27 August 2011

Drinking in Kabul

"If you're not willing to die for your story, you should leave Afghanistan." Some prick, speaking to Edward, cut through my inebriated fog as I returned from a needed piss. Wearing our Shalwar Kameez at the expat Hare and Hound Watering Hole, we stuck out like bearded Afghans navigating British Airway's business class queue. And this prick decided to talk smack about our discreet outfits for the Provinces. Leveraging my dark skin and Afghan looks, I stared him down: “I've lived here for my 27 years, including during the Taliban occupation. And you've been here how long?” As he fumbled for response and his friend looked intimidated, we took our leave.

Although pricey, the $7 cans of gray-market Heinekens were paying dividends. 

The adventure had begun three-hours previous, as we navigated from our friends house. Muscling the typical Kabul deadbolt, one that makes an XXL American one feminine in comparison, we pass through the only portal in the 15 foot wall surrounding the house. Driving across a city of 3.5 million people somehow devoid of streetlights, traffic lights or traffic signs, we make excellent time, managing 65 mph on one straightaway and cutting off a cop doing a less dangerous 60. In Kabul, drivers are either flooring the gas or brake pedal. We shortly use the left-hand one, coming to a rapid stop while I grip my seat as I don't have the benefit of a seatbelt holding me in place. We gingerly crawl over a speedbump that brings even the craziest of drivers to a stop. We repeat the drill, this time ending with a traffic circle that is staffed by AK-47 carrying cops, who are all but invisible in the darkness. Their lack of reflective vest over their dark green uniforms while they stand in the road for overnight shifts continues to perplex me.

Arriving at Gandamack, we are met by three layers of security. At the second, I'm questioned (as usual), because despite my perfect English and white travel companion, my Taiwanese mother means I look swarthy enough to be Afghan. There are two Kabuls: one where the minority eschews license plates and goes where they want and a second, smaller Kabul where Afghans are questioned and barred from certain sites. Although the Afghans benefit from America, our privileged presence surely too breeds discontent. Fortunately for my night, with my Texas ID, I'm part of the larger Kabul and can enter.

The bar is in a former Al Qaeda safe house where Osama bin Laden not only kept his 1st and 2nd wife, but also skipped town and his last month of rent as he fled coalition bombing in 2001.

Ordering drinks, we learn our dollars are useless until we exchange them for coupon booklets denominated in $20, $50, and $100. An odd step, we start with a $20 one that quickly evolves into a second one. Along the way we see a couple expats we know (it's an insular community) and shortly make acquaintance with a plastered Scot who's throwing around his war zone largess by buying drinks for just about everyone. After a slight misunderstanding, I end up with $40 of his coupons in my breast pocket. Feeling good with my monopoly money, I make a bathroom run, school the pugnacious journalist and saunter to the bar. Plugging my phone into the sound system I play some tumescent American music (Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue). Posted here, feeling great, I inherit some abandoned Red Bull and Vodkas. Feeling even better, I bum and smoke some cigarettes even though I don't smoke. Heading back upstairs and after talking some shit, watching some dude fall in a bush, and observing broken glass strewn on the patio, I realize the remainder of my coupons have been lifted. Not only that, but 500 Afghan dollars and one of Edward's business cards. Drunk enough to be pissed but drunk enough not to care, while also realizing the money lost matches the money I acquired, we continue the socializing. An hour later, once things start winding down, 3 AM, we call a verified taxi company whose car arrives in only four minutes. Impressive. I suppose things here are quite civilized.

While Afghanistan has a legion of problems and struggles to resist forces that seek to cleave it, it too has a functioning and entrepreneurial economy. Not only that, but a police force and bars for Westerners to misbehave at. While academics monitor various indices to measure progress, I'll monitor whether police start wearing reflective clothes at night and cars start having seatbelts. And to keep tabs on a minimum of stability, I'll keep attending bars. While they're here, Afghanistan is doing alright.

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