The Survival Guide to Kabul©

Published internationally in July 2003 as Kabul: The Bradt Mini Guide.

First published in Kabul in September 2002 as a pamphlet.



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Changing Kabul?

July 15 2003



By Dominic Medley, co-author of The Survival Guide to Kabul.


This article was published in the first issue of the Afghan Monitor, July 15 2003. It was also published in the Baghdad Bulletin.



Mobile phone ringtones are the new sound on the streets of Kabul. The Lambada tone is particularly popular, annoyingly so. The James Bond theme tune is moving up the Top Ten ladder.


Afghans are relishing new freedoms like other post war countries: everyone wants communications. Three mobile phone networks could be up and running soon. But the Afghans still have a few problems with mobile phone usage. They’re too polite and friendly. Their extensive greetings to each other when they meet go on for minutes. So they’ll need to adapt these greetings when speaking on the phone. Otherwise they’ll keep greeting each other over and over again getting cut off after 30 seconds each time.


Everyone also wants to travel. So the streets are as clogged as the mobile phone network. There might be as many as 40,000 taxis in Kabul. New cars continue to be seen on the streets – the yellow Mazda MX5, the stretched Mercedes limo, the flashy Land Cruisers (and that’s not counting the cars of the international organisations).


The Toyota Corolla drivers have to be the worst drivers in the city. Every car crash usually involves a Corolla. It’s worth learning a few choice words in Dari to shout at them. Even twelve year olds can drive in Kabul. Put anyone behind an automatic car here and they’ll be off.


Internet cafes are springing up. The IT Afghan whiz kids from Pakistan have moved in. Hourly charges at the cafes are beyond the reach of most Afghans. But the cafes are still full with youngsters surfing for photo of their favourite Indian Bollywood film stars.


Radio Arman on 98.1FM is pumping out Western, Indian, Iranian and Afghan music across the city. The radio station gets some 400 letters a day, sometimes 1500 phone calls a day. Radio TV Afghanistan has criticised the station for lowering standards. But the whole city is listening to Arman, which means hope. The letters people write to the DJs are usually accompanied by a postcard of an Indian film or pop star with a message such as “I don’t know who she is but please play a song by her”.


In February last year the Faisal Guesthouse in Wazir Akbar Khan had a steady diet of soup, chicken, chips and rice, 7 days a week, for 6 weeks. The house boy Najibullah was always proud to announce “dinner tonight soup, chicken, chips and rice.” Breakfast was a steady diet of two fried eggs. Lessons on how to cook omelette never bore fruit. But two Italian journalists had the right idea then. Their heavy silver case, supposedly full of equipment was full of pasta and other home delights. Alberto the journalist let the cameraman cook; “he’s a better cook than a cameraman!” Happy days.


Now the soup, chicken and chips has moved on. It’s possible to eat anything you want in the city now. In June 2002 the curfew was still at 10pm, and the Golden Lotus restaurant had just reopened. Foreign agency cars were always outside the Herat and Marco Polo restaurants. Now they’re never seen there. The Lai Thai and German restaurants have stolen the market.


Shahre Naw is buzzing. Thursday night is like a Friday night west of Suez. Pizzeria Milano and Chief Burger are packed.

Parties rage across the city. The Afghans are the busiest partygoers. Weddings and birthdays are celebrated enthusiastically, complete with dancing and alcohol. And of course the Lambada.


Even last October TV Afghanistan was showing George Michael’s Faith video and Modern Talking music videos after the news. At the same time the debate raged over women appearing on television and whether Indian films should be broadcast. But everybody has seen the blockbuster film Titanic several times, though the Cinema Park relented from showing it showing it last year for being too erotic. Lenordo de Caprico hairstyles are popular, the market in the Kabul River is known as the Titanic market (for being flooded, when it rains), buses are called Titanic. A Mullah once told his Friday gathering that they would all end up as the passengers did on the Titanic if they didn’t behave properly.


And all this was impossible more than a year ago; all this didn’t happen for five years under Taliban rule.


The changes, the music, the cars, the Lambaba, of course, shows you something about the ability of the Afghans to change, and their ability to change fast.


Some people will tell you to take things a step at a time, “this is Afghanistan”. But ordinary people seem to be voting with their feet and moving their city forward themselves.


That speed can be embarrassing at times. The road outside the old UNAMA Compound A was only repaired when the UN vacated the compound. Obvious reconstruction in the city has generally been slow, except perhaps in Wazir Akbar Khan where private houses were quickly spruced up last year in time for the $10,000 a month rents. But the roads in WAK are just as bad.


Kabul used to be a real cosmopolitan city, more than 15 years ago. Ahmed Rashid’s article in “Kabul – The Bradt Mini Guide” (the successor to the well know Survival Guide to Kabul) paints a picture of street cafes and lively discussion outside the Khyber restaurant in Pashtunistan Sqaure.


Kabul may yet regain that cosmo past.


The Hotel Kabul is being renovated by the Aga Khan group. It promises a five star hotel similar to the Islamabad Serena Hotel. The redevelopment reveals plans for a pedestrian area from Pashtunistan Square, past Da Afghanistan Bank up to the hotel.


Café culture might just return. Though who knows how President Karzai’s US security guards behind the brown containers opposite the Hotel Kabul will react to café goers in the street in front of them.


Security is always a concern in the city but perhaps too hyped up. There are so many security and safety gurus. Most seem to take the view that it is better to be locked down in guesthouse, land cruiser, office, land cruiser and guesthouse rather than venture out.


Yes there have been serious attacks on Afghans and internationals. 30 people were killed outside the Hotel Spinzar in September in 2002, 4 Germans with ISAF were killed in June 2003. There are always reports of bombs coming into the city.


Perhaps it is still too early for international staff to venture out en masse but there have never been any reports of drive by shootings of internationals. One criticism of internationals in Kabul from the Afghans is that we don’t engage enough with the local population.


Outside Kabul life is very different. People are starving and fighting is still continuing near Herat, Mazar, Kandahar and Khost. So perhaps it is too much to expect massive reconstruction in the capital city when so many people are still struggling to survive.


The struggle has come into the city. There are more and more beggars in Kabul. People with appalling disabilities and destitute women needing every kind of baksheesh frequent the traffic jams and major international hangouts.


There’s a long way to go for huge change in Kabul. All the city services are just struggling to cope with the number of people who have returned and who are now working here.


Tourists have been spotted. Not in planeloads but in small numbers from Japan, Australia, the UK and elsewhere visitors are coming to have a look. Some are remembering the happy days of the coach trip from Dusseldorf  (that coach is probably still driving around Kabul even today). Others are coming to get a look at this famous city for this first time.


Kabul is changing. The political change may be slow and tense. The international aid may be slow. But even without this the Kabulis have started moving their city forward again. They’ve had enough 23 years of wreckage.


كابل، افغانستان

The Survival Guide to Kabul©