A Bittersweet Legacy

Remembering a popular restaurateur killed in Kabul—and a policy of segregation that humiliated local Afghans.

A Taliban suicide squad killed 21 people, including 13 foreigners, in one of their brazen attacks in the heart of Kabul on the night of Friday, Jan. 17. Their target was the La Taverna du Liban, a popular restaurant. Among the dead are several high profile foreign officials, including the country representative for the International Monetary Fund.

But there is one individual whose death has sparked particularly widespread sadness and condemnation from the foreign community and locals alike in Kabul: Kamal Hamade, the Lebanese owner of the restaurant. Several media outlets have written about him over the past few days. Personally, the news has sparked bitter, underreported memories of the recent past -- in particular, of the first strange encounter I had with Kamal.

Back in 2007, many restaurants in Kabul owned by or catering to foreigners began apartheid-style service and would not serve Afghans, a practice that prompted minimal opposition. The stated rationale was that restaurants wanted to serve alcohol, and thus Muslims should not be able to enter. 

One day, my friend and I were stopped at the entrance of La Taverna du Liban for not holding foreign passports. I demanded to see the owner, and I vowed to stay there for as long as it took for that to happen. After a few minutes of waiting, the heavily armed guards -- not tall bouncers with big muscles, but the paramilitary-like forces that commonly guard diners in the city -- frisked us and let us pass the first entrance. (In Kabul, many restaurants have multiple gates, including metal-detector doorframes before the halls of restaurants open up.) At the second entrance, we met Kamal, who politely asked us, "Can I help you?" I furiously told him that Afghanistan was not 20th-century South Africa, United States, or Germany, where Jews and black people were not served in restaurants.

His response was simply that the government had issued orders to not provide alcohol to Muslims.

In a semi-shouting voice, I pointed out the flaws in his logic. This was a restaurant, not a bar, I said. Restaurants in other countries, including Western ones, that happened to serve alcohol didn't prevent everyone under the age of 21 -- or whatever the legal drinking age might be -- from entering. After around five minutes of heated discourse, Kamal finally decided to treat us as an exception.

He was surprised, however, when we refused to enter. We wanted to make a point and told him that we would return when the door was open to all Afghans.

I was not the only one humiliated by what amounted to segregation. Many of my friends who wanted to try newly available foreign cuisines in their towns were barred from the indulgence. Everyone knew the alcohol argument was a ridiculous excuse by restaurants owners who wanted to provide a Western atmosphere in which embassy employees, aid workers, and security companies' staff would feel at home -- a place where they could turn a blind eye to realities on the ground around them.

Certainly, it might have cost, say, an Afghan government employee his or her whole monthly salary to be able to buy dinner for a family of four at one of these establishments -- but that wasn't really the point. It was troubling that segregation was supported by and for the people who were purportedly there to help us after years of brutality and oppression under the Taliban regime. They said they would bring us freedom, but apparently, this didn't extend to the restaurants.

We left Kamal's restaurant and the next day published an article in one of Kabul's English newspapers, shedding light on the problem and asking the Afghan government and the United Nations to break their silence. Soon after, we launched an informal campaign to end the unjust practice. A handful of foreigners who empathized with us also stopped going to restaurants that banned Afghans.

Eventually, a handful of restaurants changed their policies. Still, many options remained non-existent for locals -- unless you were a lucky Afghan with dual citizenship.

La Taverna du Liban, commonly known as Taverna, was one of the few establishments that eventually opened its doors to Afghan guests. Although it never stopped serving alcohol to foreigners, Taverna adjusted its service in order to make the substance less visible to Muslim customers. For example, it served beer in tea mugs, while a bottle of red wine was provided to a table in a clay teapot along with teacups.

After 2009, I visited Taverna many times. I always saw Kamal with a big smile on his face. He remembered me, too, and teased me for my "nationalistic" reaction when we first met.

The restaurant became widely touted as being the safest in Kabul. Kamal was always around, either sipping coffee at a corner table or walking between the restaurant and the kitchen to keep the waiters on their toes. He was friends with many of the guests who frequented his place.

To add to Taverna's fame, new diners were always happily surprised when their table was filled with hummus and samosas and chocolate cake -- all on the house. Sometimes, I joked with friendly waiters to bring me just a soda, as the starters and the dessert were too filling to order anything from the list of entrées.

With the withdrawal of the foreign forces at the end of this year, many restaurants are already packing up or will soon be on their way out. While there will be too few people in Kabul who will remember and miss many of these "ghost restaurants," Taverna is not one of them. Its absence, after last week's tragic attack, is already deeply felt.  

Kamal, like many other foreign entrepreneurs, came to Kabul to make money. He could have made more, I'm sure, running a logistics company or security firm. But he chose to serve food -- and, ultimately, to welcome everyone into his business with equal warmth. His legacy is not only one of offering a place where people could make and share memories. It is one of finally making the right decision, in a place where so many people have done the opposite. 



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