“You know there’s a war on in my country?” the consular official asked.
“I know! But God has no intention of me dying in your country” I replied with bravado.
“You believe in God?! Then, I give you one month’s visa so you can see the true beauty of my country and people.”
On the plane a week later I went through my checklist: no direct eye contact with men, no flirting, no pointing the soles of feet towards anyone, don’t sneeze in public. Come on! I decided to practice some Dari words. Salaam alaikum /Peace be unto you. Wa’alaikum salaam/And peace be upon you. Bale/Yes. Nei /No. Lutfan /Please. Tashakur /Thank you. Kumak!/Help!
The plane descended suddenly from the cloak of white clouds and skimmed across the top of a breathtaking pinkish-taupe range of mountains. I gasped audibly. And then, as if on a roller- coaster, the plane dived and, to applause and cheers from the passengers, we bounced gently into Kabul.
“Tashakur!” I offered up.
I received a security briefing as soon as I put my luggage down.
“Kabul is normal until it stops being normal. Follow your instincts, be aware of your surroundings and, if you feel unsafe, run!”
I had visions of me dodging bullets and screeching, “Kumaaaaaak!”
Like the average ignoramus, I expected to be shrouded, from head to toe, in unattractive, baggy clothes. So I had come fully prepared – meaning jeans, long baggy tops and flat shoes. Which, as per Sod’s Law, meant I received a party invitation as soon as I landed …. actually, several while I was there. No cute outfits and no killer heels. Great! My cousin, Epi, who I was visiting, came to the rescue.
My mouth fell open as we arrived at the party venue. People entered wearing what looked like tents, only to reveal hot outfits underneath. The party was in full swing, as people of various nationalities, including Afghans, jammed to the latest sounds. I might as well have been in London. So much for the CNN reality!
Yes, I know there was a no flirting rule but, gosh, he was dusky and handsome, with full bitable lips. And a no-eye-contact rule but, gosh, his turquoise eyes were so fine. So I flirted and made lots of eye contact and sneezed on him. There wasn’t an opportunity to point the soles of my feet at him, but hey, who knew when the opportunity would arise.
After dancing to three songs, culminating in Beyonce’s ‘Upgrade’ – the man could dance – I asked him to enquire about my dinner plans the next day.
“So, erm, do you have any plans tomorrow evening?” asked with a sexy Afghan accent.
Gosh, I needed to get me some hot heels, which at some point I could take off and point the soles of my feet at him, finally breaking all the ‘don’t do’ men rules!
Now, if you happen to find yourself in Kabul, there are two certified and trusted taxi services, Afghanlogistics and Zuhaak. Jump into any old taxi and you run the risk of not being seen again, or as the protagonist of a ransom video on Aljazeera.
The next morning I called Zuhaak and went through a very specific list of things to do when catching a taxi. Ramin had to go through the same process that evening, so I’ll tell you about it then. I hit one of the many large malls I had seen coming in from the airport. I rushed to the ATM, ignoring the stares, where I could get my cash in Afghanis or Dollars, both acceptable in most establishments.
In the streets I covered my hair but, the moment I entered a shop, I pulled the scarf off. While deciding which pair of the three gorgeous heels to choose for my date, I felt something tugging on my hair. It was the owner feeling the texture of my dreadlocks. I slapped his hand.
“Beautiful,” he said. As had become the norm, he wanted to take pictures with me, followed by giving me his numbers and telling me to call if I wanted to go out. They say no flirting with the men, but what are you supposed to do when they flirt with you?
I then noticed six pairs of feminine eyes at the window, staring through dark veils. I beckoned for them to enter the shop and held out the shoes for them to choose for me. Unanimously, they chose the most dazzling pair. They also helped me choose a pashmina scarf, just before their male chaperones, realising the women were no longer following behind them, arrived.
The security guards at Epi’s house were a little surprised that, after only a few days, I was breezing around Kabul as if I owned the place, as well as having evening plans that didn’t include my cousin. Epi’s house had a small alleyway that lead to the gate of the compound and was just wide enough for one car to pass through. So you drove in and reversed out, regardless of the fact that a suicide bomber’s only intention is to drive in one direction.
Ramin arrived on time. He had rung ahead to tell the security what time he would arrive, given a general description of himself, of what his car looked like and his car number plates. They scanned beneath and all around the vehicle for explosive devices and then grilled him about his intentions. I felt like a teen, rolling my eyes as my dad, brandishing a shotgun, grilled my date. Given the all-clear, the small gate opened, I covered my head and jumped into the passenger seat with warnings to be careful echoing in my ears.
“Hey, what do you want to eat?”
After rejecting Lebanese, Italian and Indian restaurants, we wound up at Lai Thai. The food was delicious but the most interesting thing about this Thai restaurant was the owner, who followed wars. Kabul, Baghdad, Kosovo, Bosnia, wherever there was a war, she set up business. The only thing that was a little disconcerting about Lai Thai was the South African security guy sitting close by, with all his weaponry on the table. Unlike many other restaurants, Lai Thai didn’t insist on weapons being checked in. I hoped he wouldn’t have problems with his meal.
This time my skin was up for inspection. The waiter surreptitiously stroked my arm but, whatever he expected, it didn’t come off on his palm. He looked surprised and I flashed him a huge smile.
“Are you made of chocolate?”
I tried, Ramin translating, to explain the beauty of a world filled with people of different colours. I don’t think he was convinced because he looked like he wanted to take a bite just to check.
“No! I’m not made of chocolate. Really!”
From there we went for dessert at La Taverna, a high-risk Lebanese restaurant, which had been the recipient of bomb attacks, but what’s a girl to do when they had the best chocolate cake in Kabul? Ramin checked it was safe to leave the car, then we dashed to the restaurant’s front metal gate. After suspicious stares and, deeming us un-Taliban looking, the armed guards gave the order and the gate clanked open. Inside a holding cage, a big sign asked for all weapons to be checked in. It felt like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. After three other rigorous checks we entered the open-air restaurant. La Taverna, the reverse of the casualness at Lai Thai.
We sat under the bright stars on big divans covered with carpets and cushions, eating divine chocolate cake and sharing a sheesha of fruit-flavoured tobacco. By this time, I wasn’t pointing the soles of my feet at him, they were nestling on his lap as he gently caressed my smooth ‘just today’ pedicured feet, relishing my giggles. I’m ticklish.
We were having such a great time we didn’t notice the place had slowly emptied, most lights had been switched off, the chairs had been packed up and the waiters, wearing their coats, were standing at the entrance. We didn’t take the hint so they turned off the rest of the lights. Pitch darkness!
“Do you think they want us to leave?”
“Hmmm, I not too sure! I need more clues!”
That had us doubled up with laughter. I could literally hear the waiters rolling their eyes as we stayed another ten minutes enjoying the bright stars sparkling in the indigo sky, and arranging our next few dates – an underground Afghan hip-hop party, the cinema and salsa dancing at the Mexican cantina.
I made a note for when I returned to Delhi. I’d go to the Afghan embassy, just to tell the consular official, “I was having so much fun, I didn’t realise there was a war in your beautiful country.”
Alba Kunadu Sumprim grew up on three continents, Europe, Africa and Latin America, and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She still has a stack of notebooks containing the melodrama of her teenage years. Alba graduated as an editor from Cuba’s film school, the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión, then worked on independent film projects in Cuba and London before moving back to Ghana. There, her work as a writer included seven years with the BBC. She now spends her time writing screenplays, teaching, editing manuscripts, producing and directing documentaries and….writing books. These include two spin-offs from “The Imported Ghanian”, her long-running weekly column in the Accra Daily Dispatch. Alba lives in Accra, where her cosmopolitan background intrigues and confuses her compatriots in equal measure.