L’Atmosphere, a French restaurant hidden in a small dusty alley in Kabul, is forced to close by the government, due to a tax failure. I have a personal experience with this restaurant. In 2006, the first day of my arrival in Afghanistan, an Indonesian friend of mine took me to the restaurant to watch the opening match of the World Cup soccer championship. I was not interested to watch World Cup, but as he said that it was a public place with giant screen – which he supposed to make watching football much more interesting, I was thinking of a giant screen in the middle of an open field where a crowd of turbaned Afghan men cheered and supporting their favorite teams.
I accepted the invitation.
But I was surprised to come to the place. No turbans, no burqas. In fact there is a huge notice in the entrance, stating “Afghan citizens are not allowed to enter”. It looks like a night club in my eyes. Crowded by happy expat community spending their colorful night with glasses of alcohol and talking about life and work, some expensive European food on plates was served on dining table, and a giant screen was broadcasting the opening of World Cup. There was a swimming pool as well. Nobody was swimming but I was told on hot summer Fridays, the place became another Hawaii in the middle of dusty Kabul.
As this restaurant was only open to non-Afghans, this place became an exclusive expat place for hanging around. Small discussions and smiles were exchanged while enjoying the lively atmosphere accompanied by some glasses of cocktails. The Afghans, the garcons and bartenders, spoke good English and it seemed they were trained well. It was a ‘hidden paradise’ for the Kabul expat community, and as its name said, it was indeed atmospheric.
I was actually very much surprised to see that kind of place to exist in Kabul. In fact, in 2003 when I visited the country, I have never expected this kind of luxurious bar to be exist here, even if that was only for foreigners. It seemed that for those expat workers in NGOs, life in Kabul was so much limited to their own office area (due to high risk of going out), thus a place like this was necessary. Nevertheless to say, it was a good business. The menu price was high, and alcohol was as well much pricier than the market price. But indeed it was the ‘atmosphere’ that L’Atmosphere offered.
I was not a regular visitor of this place, but I knew many of friends who were. And it was shocking news for many foreigners that the restaurant was closed since last Saturday (2/6). The rumor, but was confirmed by the restaurant owner, was because the Afghan Ministry of Finance charged US$ 500,000 income tax, which for the owner was unjust claim. He said that he always fulfilled his tax obligation on time, and it was out of the expectation this huge amount of scam. The owner said his business had so many problems: from regular curfews, unreliable stock of alcohol, and security situations in Kabul. The recent kidnapping of an Italian woman in Afghanistan was the last issue which made his restaurant deserted.
To show his protest, the owner also performed a hunger strike for two days, which he then stopped as he was trying to make another strategy to deal with Afghan officials. It was not the first expatriate oriented business which was closed in Kabul. The popular Samarkand was closed earlier as well. Whether it was another tactics from Afghan government to make the country ‘clean’ from alcohol, or just to extort money from small-scaled business, I don’t know exactly.
About the hunger strike, I personally thought it was of not so much sense. While thousands of children are still living in hunger and earning one dollar or two for the whole day work from the streets, a French businessman is doing the same to protest the government. Hunger strike, for busy Afghan government, had not much sense, as hunger of millions of its citizens was enough a headache. Interestingly, at the same day, I also heard a ‘mute strike’ from supporters of Malalai Joya, a female parliament member, in Herat. The demonstrators refused to talk anything to anybody. It was a strange strike in Afghanistan, indeed.
Why these strike? I learnt that Mahatma Gandhi also started peaceful strike, which was called as hartal, to end colonial period in his homeland. The strike supported by millions of Indians was a giant leap in Indian struggle towards its independence and equality. Strike was also popular method of demonstrations in Pakistan nowadays, where all shops were closed and public transports virtually disappeared when a demonstration took place, and gave the government enough headaches.
And now we had already hunger strike and mute strike in Afghanistan.