by UNA MOORE
War-zone nightlife stories have long been staples of foreign correspondence, and every wartime capital city produces them. Like their subject, they are a guilty pleasure of wartime journalism. They’re usually also a little — or a lot — sensational.
Time’s John Moore (no relation) just published one such piece titled “Kabul Nightlife: Thriving Between Suicide Bombs.” Tellingly, it opens with the most extreme aspects of expatriate life in Kabul.
Nightlife may seem like a luxury no one can afford in Kabul. The Afghan capital is hit by suicide bombers with depressing regularity, and on some nights expatriates receive word from their embassies that a suicide team is plotting to attack a “foreign guest house” — and these are the truly chilling words — “in your neighborhood.” On those occasions, you sleep with your clothes on and shoes beside the bed, after having mapped out an escape route over the wall into your (hopefully friendly) neighbor’s garden.
All of that is true, but bombings typically happen every few months. They aren’t weekly events. And Kabul long-termers goof on their daily security warnings. Still, the city isn’t safe, attacks on guesthouses and foreign civilians are becoming more frequent and lethal, and this summer promises to be brutal.
Moore’s description of the expat community itself is a gross caricature, though.
But on most nights, Kabul’s expatriates go out and partake in the manic craziness of the city’s bar and restaurant scene in houses reminiscent of America’s Prohibition-era speakeasies, behind 20-foot-tall blast walls and an outer perimeter of armed Afghan security guards. “It’s like dancing at the edge of a volcano,” explains Anne Seidel, a German architect working for the U.N. in Kabul.
Not all of us live like this, and I don’t know where Moore gets away with claiming most expats make six figures. How did he come to that figure? An informal salary poll of Thursday night bar patrons? I know only one person who makes that kind of money. Most of the expats I know make slightly more than they would in Washington or London, but not by much. Moreover, the average foreign aid worker earns a salary closer to that of her or his Afghan colleagues than to a DynCorp employee.
The expatriates are a boisterous crowd of young and usually single diplomats, aid workers, journalists, spies and mercenaries — or, as they like to call themselves, “contractors.” Most of them earn $100,000 salaries and have money to burn. They tend to be adventurous, but the security constraints of their jobs often leave them cloistered in claustrophobic boredom — following suicide attacks, most foreigners are confined to their fort-like compounds.
In my experience, one is at least as likely to find Kabul expats cooking dinner at home with their housemates or organizing a scary movie night than schmoozing mercenaries (a widely disdained subset of the expat community) and spending wads of cash in garrisoned speakeasies. As with most aspects of aid worker life, the reality just isn’t that glamorous.
Moore touches on one of the more uncomfortable aspects of expat nightlife in Kabul — the exclusivity.
The trouble with most of these places is that, because they serve liquor, which is illegal, the armed Afghan guards at the gate won’t allow the patrons’ Afghan compatriots to come inside, since good Muslims aren’t supposed to drink.
It’s not entirely true that Afghans aren’t allowed into these bars. Some alcohol-serving restaurants are actually owned by Afghans. That said, Afghans do have a more difficult time getting in, and they often need a foreigner to vouch for them at the door. It’s an ugly scene, but “foreign passport-holders only” policies are unevenly enforced and appear to be used to discourage raids more than anything else.
Unfortunately, the reputation of Kabul’s expats won’t be helped by the fact that Afghanistan’s national intelligence agency raided several bars and nightclubs over the past few nights and arrested at least one foreigner for bootlegging.
That story isn’t out in the international press yet, but it soon will be. Get ready for more stories of foreigners misbehaving behind Hesco barriers.
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