Tuesday, 23 November 2010

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Random Ramblings : a taste of Lebanon ... In Kabul

  • Tuesday, 23 November 2010
  • Fouad GM
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  • I started off my evening today when I came across this piece on the Saudi-owned Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat. The article is seventh in a series of articles entitled "The Endless War: The Birth Pangs of Afghanistan".

    Yesterday's article, the sixth in the series, spoke of women journalists and TV anchors and their fears of imprisonment behind burqas and in their husbands' houses if the Taliban would come back to power. But today's article was much more interesting - at least to me.

    The article, subtitled "The Intercontinental: A Witness to History", tells the story of Kabul's famous five-star Intercontinental Hotel * on Kabul's imperial Khiyabun Bagh-e Bala (Boulevard of the Upper Gardens). The article explains how the then-trendy hotel stood witness to some major turning points in modern Afghan history - first, falling to the Soviets who transformed it into a headquarter for their command in Afghanistan in the 1980s; then a command centre for the mujahidin forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud. After Massoud's defeat in the mid-1990s and the invasion of Kabul by the Taliban, Intercontinental Kabul became a hotbed for Ossama Ben Laden and Al-Qaeda's so-called Afghan-Arabs, the warriors who volunteered to join Al-Qaida in the struggle against the Soviet invasion before becoming the biggest threat for the United States. The Intercontinental today has become home to international journalists, international businessmen and US and Western politicians and statesmen.

    Adam Curtis wrote more on BBC Blogs about the history of the Intercontinental Kabul and its building during the reign of modernising dictator and King Muhammad Zahir Shah.

    The Intercontinental Kabul in the 1970s, prior to the Soviet invasion

    The article instigated and intrigued me to a few more readings on Afghanistan and guess where I ended up? Another article on the Saudi-owned Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat about another posh hotel in Kabul. This time, the hotel is the Heeta Plaza Hotel.

    The article, also from today's newspaper, is entitled "Lebanese Restaurant: A Magnet for Foreigners in Kabul". It tells the story of a Lebanese restaurant that has attracted Kabul's visitors. The Lebanese entrepreneur behind the project, Kamel Hamada, is a Lebanese émigrée from the Druze-majority town of Ba`aqlin, in the Chouf range of Mount Lebanon. The restaurant lies metres away from Heetal Plaza Hotel, a five-star hotel owned by business tycoon and son of former Afghan President, Burhanuddin Rabbani.

    Rabbani is currently the leader of Jamiat-e Islami Afghanistan. Formerly, he served as president in post-Soviet Afghanistan between 1992 and 1996 beforeserved as the political head of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (UIFSA), an alliance of various political groups who fought against Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Today, the Rabbani family are more renowned for their international business enterprises and partnerships.

    Aaaaaanyway. Leaving my ramblings about the mixture of religion, tradition, militias, arms, politics and private business gains aside ...

    Like the Heetal Plaza Hotel, Hamada's "Taverna du Liban", is located in the upper class neighbourhood of Wazir Akbar Khan*.

    Villa on sale in Wazir Akbar Khan, Kabul (by naweed2009)

    According to Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat, Hamada started his business in Kabul, under the Taliban. He proudly and jokingly remarks that he liked the challenge and "after all, the Taliban had no enmity with Hummos, Tabouleh or Baba Ghannouj."

    The fall of the Taliban in 2001 and the emergence of new economic activities and classes in the capital city after their demise, reflected positively on Hamada's restaurant which has become the most famous and most prestigious restaurant in town. The restaurant has become the "coolest" hangout in town today. Guarded by bouncers with kalashnikovs, "Taverna du Liban" is frequented by foreigners working for international agencies as well as NATO forces as well as the Afghan elite.

    Traditional street-side kebab-sellers in Kabul (Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat)

    The interesting thing the article barely touches upon, is the impact Taverna du Liban and its likes have on the poorer immigrants and less fortunate Afghans running kebab stalls on the streets of the capital. For many of them, livelihood in the country was disrupted and migration to the city hampered by the economic grip of business tycoons and their foreign partners. Their only hope was finding a place in a parasite economy that developed on the economic peripheries of Kabul. And since 2001, many made a living off of kebab stalls and small traditional street-side restaurants. The aspiration was to overcharge the occasional yet lucrative foreigner.

    I wonder if Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat can even tackle such a question?


    * Does anyone else see a resemblance between the Intercontinental in Kabul and the Holiday Inn in Beirut?

    ** Wazir Akbar Khan is an upper-class neighbourhood and home to Kabul's bourgeoisie and foreign embassies since the first half of the twentieth century. It is also the setting for a large part of Khaled Hosseini's novel, The Kite Runner.

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