2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

It’s Open Mic Night at a Speakeasy in Afghanistan

Photo by: Step

It’s Open Mic Night at a Speakeasy in Afghanistan

Vodka in Kabul

There are a couple of spies sitting off to the side by the makeshift stage in a cozy bar: clean shaven, slick-backed hair, Western clothes, and expensive leather shoes that aren’t covered in Kabul’s signature brown mud. People start to shuffle in, Afghans in traditional clothes, journalists in every shade of khaki and earth toned utility shirts, aid workers in button up-dress shirts, and students dressed in a mix of traditional and Western clothing.

Bars in Afghanistan are hidden inside a spiderweb of unmarked streets and 12-foot-high blast walls adorned with razor wire. The bar, like most, is in a residential area, down a curved road with open sewers on either side. The constant hum of a generator cranking through the night fills the air. Inside, it’s dark. Couches lean against walls covered in a mix of old rock ‘n’ roll posters, yellowed photographs of Afghanistan, and paintings by local artisans. There’s music playing over cracked speakers, something soft, something by Coldplay. I can’t make out the song. Alcohol is prohibited in Afghanistan in the same way that smuggling is illegal and bribery non-existent: everyone turns a blind eye but sticks out an open palm. Always carry extra U.S. dollars. I order a vodka neat.

Back to the spies; they’re leaning in over the table deep in conversation. The journalists are sitting around another table, lighting cigarettes and laughing. A few hours ago there was an explosion outside the diplomatic district, some small-arms fire, but it was quickly dealt with. The journalists reported on it, tomorrow the story will be buried in the back of the international section in most major newspapers. The aid workers sit at another table whining about office politics and about their supervisors, which coworkers they’d like to date and what they were doing for the weekend. A waiter in all black comes to take their orders. Slim and baby faced, he doesn’t smile or look up from his notepad.

My drink arrives and I feel it wash over me. More people start to shuffle in. Expats, smugglers, and professional peace-makers who are here to try out the latest and greatest in sustainable development, gender equality, and nation building all walk through and start to plop down on the lush couches. Dust and cigarette smoke fill the room. Outside of the bar, ISIS, Taliban, IEDs, VBIED (Vehicle Borne, because a bomb on wheels keeps everyone on their toes) have taken their toll. Inside the bar the music stops. People start to cheer. It’s open mic night. The waiter saunters to the journalists with their drinks.

An Afghan takes the stage with a guitar and plays a traditional Pashtun song. There is passion and longing in his voice. The Afghans in the room sway and sing as loud as they can. Goosebumps roll over my arms in waves. I don’t understand the words, but he was proud and true. The song ends. The crowd cheers. A group of expats gets up and starts to jam on the old instruments that are on stage.

Tomorrow, another explosion will go off; the students will hope it’s not along their route to school and the journalists will rush to the scene and document the destruction. Tomorrow is looming and uncertain, but tonight there is a sliver of Afghanistan in this bar relaxing and enjoying a small respite from the war outside. The spies leave. A couple slow dances by the bar. A bottle of vodka has appeared on the journalists’ table. And in a small bar, in a place like no other, the band plays on.

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