By Aunohita Mojumdar
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
The capital of Afghanistan is a tough place to start and run a restaurant but a handful of foreign women are doing just that. For one, Kabul is the latest in a series of post-conflict cities where she has catered to the nomadic "U.N. crowd."
KABUL, Afghanistan (WOMENSENEWS)--For restaurateurs, the unnerving routine of rocket attacks and suicide bombings in Afghanistan's capital city means that business often depends on that week's security advisory.
Saska Galic, for instance, has just thrown out all the duck in her freezer. The customers just didn't show.
But the 51-year-old Croatian shrugs it off, saying she isn't looking to make an enormous profit. "I just like to make people happy."
Kabul is relatively stable compared to other parts of Afghanistan, boasting amenities such as health care, education, transportation, entertainment and even the semblance of a functioning government.
A hungry crowd of ex-pats meanwhile has fueled an explosion of restaurants serving cuisines from all over the world: Italian, Lebanese, Chinese, Indian, French, Mexican, German, Filipino, Korean, Azerbaijani, even Tex-Mex. Now about several dozen restaurants are serving meals and each month sees the opening of yet another.
But it's not an easy place to run a restaurant.
Hamid Karzai's government struggles with a variety of factions displaced by the power restructuring six years ago, from a resurgent Taliban to resurgent warlords. And the city still has plenty of war scars. Streets are potholed. Electricity often dips to two hours every fourth day, disrupting refrigeration. Most food is imported.
To attract foreigners, entrepreneurs must meet United Nations security specifications that turn a business into a small fortress, with armed guards at the doors and coils of barbed wire in the yards.
Add the counter-cultural aspect of women in authority in Afghanistan and foreign women owning and running restaurants seems like a recipe for disaster.
But in a sector dominated by men Galic and a handful of others are nonetheless participating in the small boom that is one of the few signs of private enterprise daring the city's business and political risks.
For Lalitha Thongngamkam, Kabul's chaos is a prerequisite.
Thongngamkam, a Thai in her 50s, has followed the "U.N. crowd" from one war-torn country to the next, exploiting a frontier niche. Before Kabul there was Kosovo. Before that Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda and East Timor.
In each place she operated a restaurant for as long as the aid workers lasted. When the political situation settles down the competition picks up, the international community moves on and she follows suit.
In 2003 when she set up her restaurant, Lai Thai, it was the only high-security restaurant catering to Kabul's foreign influx. Soaked in the fragrance of lemon grass and coconut milk, it was an ideal oasis, a perfect sliver of all that the city was not. Tables had to be reserved.
Business is slower now. But she hopes a place she just opened this week inside the NATO military headquarters and another opened inside a second NATO compound in May 2005 will make up for it.
Galic's restaurant, Zadar, is named after her hometown. Behind high walls and armed guards, outdoor tables sprawl over a lawn and tables covered in white linen and Croatian dishware sit inside. Along with food she doles out equal portions of advice about what to eat and what not to order because it isn't of the best quality that day.
Galic, who came to Kabul four years ago for a better paying job in telecommunications so her daughter could enroll in the Royal College of Music in London, opened the restaurant in 2004 and built it up entirely on her own. She still works at the telecom company in the morning, then heads to the restaurant from four to midnight to serve her evening customers.
She says her restaurant draws a loyal base of customers, but she is just managing to survive and is not in it for the money.
"I have always cooked as a wife and mother and I like to cook," says the mother of two grown children. "I like to make people happy."
Last year Gay Le Clerc helped open the Kabul Coffee House, a colorful, cozy place open from morning into late evening that seats about 40 and combines a breakfast menu with Mexican fast food.
Le Clerc and her Afghan husband had run a cafe in Reno, Nev., but when they moved to Kabul in 2002, another wasn't on the agenda. Hoping to rebuild the country, they worked on projects ranging from helping women develop businesses to restoring local government.
But when Le Clerc's friend Deborah Rodriguez, author of "Kabul Beauty School," suggested they open a coffee house together, she felt it was a good idea that could provide two things missing in the city: good coffee and a comfortable place for women to be.
Published this year, Rodriguez's bestselling book stirred controversy. She was accused of making money off the girls who worked in her hair salon and endangering their lives. Her new wealth also posed a threat to her, and she left the country soon after returning from a book promotion tour in the United States. Since then Le Clerc has been sole owner of the coffee house.
Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, a development consultant, calls it her regular hangout. "They have Internet and great coffee and nobody bothers you . . . It's kind of a focal point for the aid community and you can chill out alone but also run into people you need to meet."
Le Clerc, in her mid-50s, imports all her coffee from Dubai, where she makes frequent stocking-up visits. "I can't get a good supply of fresh milk here so I am forced to concede and use packaged milk with the coffee," she says.
On a brighter note, she says the business is not as heavily taxed or regulated as in the United States. But there are gunmen; former groups of militia yet to be disarmed who occasionally shake owners down. "Businesses can experience unregulated tax-collection efforts," she says.
Sometimes the unwanted visits are from officials.
Alcohol is banned by the Afghan constitution but restaurants can apply for a license to serve it to foreigners. The legal gray area can cause police officials to raid restaurants on the pretext that Afghans are being served.
Britta Petersen is the German co-owner of Sufi, which serves traditional Afghan fare of kebabs, rice pilaf, tender lamb, steamed dumplings and lentils.
She recounts how a local commander strolled in every other night to eat with his guards, expecting a free meal on the grounds that he was a local commander.
Instead of confronting him she says her Afghan staff handled it in a traditional way. They invited him for a meal and established a relationship. After that, the commander came less frequently and was less demanding when he did.
To start the restaurant in 2004 Petersen, who is 41, and her business partner, Sultan Karimi, an Afghan German, scoured the markets of Kabul for traditional woodwork and textiles.
They say it was difficult finding Afghan cooks after decades of war and displacement. People had moved around, recipes were lost and ingredients disappeared from the market. But they did manage to find an older cook who knew the secrets.
Petersen, who is also a media consultant, moved to Delhi last year but comes back every few months to check on things.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian journalist who is currently based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for 17 years and she has covered the Kashmir conflict and post-conflict development in Punjab extensively.
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