CityScapes: Kabul

Originally published at PakTeaHouse

The experience of any city is created by the ‘user.’ You can make any city our own. Even in a city as close as Karachi, Kabul is deemed ‘exotic’ and adventurous.  As a Pakistani, it is closer to home than most of us would imagine. However, Kabul is not for tourists, it is for travelers. But there is a romance in the air that is unmistakable. If you are in Kabul, explore something besides the ruins and war relics.

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Food Trail

Kabul, like Karachi, has only one kind of nightlife – a foodie kind of nightlife. But it can be a little bit more risqué/fun that Karachi. While Karachi asks you to bring your own, Kabul serves its own.  Kabul has a decent variety of cuisines being served across the city. Thai, Chinese, Indian, Croatian, Middle Eastern and many more.

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Kebabs are everywhere in Kabul!For traditional Afghan food head to Sufi . The restaurant is frequented by expats and visiting delegations as an introduction to Afghan food and will cost you about $10-12.  For a flavor of the aid-worker/foreign journalist watering hole try L’Atmosphere – a French restaurant serving crepes, pizzas, pastas, salads and soups. The bar area is rather popular  for obvoious reasons. The food is a bit pricey but the music is nice – starting with classics in the early evening and ending with Lady Gaga and Pitbull at night. A meal and drinks will set you back by $20.  To eat where the locals eat, try Barg Restaurant in the Khair Khana bazaar.  Barg serves Western fast food and local fare. The ground floor is for men and the upper floors are for families. Meal and drinks will cost you no more than $7.

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Golden pakoras and fries at Mandavi

 

Kabul also has fantastic street food – pakoras, fries, deep fried ‘aloo paratha’ and spicy corn on the cob – from 5 to 10 Afghani.

It is not uncommon for most ‘meetings’ to take place at lunch. It seems most offices, organizations and even ministries have their own mini-catering units, manned mostly by women. These lunches will be the best food you find anywhere in Kabul.

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Home made mantu at the FES Kabul office

 

 

Bazaars

There are plenty of bazaars all over Kabul. The cool weather makes it easy to spend hours in a bazaar but the dust doesn’t help. Mandavi, is a whole sale market selling almost everything you can imagine – vegetables, fruits, clothes, shoes, motorcycles, mattresses, biscuits – from Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, Iran and China. Of course, the one thing you must buy from here are the dry fruits – go for the local produce instead of those imported from Iran.

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Dried fruits and seeds at Mandavi

 

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The legendary Kandhari Anar

If you’re looking for more contemporary’ shopping then head to the Laisa Marium bazaar in the Khair Khana locality – you can find traditional Afghan outfits here, colorful, embroidered kurtas for men and women. It’s also a great place for people watching. The Shar Nau area is great for loitering around and get posters of Afghan heroes and local handicrafts. Most of the malls including Kabul Mall and City Center are also located in the area.

 

People

By far, the most interesting thing about Kabul is it’s people. The city is rich with stories. Nearly every Afghan I have spoken to in Kabul has lived in Pakistan and speaks Urdu fluently. The people on the streets are friendly and love telling their stories – even if they are a bit exaggerated. Striking a conversation is not difficult. Kabul is a microcosm of Afghan society – Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek and the foreigners from all over the world. Take the time to visit sporting events, cafes, barber shops, beauty salons and markets and talk to people to get the real flavor of Kabul.

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Semi-final game of the first ever Afghan Premier League football tournament

Music  

Kabul has a thriving music scene – both local and foreign. There are some plenty of venues that host and groom young musicians. The French Cultural Center in Kabul, recently hosted the Sound Central Festival – an alternate music festival featuring bands from Central and South Asia and beyond.

The Venue is a space for young musicians to get together and jam. The Venue is run by Humayun Zadran, an avid music supporter working on several music related projects including ‘The Bridge’ – which currently brings Pakistani musicians to Afghanistan. If you are a rock music fan, look out for performances by Kabul Dreams. Kabul Dreams consists of young Afghan men, who are average musicians at best but rock and roll needs all the encouragement and support it can get. White City is another Kabul based rock band consisting of an Australian, a Brit and a Swede, who describe themselves as ‘rock therapy.’

 

The dust never settles in Kabul. There is a permanent slow moving haze. In October, the air is chilly and dry – dry enough to cut skin. Kabul is not an easy city – moving around the city is difficult and slow; the weather can be harsh; a woman’s laughter might offend someone on the street.   – but it is a city that will embrace you only when you begin to embrace it. I would love to return to Kabul and get to know it even better, because this was one of the hardest goodbyes I have had to say….

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Reluctant good bye

 

For more pictures from Kabul, check out my tumblr

The To-Do List for Kabul by Sundus Rasheed

The second leg of the FES Af-Pak Journalism Fellowship 2012 is due to begin in early October. In the second phase of the program, 11 Pakistani journalists will travel to Afghanistan and once again work with their Afghan counterparts on stories of mutual interest.

As we start thinking about what stories we want to do, I can’t help but want to know more and more about the magnificent yet heart-breaking city of Kabul – it’s past splendour and current attractions. However, it is not often that people think of Kabul in terms of it’s ‘attractions’ – but why not? Browsing through various travel websites and blogs has lead me to believe that Kabul is a city that’s brimming with excitement, you just have to know where to look.

So here’s my list of ‘things to do in Kabul’ – let’s see how many of these things I get around to doing:

  1. Visit the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) :

As a project of the Ministry of Education, ANIM provides free music education to young Afghans. Students who have financial difficulty and/or are earning members of their family are even given special ‘scholarships’ to make up for their loss of income. The institute was founded by and currently run by Dr. Ahmad Nasser Sarmast, a PhD in Music. I was introduced to ANIM by my very talented friend, musician and ANIM faculty member – William Harvey. Harvey is also the co-founder of the Afghan Youth Orchestra

2. Check out Chicken Street

This sounds a lot like Bohri Bazar in Karachi. All kinds of handicrafts are available here, from jewellery to carpets, ‘antique’ muskets to lapis lazuli. Most of the buyers are foreign, so prices are bound to be scaled up. I’m not sure what the verdict is on women wandering around Chicken Street. I think I am going to need a male escort – preferably a local.

3. Trek on the foodie trail

Kabul seems to be have a greater variety of restaurants than Karachi – thanks to the huge expat population in the city – Mexican, Italian, Korean, Russian, Thai, Japanese,  French, Indian, Middle Eastern and of course, the delectable Afghan cuisine itself. I am hoping to check out more local food  establishments than foreign but definitely want to see how the more ‘posh’ outlets compare with those in Pakistani cities.

4.  Visit an Afghan family home

Simple enough. You never really understand a city until you visit a home. Hopefully I can get one of my Afghans colleagues or friends to invite me to their home and meet their families and talk to them

5. Kabul nightlife

Yup. There is such a thing. Kabul has a thriving expat scene supported by well paid aid workers, journalists, diplomats and ‘contractors’. Interesting to see what it would be like to party in the time of war ( a bit like Karachi, perhaps?). The two names that keep popping up are Gandamak, established by a former British soldier turned BBC cameraman and L’Atmosphere by a French radio journalist.

Sounds like a plan! Who’s with me?