The Travel Issue
Drinking in a Kabul Bar
August 18, 2005
Earlier this month I was sitting at the bar of the Mustafa Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, drinking a Heineken, when Dante walked in. He was wearing a white t-shirt, jeans and a heavy silver crucifix. His hair was cut short into a tight fade. He had a toothpick in his mouth and a pencil thin mustache.
"Waz' up dude," he said. He held out a hand.
"Ain't shit," I told him.
The Mustafa Hotel had bright lights and polished black marble floors. On the other side of the room the workers watched MTV. I ordered him a Heineken.
We drank and talked, then another man walked up to the bar. He was holding a tinfoil-wrapped plate of food. He wore a black leg holster with a pistol and rainbow colored, wrap-around sunglasses. He and Dante were friends.
They talked a bit. Still new in town, I asked what they did for fun.
"Drink," Dante said chuckling. "Shit. Ain't shit to do but drink!'
"Either here or, well, some guys to go Copacabana's. That just opened up last month. On Tuesdees, they got hip-hop."
It was Tuesday, so we went.
All around Copacabana's were barricades, check points, barbed wire and blinding bright lights. Located in the Wazir Akhbar Kahn district, it was close to Kabul's embassies. At the entrance was a badass, olive green armored jeep sporting a stenciled Bulgarian flag on its doors. Two sullen soldier girls stood next to the vehicle, looking bored and smoking cigarettes.
Copacabana's owner is an Afghan-American with meticulous facial hair. He wore light blue jeans with splotches of bleach in the thighs. His eyebrows were waxed into geometric shapes and his hair was gelled into a spiky barb. His whole head looked sharp and precise.
"Waz' up, man?" he asked when I got to the door. He was standing in a tight knot of other spiky haired 20-somethings.
"I wanna drink," I said.
"Sure, man," he said. "Inside." He opened the door and I went inside.
The interior of Copacabana's looked like a Starbucks; large red couches, solid colors, long, angular lines. It was air conditioned and cool. The DJ was playing an up-tempo, break-beat version of "Tom's Diner."
I ordered a Jack and Coke and sat down.
There were three girls dancing on the dance floor. In a seat near them a fat old man in a white suit patted his leg and flopped his bald head around lamely to the beat. A smoke machine noisily hissed out clouds of white steam, which wrapped around the legs of the girls and dissipated near their heads.
Some off-duty soldiers came through the double doors, scanning the room as the DJ began playing "Eye of the Tiger." They went and stood at the bar. Upright and southern, they all wore tight blue jeans with large belt buckles. They stood in a tight circle, talking and laughing, telling dirty jokes and drinking their Budweisers.
One of them recognized me from town and sat down across from me on an oversized maroon chair.
He bought me a beer. I told him I was a writer and he put his cigarette in his mouth and took out his wallet, squinting from the smoke.
He pulled out a card, crossed something off of it, then handed it me. It showed his name, rank and an Afghan flag crossed with an American one.
"I am very cautious of writers," he said.
"You should be," I said. "They will screw you, if you're not careful."
Then I asked what he was doing in Afghanistan.
He looked away from me. "Now, well," he said, chuckling. "I am gonna be real honest with you."
'Go ahead, man," I said. "I don't give a fuck what you do."
"I do… radio stuff," he said, wincing. "You know… for the army radio. I teach Afghans how to broadcast from the radio stations and do news. I'm like a journalist, kind of. But for the army."
What the hell is so wrong with that?" I asked. "Sounds a fuckin' lot better then gettin' a bullet in your ass."
"Well," he said, looking around. "Just once, I mean… it sounds crazy, but just once I would like to get into a firefight. To prove to myself that I'm worth it. I know it's not cool to kill anyone and that's not really what I am talking about. I don't wanna kill no one. I've known guys who have killed and they are fucked—really fucked. They go home, discharged and are never the same. But still, I want to know if I have it. That edge they teach you about in training. You have it or you don't. I wanna know if I got it."
I looked at the rest of the soldiers. They were all dancing with a fat blond girl who worked at the Swiss embassy. Everyone was gyrating and making pained faces.
"Look, you have guys here… it's like a game," he went on. "They wear all the shit—you know, full armor, M-16's, but that's all photo ops. To show the grandkids. Because it's safe here, you know. Kabul is safe. You can do your time and feel like a real hero. Afghanistan is easy. I know guys who got bronze medals for sitting in an office. Out in Kandahar or Nuristan, that's where the action is. I want to go there to prove it to myself. That I can do it and survive.
"There is a culture in the army," he continued. "To get respect you have to take risks. Radio journalists get no respect. It's a macho culture, know what I mean?"
"Where you from?" I asked.
"The sticks, man," he said. "Outside Corpus-Christi."
"Lots of southern people out here," I said.
"Yep," he said. "They say that most of the army is southern. I never had any idea about places like this. I grew up, like I said, in a small town, Texas. Then I came here… whole different shit. I mean, you can think about it. Think about what places like this are like but then you see it. You feel it. You know what I mean? To feel it?"
He was getting drunk.
"You mind?" I asked, taking out my notebook.
"Hell no, I don't mind," he said. "But whatever I say to you, I didn't say, you understand? The things I talk about, they don't happen, right?"
"Gotcha," I said. We shook hands.
He leaned back. "You can phrase this however you want," he said. "The U.S. military is a political moving force. A Political… Moving… Force. The thing with other armies—my friends in other armies all tell me this—is that other armies do things only essential to their immediate survival. What we do in the U.S. armed forces is move societies politically so we, you know, the United States, are safer and more secure. It's a different kind of warfare. The problem is that."
A friend of his sat down with us. He said his name was Ben. He was drunk, too.
"The problem is there are no ladies here," Ben shouted over the music. "It's weird, you know. In Afghanistan there are different kinds of women. Check it out: there are the ones with the full veil, then there are the ones with, like, this half shit like this"—Ben put his hand over his nose—"and then there are the ones with just the hair covered. Those are the hottest. I don't know why but they are the hottest ones."
"Yeah, girls here are good," I said.
"Well, I am married, so fuck it," Ben said, throwing his hands into the air. "I'm the only guy who is married and I dance with all the bitches. Before I got married I was a pussy. Now look. This guy"—he pointed at my mysterious friend—"he don't dance with noooobody.
"Joining the army, man,' Ben continued, "shit. Worst thing I ever did. Live in shit-"
My friend elbowed him, shaking his head, looking at him.
"Shitty food," Ben said, unmoved. "No women. Idiot people, all the army does is fuck peoples' lives up."
My friend elbowed him again, hard this time.
"Stop elbowing me, dude," Ben said. "I'll punch you right in the face. You joined the army because you quit school."
"I didn't quit school," my friend said. "I finished high school and went to the army instead of college."
"You quit school," Ben said. "Quit bitchin'. I joined the army to help people. Listen: I work in the embassy tracking expenses. That means I gotta be 'bad guy,' right? I look in records and see they spent $500,000 on building a clinic in Paghman. I go to Paghman. No clinic. No nuthin'. So then I gotta go to these people with fuckin' Ph.Ds and shit and say, 'Look, you are screwing the Afghan people. You are screwing the Afghan people, you fucker.' Then everyone hates me and I have to go work in the basement where water sprays me in the face every morning."
"Yeah," I said, trying to take it all in. "Where do you guys live anyway?"
My unnamable friend laughed.
"I live in the nicest house I have ever been in," he said. "Gold toilet seats, marble floors, hot water all the time. Immaculate."
"You fuckin' serious?" I asked. "How?"
"It's the former house of a warlord," he said. "The United States captures them and puts the troops there. We live like kings." MTW
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