Under the cover of night we drove through the Kabul streets into a deserted section of the city. The dark hulks of building sites and old blasted rubble loomed on every corner. The car was full of young American simplicity and flirtation as two strangers, aid workers hoping that Najib or Massoud would go home with them at the end of the night, kept the chatter light and party-focused. Soraya, my friend and colleague, rolled her eyes at me across the back seat. We both shifted our attention to the impenetrable night outside our windows. The car was a black eight-seater LandCruiser and the newest car I had ever been in. It was Najib’s new toy.
The car sped along, despite the potholes. Najib was a good driver and everyone drove fast in Kabul, especially at night. He was also enjoying the attention from the American women and responding in his own charming, encouraging way. Twenty minutes later we pulled alongside the front gate of a compound, a line of other black shiny cars with tinted glass windows parked on the street. Najib glanced back at us.
‘You all jump out here. I’ll go and park further up,’ he said. Doing as instructed, we were quickly ushered through the metal door in the 10 foot-high double gates of the driveway. There was never any standing out on the street waiting for anyone in Kabul, especially at night, especially in a less populous area of the city.
The world on the other side of the gate was a small piece of paradise. Behind the wall lamps lit up the drive. The house itself was a large two-storey rectangle with balconies on both levels and glass walls on the bottom verandah. Out the front was a perfectly manicured lawn. Rows of large beds of perfumed roses had been laid out across the lawn with deep red, pink, apricot blooms highlighted in the light from the lamps. It looked like a fantasy or a dream, partly because I hadn’t seen this much green since Sydney two months prior. Living and working in Kabul had been a series of surprises, from the warm welcome of the Afghans, to the hope that ran through them like electricity, to the dusty roads and high walls that revealed private sophistication and never-ending cups of tea. But this was Kabul in 2004, a time and place full of surprises.
It was a Thursday night. In Kabul, Thursday nights are party nights. Friday is the holy day, a holiday for all. English aid workers were renting the house, and the usual mix of young, highly educated, wealthy Europeans, Americans and occasional Australians would be attending.
The soft light from the lamps highlighted Soraya’s long black hair, making it gleam like a crow’s black feathers. It fell down her back as she adjusted her head scarf into a shoulder scarf. Only her strong face, black eyes outlined with kohl, and her olive creamy skin, fitted the picture of the West’s typical ‘Afghan woman’. ‘S’, as I affectionately called her, oozed elegance in her cargo pants and designer shoes.
She was also nervous. As an ex-pat Afghan woman, her family had fled to America in 1978 when she was just two years old, and her place in this ‘new’ Afghanistan was often unnerving. Her Western-influenced upbringing had taught her to expect certain standards of behaviour, but in Kabul she was seen as simply another Afghan woman who could be controlled by the threat of shame and family humiliation. Just yesterday we had been out shopping with another female colleague. A big white SUV had slowed until it was keeping pace with us. The man driving began yelling abuse in Dari, one of the Afghan languages. The abuse was targeted at Soraya and her bare head. As she wrangled her scarf into place, we realised that the man was in fact Soraya’s brother.
Despite all this, Soraya loved Kabul, and here she worked as a translator for an American government project. She had introduced me to a whole other side of Afghan society: the world of the wealthy returned Afghans from a broad range of Western countries. This included Massoud, Najib and Ahmed, who all had similar stories of exile and return. Under 35, they had come back to Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks and established internet cafes, restaurants and guest houses. They turned their hand to any opportunity in this ‘new’ Afghanistan.
As it turned out, Soraya was mostly nervous that night because of Massoud. They had affection for each other and would surreptitiously flirt. But there is no such thing as ‘boyfriend’ in the Afghan culture. Women could only be single, engaged, married or widowed. With their families wanting different suitors for these two ex-pats, any idea of a relationship was fanciful. And while they were bound to Afghanistan by birth and culture, this dichotomy – between East and West – was constantly present in their lives in Kabul. Local Afghan people, for instance, would never have made it into this party since all local Afghans were viewed suspiciously by Westerners. There was no partying, not with alcohol and drugs and men and women dancing together, with any local Afghans watching. These ex-pats, my friends, would be the only representatives of Afghanistan in the house.
Grinning, Najib stepped through the metal door onto the path – he had successfully found a guard for his car for the evening. He started singing Jay-Z’s intro to Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy in Love’, a song that was still doing the rounds of commercial Kabul radio. His grin was infectious, the perfect reminder of why we were all here. He led the way up the path, gyrating as he went.
Making gin and tonics, we found a spot to the side of the impromptu dance floor. The room was some kind of long dining room with a kitchen at the back. A square shouldered, overly muscled man was DJing off his laptop at one end. His music was a mix of Devo, Nutbush City Limits and a bit of Boy George: easy, crowd-pleasing songs.
Massoud and Najib had been saying hello to different people, mostly women, as we moved through the crowd and before long they’d melted into the sea of people. Soraya and I took in the scene as we sipped our spirits. The men were uniformly dressed in a dull range of jeans and coloured shirts; they either looked like defence force types or tax accountants. The women, on the other hand, were dressed up for the night, many of the girls in tight, short skirts and towering heels with bare flesh on view: outfits they would never normally wear in Afghanistan. I glanced at Soraya.
‘Massoud knows a lot of women, doesn’t he, Pip?’ she said.
I put my lips close to her ear and said, ‘It’s in his nature.’ She nodded, even though what I had said wasn’t at all reassuring.
‘If this music doesn’t pick up, S,’ I said, ‘tonight may not be as exciting as we thought.’
We went back to the bar for more drinks. As we did, I noticed a large alcove with couches. Ahmed sat on a couch ensconced between a woman and a man. He waved, and we took a seat on the opposite couch. The man, a tanned string bean with a crew cut, offered us a joint. We both took a toke and settled back, Ahmed squeezing in beside Soraya, almost curling up in her lap.
After a while, I went to get more drinks. Across the dance floor I saw Massoud cosy in a corner with a French woman I had met a couple of times, an Embassy official. On the way back, I glimpsed Najib on the dance floor snogging one of the American girls from the car. Their night seemed to be going well. I went back out to Ahmed and Soraya and sat down again.
‘Come on Soraya, let’s dance,’ I said.
‘To that?’ she laughed, shaking her head.
I dragged her onto the dance floor. There was a beat at least, but I hoped the DJ would soon move onto something funkier, more energetic. As we joined the swaying throng I caught sight of Najib and his girl. He was dancing with his eyes shut, smiling a big wide smile. He was in his own private world. I touched Soraya on the shoulder.
‘I want what he’s got,’ I said, pointing to Najib. We pushed through the dancers to Najib and stood either side of him, smiling. We then whispered in each of his ears. ‘Sprung. Share or we’ll tell.’ He turned sharply, his eyes wide and then crinkling with laughter.
‘Girls! Yes!’ He turned to face us and in the quick action of grabbing one of our hands each, he slipped a pill into our palms and gave our hands a squeeze. ‘Enjoy. They’re good. Have a good time.’
We headed towards the dark corner behind us and took the pills with the remains of our gin and tonics. Soraya was almost jumping up and down and I laughed at her rush of eagerness, thinking that she should be the one, out of all the people here, who most enjoyed this evening away from the strictures of her existence in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
It was the best pill I’d had in years. Massoud reappeared many hours later, and though Soraya pretended not to notice, Massoud was aware of her ‘not’ noticing. They sat together talking in the dark as only lovers can. Najib was dancing goofily and daring me to do the splits – a dare I turned down. The other members of our gang were English, including the DJ who turned out to be a de-miner, and well versed in the progress of an ecstasy pill. Najib explained later that an Afghan friend of his imported them direct from Amsterdam for the foreigners. Best quality, and if you paid the right people you could get anything through Kabul airport.
This posse reminded me of many dance parties in Sydney and we could have been in any city in any country. But this was Kabul in 2004 and it was exciting, adventurous, risky and cool. We were in the ‘Kabul Bubble’, as this time came to be known, with expectation crackling through the city. Afghans, ex-pat and local, and foreigners were writing legislation, determining laws, investing in buildings and developments and factories and jobs and services, all planning for a future brave and independent Afghanistan that felt all but tangible. This future was coming, and it was going to be wonderful. Afghanistan was going to be wonderful again.
Years later, when I was back in Kabul, the Westerners I met always expressed their regret at not having been in the city during the peak of the ‘Kabul Bubble’. Foreigners and ex-pats had worked hard and played hard, and most managed to keep themselves separate from ordinary Afghan life.
‘Yes,’ I’d always say. ‘We had a lot of fun.’ But the ambivalence was never far behind.
The party back in 2004 had taken place a few months before the elections that delivered war lords and criminals to respectability and close access to aid monies on an even grander scale. It was also just months before the notorious suicide bombing in Kabul on Chicken Street, well known for its antiques and rugs, targeting foreigners. Many aspects of Kabul life, especially for foreigners, changed after that. Something dissipated from the city’s energy as well, as if a valve was released. Soon the corruption wasn’t just being whispered about, it was openly acknowledged and discussed.
In 2008, after a particularly violent and brazen attack at the Serena Hotel, a five-star oasis for foreigners in the city, the security for most foreigners became very tight. Corruption on all levels was now commonplace and people, both foreigners and Afghans, moved around cautiously, if just to avoid any police road blocks where kidnappings for ransom money were common.
After that party, as Soraya and I had snuck back into our guest house, avoiding the sleazy glare of Omar our house guard, the day had already dawned and first prayers called. Friday was full of family for Afghans. Soraya had to meet an aunt. I was due at a picnic with an Afghan work colleague and her family in a famous valley not far from Kabul.
I remember the post-drug, hollowed out, clean feeling from that morning – it always felt like renewal. I also remember wishing I had sunglasses to cut the glare and the dust.