KABUL—In some ways, being an “international” in Kabul is one of the last great colonial adventures, complete with armed guards, drivers and the occasional attack.
But like that word “international”—no one says “expat” anymore—it’s a colonial adventure with a postmodern twist. “Internationals”—the term used by the U.N. and other non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) to describe staff from overseas—are apt to be politically liberal, highly educated and quirky.
Perhaps even a bit nerdy. Kabul is blessedly free of garden-variety neurotics—hypochondriacs and worrywarts don’t even think of coming here—but it’s hard to think of many other capitals where a weekly “quiz night” at a pizzeria is a social highlight, drawing 80 to 100 competitors. (One of the quizzes had a category called “Porn Star or Pony,” where contestants had to guess whether the names belonged to My Little Pony products or second-string porn stars. Heart Throb and Chocolate Delight, in case you were wondering, are ponies.) And one memorable dinner party revolved around a reading of The Taming of the Shrew, reminiscent of the amateur theatricals of 1946 Kabul life as portrayed in James Michener’s Caravans.
Social life in Kabul has evolved with economic development: some say for the better, and some say for the worse. In 2002—the satellite-phone-only, carry-in-all-the-cash-you-need stage—foreigners were a rough-and-ready lot, comprising disarmament and demining experts, well-diggers, road-builders and a few hardy entrepreneurs. They were a transient, overwhelmingly male group whose idea of social life was slinging back beers at the only bar in town (and, rumor had it, frequenting the brothels masquerading as Chinese restaurants). As one young American woman who worked on disarmament said, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”
By 2003, the technocrats and diaspora Afghans were arriving, along with mobile-phone service, bank branches, restaurants that weren’t brothels and guesthouses with speedy Internet access. By then, there were enough women to have a party scene—painfully frat-party-like, with a dizzyingly high male-to-female ratio and the objective of getting as drunk as possible while listening to very loud music.
Now, in 2006, businesses of all kinds are thriving in Kabul and a half-dozen provincial cities, many financed by the diaspora Afghans, and life in Kabul can be enough like normal life in the West—with dinner parties, foreign films, an annual golf tournament and even a benefit or two—to attract, well, more normal Westerners.
A recent American arrival is Victoria Longo, a pretty 26-year-old George Washington University graduate working for AISA, Afghanistan’s private-sector investment-promotion organization. “You wouldn’t imagine such a thriving social scene in a place like Kabul, but it exists,” said Ms. Longo. “You meet a lot of adventurous types, and eccentricity is the norm.”
“This is college for eternity,” countered Sarah Takesh, Columbia ’95, a vivacious Iranian-American designer behind the local apparel company Tarsian & Blinkley. “People become addicted to the cozy insularity of life here. They say they’re fed up and they leave—and then they come back six months later.” Ms. Takesh, who is a descendent of the Qajar dynasty of Iran, moved to Afghanistan in July 2003. Her company includes a small semi-couture business aimed at internationals.
Diaspora Afghans—those returned from overseas—are at the top of the heap in the internationals’ Kabul. One prominent local businessman, Saad Mohseni, who describes himself as an “Afghan-Australian,” pointed out that the ministers of finance, communications, commerce, urban development, foreign affairs and defense are all diaspora Afghans, as is the governor of the central bank and the mayor of Kabul.
What’s the difference between a diaspora Afghan and an international?
“An international, to me, is someone who will leave someday,” said Suleman Fatimie, the 26-year-old vice president of AISA. Mr. Fatimie, the holder of an M.B.A. from the United Kingdom, was raised in Egypt, Pakistan and London and returned to Afghanistan in 2003. He considers himself an unhyphenated Afghan, and here to stay.
Afghan nationals without foreign passports are not allowed to drink—think Islamic Republic of Afghanistan—and so, whether they like it or not, they are cut off from the internationals’ restaurant scene, which has thrived while the government turns a blind eye to alcohol sales as long as nationals are not served. The hippest joint in town since it opened in August 2004 is the French-run L’Atmosphere, which sits in a very large garden where bunnies and cats frolic during daylight hours.
On summer nights, as many as a hundred internationals sip French wine or mixed drinks around the pool; in fall or spring, they gather around the fire pit. It’s the most pickup-y place in Kabul, especially on Thursday and Friday nights. (Afghan government and private offices have Fridays off, while some American firms offer Saturday off as well. Sunday is a normal workday for everyone.)
But you never lose the sense that you’re in an Islamic country. For instance, it is not done for women to bare their legs. A cynic might say they don’t need to do so to win male attention, the male-female ratio being what it is. While most international men wear business suits to work, a dress code for international women has evolved: a pants suit with a jacket halfway down to the knees for work and, at night, a long tunic over jeans. Shoes tend toward the basic, given Kabul’s dirty, unpaved streets.
“I started bringing over my real shoe collection—Sigerson Morrison, Marni, Sonia Rykiel and so on,” said Ms. Takesh. “I keep them in little bags in my closet and look at them every once in a while. I wear sad sandals, a $20 tunic and no makeup most days of the week—but it’s comforting to know that they are there.”
A little more skin is shown at dinners and parties in the large private houses rented by groups of foreigners. In Kabul, your house and your job are your social destiny, and the two often overlap. For security reasons, many employers require residence in a designated guesthouse. And because many people’s jobs provide drivers during work hours only, nighttime socializing tends to take place among clusters of housemates.
Naturally, as with college sorority and fraternity houses, there are more and less fashionable houses. Two English-speaking clusters, known for their well-connected residents, are the large compound where Ms. Takesh lives with eight others, and Lisa Pinsley’s five-person house.
A graduate of Deerfield Academy and Harvard (’97) and a quiet, regal beauty, Ms. Pinsley shares a three-story 60’s-style bungalow and its spacious garden with the Australian filmmaker Sophie Barry, often named one of the “coolest girls in Kabul”; the stylish, petite Canadian brunette Kate Khamsi, Harvard ’95, one of Kabul’s most social; and two others.
Ms. Khamsi, a half-Iranian, half-Irish-Canadian lawyer who is a direct descendent of Muhammad on her father’s side, arrived in December 2005 after working for almost two years in East Timor. “In Kabul, I associate with a broader cross-section of society than I do at home,” she said. “In New York, I hang out mainly with other young professionals and Ivy League graduates. I didn’t know anyone in the Army. Here, by necessity, you’re thrown into a more diverse group.”
Diversity is relative, of course. The “international” world is highly artificial, with loads of journalists but almost no artists, musicians or filmmakers; a good number of Ph.D.’s in economics, but few in literature. It’s mainly Caucasian, and skews toward the Ivy League for Americans, and Eton and similar schools for Brits.
But in sharp contrast to social life in New York, personal wealth is less important here than access to other people’s money. Being the Aga Khan’s rep has more social cachet locally than having $50 million of your own, and there are no hedge-fund kings—or hedge funds—here anyway.
One of the more chic recent parties was the 30th birthday of Holly Ritchie, a slim, pretty English blonde who works for an N.G.O., at her home. Among the guests sampling the buffet from a local Lebanese restaurant was fellow Brit Rory Stewart, the very thin Old Etonian founder of the local Turquoise Mountain Foundation (preserving traditional Afghan building techniques) and best-selling author of The Places in Between.
Ms. Ritchie, who arrived in Afghanistan in 2004 after receiving a master’s in international development, said: “Ever since I saw Indiana Jones, I wanted to be an archaeologist or do something where I would experience other places and their realities. From 13, I knew I wanted to work in developing countries, and if you are British, Afghanistan above all will always hold a certain challenge and fascination.”
If she’d only known about quiz night.