Expats Drinking in Kabul: Will the Atrocities Never Cease?

by Joshua Foust on 9/2/2010 · 14 comments

A guest post by Kabul Expat.

Will drop-in journalists ever tire of writing self-righteous, grossly distorted stories about “wild, partying expats” in Kabul?

Probably not. Seema Jilani just published one in the Guardian. Let’s get this over with.

“Kabul is the new Beirut.” This frivolous drivel fell from the mouth of a journalist in Afghanistan. She was effervescent with excitement about the prospect of Kabul’s expatriate bars being even more hip than those in Beirut. Beirut – where they dance to the beat of the bombs, where alcohol flows freely and women are freer still.

That journalist was being sarcastic, probably obviously so to everyone except Jilani. Journalists working in Afghanistan are a sarcastic lot.

Gandamack (Jilani’s link above) isn’t representative of nightlife in Kabul. On the contrary, it’s notorious among expats for being a magnet for the most dysfunctional individuals and the kind of behaviour that isn’t tolerated elsewhere.

Yay! Kabul has finally left the dark ages and now offers expat bars for journalists and diplomats alike, where alcohol serves as the lubricant for self-congratulatory war stories and chest-beating. And how convenient: you don’t have to deal with any pesky local Afghans either. With the exception of Afghanistan’s upper echelon, Afghans aren’t allowed in. Under Afghan law, the sale of alcohol to Muslims is prohibited.

Under Afghan law. Expats had nothing to do with that. And, Seema, I hate to break this to you but … plenty of Afghans drink in private.

So come, drown yourself in forbidden libations while you deliver a machismo speech on what a cowboy you are for making it through the war. “The Renegade of Afghanistan.”

Anyone who calls himself “The Renegade of Afghanistan” will be laughed at and disowned by everyone who knew him in Kabul. Guaranteed.

Your friendly “native” Afghan driver will even risk his life to wait outside for you as you feed your inflated sense of self-importance. Never mind that his wife and six children await him at home. Never mind that he drives through precarious, unkempt roads just to service your desire for a vodka tonic.

…..Nevermind that he is making at least twice the monthly salary of his neighbor and using that money to haul his extended family into the middle class, build a new house and put his kids in private schools.

You need to celebrate, dammit. Gloriously, bombastically celebrate the fact that you are a westerner in Afghanistan. You need “closure” (isn’t that what your therapist back home told you?) to all the death you witness and the blood that torrentially rains down from Afghanistan’s skies.

It’s true that many foreigners become depressed here, and many of them start drinking heavily to cope. But that’s hardly something worthy of such outsize scorn.

And aren’t you just so cool to taste the forbidden alcohol here? Aren’t you? Quick, take a picture so you can retain bragging rights. Don’t forget to get on your mobile-interweb-gadget and update your Facebook status too.

The people who take OMG LOOK I’M DRINKING BEEEEER IN KABUL photos and post them to facebook are mostly… drop-in journalists.

It doesn’t get more colonialist than invading a country, setting up shop, selling a prohibited, culturally and religiously forbidden product like alcohol, and throwing centuries of tradition out the window. But of course there is a good reason. For who can go without a beer for six weeks anyway?

I can think of plenty of things that are more colonialist than running a bar in Kabul. Most well-known alcohol-selling restaurants are run by Afghans or by Afghan-Americans/Brits/Australians anyway. The alley alcohol sellers are native Kabulis and cater almost exclusively to other Kabulis.

Dear melodramatic expats: you are not special because you set foot on this soil. You have not lived through the annihilation of your family for the past 30 years. Kandahar is dangerous, but you can stop spitting forth the tales of war and halt the swagger in its tracks.

Accusation of melodrama, followed by self-righteous melodrama.  

Thank God you have medical evacuation insurance and are embedded so that if you have a toothache, the US Marines will airlift you right back home to a nice, immaculate hospital, not one crawling with cockroaches and rats like those the Afghans are subjected to. Too bad that your Afghan colleagues, who do your translations and make your connections, don’t have the same insurance.

The only people I know with that kind of insurance work for the UN. Most journalists here are young freelancers and have no insurance of any kind. When they get sick or hurt, they end up borrowing money from friends to visit the German Clinic, or, if they’re broke and alone, they end up at public hospitals.

My Afghan friend told me of his shame at not even being allowed into restaurants in his own country. When waiters confront him with: “Wouldn’t you be more comfortable at a place that serves Afghans?” his acidic response is: “No, would that make you more comfortable?”

The “no Afghans” rule is upsetting. Afghans can thank their government for that.

Congratu-effing-lations. We have just managed to isolate Afghans from us even more than before. Not only have we invaded their country and torn it to shreds, but we have also created a segregated, imperialistic society – one in which Afghans are third-class citizens in their own country, invalidating an already marginalised population further.

Whoa. If boozing expats have rendered Afghans third-class citizens (by boozing!), who are Afghanistan’s second class citizens? Also: Afghanistan was in shreds long before 2001. Pick up a history book. You can choose from a wide selection at Shah M. Books.

Is it too cumbersome to engage the Afghans and build a relationship with them – one that doesn’t just involve their translation services? Do you writhe with an awkward discomfort at the thought of having dinner next to an Afghan? Cognitive dissonance perhaps? Maybe, if we took the time to see them as people, not as “fixers” and “locals”, but just as neighbours with hardships more dreadful than we can ever imagine, maybe then we can begin to understand the nuanced complexities of the region.

UN employees and diplomats are kept apart from Afghans by excessive security restrictions, but aid workers and journalists aren’t. I know expats who have Afghan housemates, band-mates, and –shocking!— husbands and boyfriends.

The condescending attitude of foreigners towards Afghans is not lost on Afghans and only fosters distrust. Perhaps a lesson can be learned from the humanitarian aid workers killed recently in Afghanistan. Many spoke the language fluently; they lived among the people, they ate Afghan food and breathed the Afghan spirit.

Wait a minute….. what?

But since we are not all able to accomplish such feats, the least we can do is to engage in dialogue with longstanding humanitarian aid agencies who have their finger on the pulse in Afghanistan. Instead of knocking at their door only when a death or explosion comes along, perhaps it would behoove diplomats and journalists alike to befriend those who are part of the grassroots movements and who work with local leaders. Their grasp on the politics of Afghanistan could constructively influence foreign policy, if only we’d put down our rum and coke and listen.

Oh girl, you must be kidding, because I am laughing. Aid workers drink diplomats under the table here. Routinely.

Maybe it is true what Virginia Woolf said: “On the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points.”

And in every Kabul bar, there’s an asshole scribbling in her notebook about evil colonialists between self-loathing sips of red wine.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Robert September 2, 2010 at 8:31 am

Well, on a positive note, she is cute. And Southern:


Otherwise, great fisking — made my week. Thanks!

Frank September 2, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Just to preface: I have been reading Registan for a while but never felt myself expert enough on any topics discussed to put forth a comment, I just take it all in. However, as someone who lived in New Orleans, I feel like I can make an informed critique in response to Ms. Jilani’s article that Robert linked to. Forgive me if this is too off topic for this forum but I feel like it addresses Ms. Jilani’s journalistic style.

To begin with, I got a chuckle out of her rhetorical question regarding “the restaurant owners in the French Quarter who still haven’t caught their breath after Katrina swallowed their lives”. As someone who worked at a French Quarter restaurant and knows plenty of other people who work in the French Quarter in the hospitality industry, I can say that the majority of restaurant, club, and bar owners in the Quarter are massive scumbags who treat their employees like crap. This certainly does not apply to all of New Orleans, but definitely in the French Quarter. Not to mention that the Quarter was one of the least severely hit parts of the city.

Also, while I certainly believe that Ms. Jilani’s neighbors may have “stood by us as we endured post-9/11 racism” there are also plenty of examples of the opposite. My girlfriend, who is Iranian and from New Orleans, endured constant anti-Islamic torment from a young age (long before 9/11) starting in early elementary school when her teachers told her that she would burn in hell for being Muslim.

I will say that I agree with Ms. Jilani that Northeastern and West Coast “intellectuals”/liberals are extremely disdainful of Southern culture except when convenient (I make it a point to call my Northern friends out on this very issue when they do it). I also agree that there is plenty of racism and bigotry all around the US and that it is definitely not exclusive to the South.

However, what I will say (and what I think makes my off topic and long-winded post relevant to this discussion), looking at this article alongside Joshua Foust’s analysis of the Kabul ex-pats article, is that Ms. Jilani tends to exaggerate certain points and facts while leaving out others to make her complaints sound more true. There is a lot of truth in her New Orleans article, but it is also very biased in an attempt to counter anti-Southern bias. I just want to say, I love New Orleans and I came to like the South very much (I did not think this would happen when I first moved down there) but it is definitely not as rosy as she would have you think.

If this is too off topic or too long and obnoxious feel free to let me know. I was just excited to finally have something to talk about on this blog and felt like spewing my opinion out there.

Turgai Sangar September 2, 2010 at 10:06 am

I agree that of the contact with local reality and society that humanitarian workers have or are perceived to have in the article are heavily over-idealized. In fact, part are the sort of people who are on the run for personal problems at home (broken relationships, carreer stranded, … ), who don’t know a iot of the language, sometimes have their portion of being condescending as well and can not build any experience with local society since they switch missions constantly: before Kabul they were maybe in Liberia and after that they move to the Solomon Islands or wherever.

Who are the second class citizens? The ‘aid aristocracy’ perhaps: young Afghans (some of them diaspora returnees) who work for foreign organisations, are well paid, woud-be westrenized and often have this think-they’re-cool attitude that makes them quite detested among parts of the population (more so than foreigners are). They often sit between two chairs: they’re not part of their foreign employers who they try to imitate, and they’re no longer ‘local’ as well. I saw that in Tajikistan as well.

BTW, some aid workers who do speak the language fluently, try to ‘go native’ etc… turn(ed) out to be Christian missionaries. So it’s no guarantee for being trusted more or perceived better.

Brett September 2, 2010 at 11:06 am

Excellent read. I’ve seen those sorts of self-righteous, drop-in journalist articles before, and they always amuse me.

Alan September 2, 2010 at 11:34 am

What was the point of this? Hyper-sensitive much? The fact that you chose to respond almost literally line-for-line affirms the fact that many expats like you are absolutely insufferable.

Robert September 2, 2010 at 10:37 pm

The fact that you chose to respond almost literally line-for-line affirms the fact that many expats like you are absolutely insufferable.

Well, perhaps. Or perhaps as a blogger, he just enjoys the art of fisking.

Anthony September 2, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Sorry, got to against you on this one. She may be over-exaggerating, but a lot of what she says rings true.

Dan September 2, 2010 at 1:13 pm

The bragging self-congratulatory attitude – most of us have been there, done that for a couple of weeks, then relaxed, found their place…and ended up drinking wine and discussing elections, reconciliation, development etc…

There is definitely some partying going on in Kabul, because one needs sometimes to relax, like everywhere in the world … and Afghan themselves – you’d be surprise how many could drink under the table UN staff, diplomats AND aid workers 😉 but it is pretty tame compared to parties in UK universities (where you spend your first weeks bragging too by the way)

As for friendships with Afghans, i believe that most expats, whatever their security restrictions, have had the luck to experience a couple during their stay. Your Afghan colleagues end up knowing you better than your family, because you spend such long hours together. And one never forgets that his/her security is in their hands and his/her work is good only because of theirs. It d be great to drink all together but it s forbidden, it d be great to do all sorts of things but one learns quickly about limitations (security, “cultural” etc..). There are always occasions anyways: lunches, Eftar, Eid invitations, marriages…You will always meet the obnoxious, colonial-minded and bitter expat (it did not become a stereotype for nothing) but lucky for all here, the truth is not as black and white than Jilani’s article. Some people care, believe it or not.

Poor girl.

Caomengde September 2, 2010 at 1:16 pm

She is cute, maybe a little sensitive, but still articulate, intelligent and truthful enough that I would take her over Foust anytime.

David September 3, 2010 at 1:57 am

Ms. Jellani needs a Vodka Tonic to cool down. Ms. Jellani I have been working in Afghanistan for the last 9 years. I do not live an isolated life. I live in an Afghan neighborhood. I hang out with Afghans and expats alike and I do not spend 7 nights a week in a bar. As a UK resident you are required to have insurance and as an expat I am required to have insurance in a country that lacks basic medical facilities, it is not my fault that cockroaches and rats have taken over your hospitals, ask your government officials and your close friend Mr. Fatemi the former minister of health NOT us. A driver is a driver. Sorry that the expat community cannot provide the extra service of getting your driver cousins to sleep with our wives or enjoy a vodka tonic in Gandumak with us. We do what we can do to help our lazy drivers.

Expats haven’t corrupted your government but your government is corrupted to begin with. Be thankful for what you have (expats), we are not chilling anyone, having a drink in a restaurant shouldn’t be that big of deal. Someday when we are not here, a lady of your prestigious and background may not be able to walk the streets of Kabul never mind having the rights to write an article.

Maybe it is time for you and your other like minded confused ladies to turn the mirror towards yourself not towards us.

Caomengde September 3, 2010 at 1:06 pm

If many expat share the same condescending attitude of David (“have been working in Afghanistan for the last 9 years”) towards locals, I am more inclined to believe Seema Jilani’s account.

First of all, David, Seema Jilani is Pakistani in origin and she is a physician who grew up in southern US and most likely an American citizen as well. But I am sure your awesome observational skills have serve you and Afghan people well in last 9 years, eh?

Caomengde September 3, 2010 at 1:35 pm

btw, it’s really heartening to know that for almost a decade, my tax dollar has been supporting highly talented individuals such as David and Foust to bring light to the benighted backwaters of the world.

I just can’t wait for the return on my investment!

Anonymous September 8, 2010 at 11:48 am

I lived and working in Kabul in 07/08 and returned for a week about a month ago. The Kabul nightlife for expats is highly exaggerated by Ms. Jilani and others. It was never that exciting or alcohol fueled.

Smoking the local hash with your Afghan friends and learning more about their lives and fears was far more interesting and perhaps culturally appropriate.

Chris September 8, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Just got to throw this out there…I actually DO converse with, eat with, and generally hang out with Afghans pretty regularly. It is my job to try and understand what they are thinking and going through in order to help TRY to guide ISAF along a path that is more sensitive to their culture and needs. Despite all of this, I do enjoy having a cold beer now and then, and it does not seem inhibit my ability to understand the nuanced complexities of region…

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