James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

The Famed Parisian Café Culture, Now Available in Kabul

Photo by: Qais Alamdar.

The Famed Parisian Café Culture, Now Available in Kabul

Coconut cookies in Kabul

The Slice Bakery opened while I was briefly living in Istanbul, but even in Turkey, I heard that it had become a gathering point for young people in Kabul.

Visitors to Istanbul from Kabul would talk about meetings and debates over coffee and pastries—Turkish milk tea, brownies, coconut cookies or a take on our traditional Afghan salty biscuits—at Slice.

When I moved back to Kabul in March, Slice was one of the first places I visited. I had to see if it lived up to its reputation.

The first time I went in, seeing the wood and glass tables full of young people—some in traditional Afghan piran tomban, others in suits and ties or distressed jeans and crisp leather jackets—it seemed that it was indeed the Afghan capital’s new hotspot.

More importantly, this wasn’t a high-priced establishment, tucked away in an unmarked building in a side street of a residential area catering to foreigners and rich Afghans. The bright yellow sign was visible from across the busy street in Shahr-e Naw, Kabul’s commercial hub.

I’ve been to the café countless times, but one evening in early May proved to me why this place stood out among the glut of restaurants and cafes that pop up each day in Kabul.

At the time, people all over Kabul were talking about the imminent return of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former anti-Soviet commander and now leader of the nation’s second-largest armed opposition movement, who had just made peace with the central government after more than two decades in hiding.

Of course, people were talking about it at Slice, too. As soon as I ordered my latte and coconut cookies, my friends called me over to their table to discuss the return of a man who—along with rival commanders—had been responsible for the destruction of Kabul and thousands of deaths in the 1990s.

These young men, many of whom were too young to have any direct memory of the thousands of rockets Hekmatyar and his rivals rained over the city, were discussing his return over their cups of “Afghano” coffee, saffron-infused lattes, espressos, and green teas.

These debates were a sign of how far Kabul had come since the time Hekmatyar and his rivals were destroying the city. From the rise of communism in the late 1970s and until the U.S.-led intervention of 2001, Afghanistan was ruled by a series of communists, warlords, and the Taliban, whose policies made the expression of dissent extremely difficult, if not illegal. The free discussion among Afghans with different viewpoints—some who welcomed Hekmatyar’s return, others resigned to the fact that warlords always win, and those who refused to accept a man known as the “butcher of Kabul”—could almost, I thought, resemble the famous café debate culture of Paris or Beirut.

“Slice is what Kabul could become if everyone just left us alone,” said an Afghan-American documentary filmmaker, who had been visiting from her home in Brooklyn. One of the waiters put it more simply to a European journalist: “Slice is a symbol of what young Afghans want their country to be.”

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