The Guardian, August 31, 2010
Getting drunk in Kabul bars? Pass the sick bag
The expat drinking scene of journalists and diplomats in Afghanistan's capital is the height of disrespectful colonialism
By Seema Jilani
"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.
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.
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."
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. 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
Maybe it is true what Virginia Woolf said: "On the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points."
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