On my first night in Kandahar my Afghan hosts wanted to take me out to dinner. But in Kandahar that is almost impossible. There are almost no restaurants, except for kebab cafes frequented by men, where women could not be seen.
However, there was one possibility, a new Pakistani restaurant called Qureshi Usmaniya that has recently opened in a very controversial gated housing complex built by President Hamid Karzai’s brother Mahmoud on land he got dirt cheap from the city. Mahmoud Karzai has so far made a tidy profit that folks here say totals $900 million, but that’s another story. Suffice it to say that, in a city where many are dirt poor, but smuggling, western military and aid projects -and opium - fuel a cohort of superrich, the complex contains many mega-mansions that extend for the equivalent of a city block.
But back to the restaurant, a garish concrete box lit up by neon lights. Since the party contained two men, two women (with headscarves but not burkas) and an 18 month old toddler, we were quickly ushered into the “family room”, where a heavy curtain was drawn and window shades pulled to avoid any glimpse of the ladies by prying male eyes.
The family room, however, was exceedingly hot, and off it was a filthy bathroom. The walls were pink with sparkles, the tables blue, and the plastic chairs green. My progressive Afghan hosts soon insisted that we be moved to the main dining room. The manager did so, but complained that the presence of women would scare away his business, and looked disapprovingly at the toddler’s bare arms, showing through a dress sent by her Afghan-American aunt in Virginia. Even at 19 months, girls around here are usually covered.
Sure enough, two men sitting on a raised platform and conversing took a look at our party and left. They needn’t have bothered, since the lights soon went out – then on – then out again, in a city where electricity is sporadic and depends on generators. My host took one look – when the lights were on – at the cutlery, and insisted it be rewashed, noting that this Pakistani-owned restaurant (Kandahar is only 90 minutes from the Pakistani border) needed better standards.
But the kebab was good, and the various plates of rice reflected both the Pakistani and Iranian influences on Afghanistan. And Zara the toddler, bare-armed, had a great time.