In the winter of 1979, shortly before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, my family went on holiday in Kabul. We were living in Pakistan at the time and, even though my English grandmother was visiting, my father wanted an adventure. So we piled into our old white Datsun, drove past the pine trees and boulders of Pakistan’s northwestern tribal region, crossed the border at the Khyber Pass without plunging over its precipices, and wound our way into Kabul. My father wanted to stay at the German guesthouse near Chicken Street. His plan was to drink Pilsner, eat a few sausages, get back in the car, and hotfoot it to Tajikistan and then back to Karachi.
Good plan, poor execution. First, it was winter. I have never been in a winter as miserable as Afghanistan’s. You go to bed wearing gloves and still wake up frozen. And it snows—great sheets of it. Enough to make an ancient white Datsun get stuck on its way to Tajikistan and have to beetle back to Kabul in surrender. Second, a war was coming. Large parts of the countryside had rebelled against Afghanistan’s Marxist-led government; in Herat, thousands were dead. But that didn’t affect us much. The incident that really foiled our plans was my grandmother and her upset stomach. It started churning and wouldn’t stop.
There was only one thing for an elderly English lady with a delicate tummy to do: check into the InterContinental. Perched on a hill outside Kabul, the hotel was white and spruce and shiny. It was the kind of place you could eat steak with maître d’hotel butter (all expensive Third World hotels then served steak with this herb butter, made with minced parsley, lemon juice and pepper), drink brandy and listen to tinkling piano music in the lobby. The women wore chignons and danced round in chic knee-length skirts. It didn’t matter that the lobby was full of Russians lurking about in trilby hats and overcoats. The hotel was clean and smart.
It was certainly too posh for me and my grubby brother, and we went back to throwing snowballs at each other in front of our modest guesthouse once our grandmother was cloistered away. Our bed & breakfast, in contrast, was a faux Hansel and Gretel gingerbread house with temperamental heating and horrible taxidermy on the walls. At least my parents didn’t have to worry about us embarrassing them here.
At the InterContinental, by far the best hotel in Afghanistan, my grandmother was free of such worries. She could lounge in an easy chair and look out at the garden, imagining the rose bushes beneath the snow. She could order tea from room service and lie in bed nibbling almonds and dried mulberries. She may have even circled the outdoor swimming pool and dipped her toe in to check if it was heated.
Fast forward to 2007. En route to Kabul, where I was sent to monitor a village-run social investment program for an international development organization, I flipped open my guidebook, Afghanistan, A Companion and Guide, and was surprised to read the following assessment of the InterContinental: “In 2002, this was definitely the worst hotel in the world.” The author went on, “I don’t mind no hot water, but I felt that paying $65 a night for no cold water was too much… When I wanted to use the swimming pool I was told I couldn’t because two guests had recently drowned.”
Could this really be the fabled hotel where my grandmother had recuperated so long ago? I didn’t remember much from my childhood, but my parents’ descriptions had led me to imagine soothing sheets and swish carpets, not an Afghan Fawlty Towers. Since the hotel was outside my organization’s “Security Perimeter,” I couldn’t stay there this time anyway. (Perhaps this was a good thing, now that I read the frank review in my guidebook.) But when I arrived in Kabul, my curiosity got the better of me: I immediately Googled the hotel. A New York Times article written a month after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 appeared. “The guerrilla rockets started to hit the eastern districts of this capital shortly after 3 p.m. today, sending great clouds of dust rising into the still winter air,” it said. “At the Kabul InterContinental Hotel, a man sweeping the tennis court paused for a while to watch, then calmly resumed his work.” Though the article made it sound like the hotel had been left unscathed, I suspected that after years of guerrilla rockets and bombs, the InterContinental had undergone drastic changes.
I finally visited the hotel on my last weekend in town. I had driven past it a few times and knew it had been renovated by a Dubai company for millions of dollars. Still it looked ordinary: a Soviet-style concrete block on a hill brightened only by billboards advertising Coca-Cola and Afghan Wireless. The woman in the Coca-Cola ad had a perky sideways ponytail. “This cannot be an Afghan woman,” my Afghan colleague sniffed when I commented on the ad one day. “Must be from Pakistan.”
The hotel’s guards waved our car through the security gates. The driveway was lined with flowerbeds and topped by a faux waterfall. A poster of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir,” hung by the entrance above a sign banning AK-47s. Portraits of Massoud, the Northern Alliance leader killed by Al Qaeda a few days before September 11th, 2001, are ubiquitous in Kabul. In this one, he stares out dreamily from under his pakol hat, looking moody and heroic.
The hotel lobby was quiet. Too quiet. The signs for the hotel’s restaurants were jaunty, though, and the young male receptionist was cheerful. “During the Taliban time there were mostly Taliban staying here,” he announced. “Also some Arabs.” After September 11th , he told me, guests were mostly Americans and journalists. If I wanted to know more, he said, I should come back tomorrow to meet Haji Nassar in accounting, who had worked at the hotel since 1972.
Haji Nassar greeted me the following day. “This hotel has changed so many times,” he said when I told him my grandmother had stayed here in the late 70’s. “In those days we served everything—wine, everything. Anything you wanted we could get.” He gestured at the faded blue chairs and buffet tables in the restaurant. “It was the first five-star hotel in Kabul,” he said, wistfully. But during the worst parts of the ensuing war, he said, it was more like “minus five.”
During the first round of war, the nine-year Soviet occupation (from December 1979 to February 1989) during which three million Afghans fled as refugees, Haji Nassar stayed put. He slowly worked his way up from busboy to accountant. But after the Soviet withdrawal, the mujahideen resistance was unable to form a united government, and a civil war ensued. “The hotel was fired at with rockets during the mujahideen time,” Haji Nassar said. “It was 40-50% destroyed. The mountain side of the hotel was completely out of order.”
At that point, in the early 90’s, the hotel had been long since abandoned by the InterContinental group and was owned by the government. The main mujahideen leaders all passed through. “Massoud would come and have meetings here in the hotel,” Haji Nassar said. “He would give his people their orders. Rabbani stayed here, as did many ministers.” Burhanuddin Rabbani, a notorious mujahideen leader, was president of Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996; Massoud was his defense minister.
By 1996, the violence had become so bad that when small groups of Saudi- and Pakistan-backed extremists calling themselves the Taliban started taking over towns in the south and imposing their own brand of order, local populations accepted them. But the Taliban’s harsh moral codes were alien to many Afghans. “It was a farce,” Haji Nassar said. “Women were banned from working in the hotel.”
After the fall of the Taliban Afghanistan’s future seemed bright. Foreign aid flooded in; millions of refugees returned; and Kabul even got a rival five-star hotel, the Serena, with a spa and a swanky weekend brunch. The TV show Afghan Star, the country’s own version of American Idol, held its final contest at the InterContinental. But the future now looks grim. The Taliban are back in force, corruption is at record highs, and Afghanistan produces 90% of the world’s heroin. In January of this year, in a sign of the growing strength of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, militants stormed the Serena’s seemingly impenetrable barricades in a suicide attack and shot foreigners, leaving seven people dead. More and more, Afghanistan looks like a failing state.
After a few days at the then-luxe InterContinental, my grandmother improved, and we returned to Karachi. A few weeks later, sitting at our kitchen table on Christmas morning, my mother opened Dawn, Pakistan’s English language daily, and read that the Russians had invaded Afghanistan and installed Babrak Karmal, a Marxist, as president. “It’s a good thing we went when we did,” she said.
When I read about the Serena attack this January and the security restrictions for foreigners that followed, I was glad I had gone to Afghanistan when I did, too. My grandmother is ninety-six now. Over the past decade, her memory has gone. For a brief moment at the InterContinental, I was able to recreate a time we had together, a time she has now forgotten. I may not be able to go again in her lifetime.
Andrea Woodhouse was born to an English father and an Indonesian mother. She grew up in Burma, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Jordan and the United States. She has worked for the World Bank and the United Nations and is a founder of Avaaz.org, a global policy advocacy group.