The nearly naked swimmers and the pounding disco music might have left the impression that Wednesday night’s crowd at the storied UN guesthouse bar was a routine gathering of expats blowing off steam in this war-weary town.
But the ruckus and revelry were a swan song for the country’s oldest watering hole, Casablanca Rick’s Bar, the only place in Afghanistan where the booze flowed generously during the dogmatic years of Taliban rule.
The privately owned guesthouse has been used primarily, and at times exclusively, by UN staff. But it has fallen on hard times, and soon a developer will take over the property.
Early Thursday, as the crowd finally began to fade, Abdul Hamid, Afghanistan’s unofficial dean of bartending, served one last round. It marked the end of an establishment that since the late 1970s had served countless spies, diplomats and journalists during decades of war and intrigue. “You know those foreigners,” Hamid said. “They like to enjoy their drinks. It’s important for their relationships and their work.”
Hamid landed his job at the bar in 1987. Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed communists were in power then, the customer base was heavily Russian and the drink of choice was vodka.
There were a handful of other pubs at hotels in Kabul, but the UN bar was the main haunt for people seeking to trade in gossip, political chatter and secrets.
There were dozens of embassies in Kabul back then, and the bar’s patrons were a sophisticated, genteel bunch. As the city descended into war and the diplomatic community became tiny, the bar became even more of a magnet.
“It wasn’t cool, it wasn’t funky; at a glance there were so many things wrong with it,” said Ana Kravic, who ran the compound from 2007 to early 2009. “But if you took the time to notice, you were struck by an ageless, slightly decadent atmosphere unlike any other in the city. It was the Casablanca Rick’s Bar of Kabul for many years.”
During his last night pouring drinks, Hamid didn’t seem forlorn. He danced, snapped his fingers to the beat of the music and kept beer cans crackling and wine glasses full.
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