All alcoholic drinks are illegal in Afghanistan, the young Afghan journalist tells me over a Belgian style Tripel at Wong on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village. Mujib Mashal had caught me mid-Tripel at the restaurant and asked for a bottle too. It’s my favorite beer at Simpson Wong’s two-year old place, which hides the brilliant fire of its Malaysian-Chinese cuisine under deceptively divey decor. The Tripel there is rich without being too deep and, when cold cold cold, goes straight to your head. Mujib knows how to handle this kind of drink—with caution. He has only the one throughout dinner.
The reality in Kabul, of course, is that if you want a drink, all you need to do is plug into the Afghan capital’s network of underground bars and unadvertised clubs that cater to Westerners and Afghans undeterred by prohibition.
Then there are the private parties. Mujib describes a behind the scenes Kabul full of boozy dealmaking by people of every ideological stripe, including ex Taliban who have bought into the questionable transactions of the Karzai regime.
Mujib harbors hope that a combination of events—miraculous in the aggregate—may save Afghanistan from itself
I won’t say Mujib is optimistic about Afghanistan. As a freelance reporter in a war-torn country, he is a realist. But he is also aware that even the hardest of realities, for better or worse, can be disguised or transformed or subverted—just as Taliban can figure out how to become part of the regime. In spite of his journalistic objectivity, Mujib does seem to harbor a kind of nationalistic hope that a combination of events—miraculous in the aggregate—may save Afghanistan from itself and from the dire future that many see unfolding even as it is foretold: perhaps because there are now more stakeholders in the country’s post-invasion status quo; perhaps because of how Mujib came to be who he is today.
He was 13 years old when he was plucked from Kabul in 2002 to attend a summer camp run by Seeds of Peace, a now two-decade old non-profit set up to teach kids from conflict zones to make peace, not more war. Even though his family had nothing to do with the Taliban regime—his father loaded trucks for the Red Cross in Kabul—the teenage Mujib felt that Afghanistan’s sovereignty had been violated by the U.S.-led invasion in the wake of 9/11. Seeds of Peace erased that hostility—and, eventually, it helped him get into Deerfield Academy, a 200-year old prep school in Massachusetts. From there, he went on to Columbia University in New York City to study history.
Over dinner and beer at Wong, he explains to me that he had traveled to the U.S. this time to give back: soon he would be off to become a counselor at this year’s Seeds of Peace camp. It is a long way from Afghanistan, he says. Even longer because the U.S. makes it very difficult for Afghans to receive visas to enter the country. It is easier for Pakistanis, he complains, and which of the two countries has produced more terrorists?
Suffice to say, wine jello is not on dessert lists back home.
At Wong, we tuck into the restaurant’s famous duck buns, as well as shrimp fritters and the mackerel special (cooked the way Cantonese chefs prepare flounder, with scallions and hot oil). We have the peanut-butter-slathered fried cauliflower and the crispy chicken, spicy and juicy. The kitchen sends out a gift of white wine jello with sliced peaches for dessert. Suffice to say, wine jello is not on dessert lists back home.
We talk about authenticity in food and Mujib tells me about his favorite restaurant in Kabul. If Wong has imposed the look of a dive on itself, Nooruddin’s Kebab place is very much what you’d expect to see at the less-posh end of Taimani Road in the center of Kabul. It is sandwiched between a mechanics’ shop and a blacksmith’s. The entire menu is painted on Nooruddin’s glass window: meat, beans, shorba (a thick soup that you scoop up with bread) and tea.
What Mujib likes about Nooruddin is the fact that it doesn’t serve the dumbed down, punches pulled Afghan dishes that higher-priced joints do. There are no specials. No more than 10 people can sit on the mattressed floor at a time. But Mujib says the kebabs are wonderful—though you must finish your meal quickly because the owner wants to serve as many people as he can, rushing everyone in order to take the next seating as quickly as possible.
You can also get burgers in Kabul but that kind of Western fare, Mujib says, can cost $20 a pop—pretty expensive for a freelancer. Reality isn’t easy for the untethered journalist, whether in New York City or Kabul. As I say goodnight, I ask him what part of town he’s staying in, assuming it is with friends in Manhattan. But he is taking the E train deep into Queens and then a bus to his uncle’s home in a part of the borough that he knows how to get to but doesn’t know the name of. It sounds even farther away than Afghanistan, which, warmed by Tripel and a Mujib’s stories, didn’t feel so distant at all.