The most striking thing about Kabul is how normal it seems. Last week, on a bright sunny Friday, it felt like any Capital on holiday. Families were picnicking by the lake at Kargah, young boys practising football at Paghman, their parents lounging under trees savouring kebabs, with loud music blaring from all sides. The ghosts of the Taliban and the earlier Soviet occupation have been laid to rest.
The security is obvious, even intrusive, but Afghans have learnt to live with it. They don’t notice the enormous concrete blocks that abruptly cut off roads and block access to embassies, ministries and the Presidential Palace. Instead, they talk about the new construction — an unfinished, 600-room hotel called Gul Bahar is the pride of the city — and the fancy glass- and steel- fronted supermarkets.
“Don’t let your eyes mislead you”, my taxi driver explained. Najaf, a Shia Hazara born in Kabul, is proud to call himself Afghan. He was referring to the rolls of concertina barbed wire visible everywhere. “Life is again good. The only problem is it’s expensive. But isn’t that the case in India also?”
What I like about the Serena is its good taste. There are very few hotels that merit a similar compliment — the Claridges in London, the Crillon in Paris, the Principe di Savoia in Milan and, perhaps, the Pierre in New York. At least in its appearance the Serena is as good.
My only complaint is the absence of alcohol. Waiters stare blankly if you ask for a beer or wine. Oddly enough, I thought I spotted a can of lager in my room minibar. It turned out to be non-alcoholic.
Elsewhere in Kabul, alcohol is available. I’m told there are German, Italian and French restaurants where it’s served, and Najaf claims that Afghans, who have easy access to it, have a small but noticeable drink problem. So what was the matter with the Serena?
“The Aga Khan.” It was a Germanic-looking fellow diner at the next table of the coffee shop. “He owns this place. That’s why there’s no alcohol. But guess what? He loves a drink himself!”
I’ve never seen the sort of security that protects Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s President. I was in Kabul to interview him. The date and time had been fixed by his office. We passed through four different security checks before we even got to the Palace. There were X-rays, sniffer dogs, physical checks and full body searches. The last included fingers pushed under my collar, into my shoes and around my trouser turn-ups. Even the ends of my shoes were pinched — in case, Reid-like, I had a bomb at the tip of my toes.
We did two interviews with Mr Karzai. The second was at 8 am. Because of the security, we reached the Palace at 6:30. As I stood waiting to enter, five sniffer-dog teams searched the garden and every room.
“It happens every day.” His deputy press secretary sounded resigned. “We can’t take a risk with His Excellency’s life.”
The biggest surprise is Afghanistan’s growing fascination for cricket. As I drove to Kargah I saw boys playing in the fields. “It’s very popular,” Najaf said. But I only realised how accurate he was when, the next morning, I read the leader in Afghanistan Outlook, one of the two English dailies.
On May 23, Afghanistan scored its first victory in the fifth division of the ICC World Cricket League. They beat Japan by 92 runs. That was enough for the paper to proclaim ’Afghanistan toward Cricket World Cup 2011’.
Frankly, I wish them luck. After Harbhajan Singh, we can’t claim cricket has made gentlemen of us in India. But if the game can calm the restless Afghan spirit, it will have tamed this nation.
“This is do or die,” says Taj Malik, the Afghan cricket coach, appearing to contradict me. “I will throw myself in the ocean if we lose.”
Fortunately, that’s several thousand miles away. Taj could still end up a World Cup-winning coach.