retreated further inside fortified compounds.

“I used to employ 28 people a year ago. Now I employ only eight,” an expatriate restaurant manager told reporters on condition of anonymity.

“I am married to an Afghan and I will stay, but we are very worried. We used to be so busy ... all the aid groups and embassies had a list of places that their staff could go. Now everywhere is off-limits,” she said, gesturing to her deserted restaurant one lunchtime.

All-night parties with plenty of alcohol and a lot of young, single people were always incongruous in the capital of conservative Muslim Afghanistan, but now Kabul’s “Kabubble” — as it was known — has truly burst.

“The days of big parties ended long ago,” said Francesca Recchia, the Italian author of the Little Book of Kabul, a new collection of essays about the city. “Any social life is inside people’s houses or compounds. Of course, many internationals are restricted where they can visit, but some of us try to lead normal lives with Afghan friends... There are simply a lot less expats than the crazy days of 2008 or 2010, and those who are here, you don’t see out and about. There is a lot of fear.”

The final tipping point for many came in January, when a Taliban attack on the popular Taverna du Liban restaurant killed 21 people, including 13 foreigners enjoying mezze and a discreet beer.

Among the dead were senior UN staff, EU police officers, US teachers and British aid contractors.

Today, the site is boarded up and abandoned.

Five minutes drive away, the steel doors of the Gandamack Lodge have been locked since April.

It was perhaps the best-known restaurant and hotel in Kabul, serving British favorites, such as shepherd’s pie, and bread and butter pudding with custard.

After dinner, its basement pub boasted a warm log fire, a well-stocked bar and antique rifles hanging on the walls — until the whole premises was closed down by the Afghan government for being a “nest for intelligence agencies.”

Old expatriate haunts like French restaurant L’Atmosphere — once famed for its pool parties — have closed, and picnic trips to Qargha Reservoir outside Kabul or to the Panjshir Valley are now often deemed too risky.

“Every Thursday and Friday, there would be parties for hundreds of people, with guest lists that really meant any Westerner could just walk in,” Kabul-based US journalist Courtney Body said. “With the troop surge [from 2010 to 2012], there was also a civilian surge. It was hedonistic and we never worried about anything.”

“There were no rules compared with back home, so foreigners liked it. There was a sense of freedom,” Body added. “I remember all-day parties. You could enjoy a beer and a swim, and someone would always get thrown into the pool with their iPhone in their pocket.”

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