“No, I am not but I have lived in Kabul,” I said. “In Kabul Hotel, 1989?” he asked. “Yes, but how do you know?” I asked. “I know because I was there,” said the man who now looked very excited.
I had a closer look at him, trying to remember. “I am Raad, the Iraqi refugee who also lived in the same hotel and we spent many evenings together at that hotel.”
Now I remembered. “But you cannot blame me for not recognising you. You were a teenager then,” I said. “Not a teenager. I was 21,” said Raad.
“That was 23 years ago, you have aged,” I said. “So have you,” said Raad, “but I recognised you.”
He explained that he now had three kids, one of them almost as old as he was when I met him in Kabul. His wife had taken the kids to Iraq to spend Ramazan with her family. He was lonely. So he came to this shisha bar.
“Did not want to go to a regular bar during Ramazan,” he said. “I fast and also try to say my prayers, at least during Ramazan.”
It was a bitterly cold night in Kabul when I had my last meeting with Raad. The year 1988 was ending and a new year, which would see the Soviet occupation forces evacuating the country, was beginning.
The Afghan Mujahideen were still outside Kabul but the Soviet-backed communist regime was showing signs of weakness. In three months, the Mujahideen will push the Soviets out of their country. But, instead of restoring peace, they will bring more bloodshed and destruction. Their infighting will kill more than 50,000 people in Kabul and pave the way for the Taliban to capture the city in 1996.
The Taliban will bring even more suffering and turn Afghanistan into an international pariah by sheltering terrorists like Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network. Al Qaeda will attack the United States and the Americans who helped the Mujahideen defeat the Red Army, will invade and unseat the Taliban. And Afghanistan will plunge into yet another unending war.
But all this had not yet happened. Kabul was waiting patiently for the Russians to leave. Fear and uncertainty had paralysed everything.
Night curfew was the norm. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers patrolled the streets.
Kabul Hotel, which closed after being hit by Mujahideen rockets, was still in operation. Inside, a little Iranian girl, Sosan, danced in a room crowded with refugees from Iraq and Iran.
Raad, an Iraqi Kurd, was one of them. He was to leave for France in two days, traveling on a visa issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The others, who awaited their visas, had gathered to celebrate the New Year. They were also celebrating Raad’s successful escape to the West, while lamenting his departure. They promised to meet again but their promises sounded hollow – and they knew it.
Sosan, barely 5, had grown attached to Raad during his 2-month UN-sponsored stay in the hotel. She danced to a taped cassette of Madame Gogoosh, an Iranian singer popular in the Shah’s days but later banned from performing in her homeland.
Suddenly Sosan stopped dancing, embraced Raad and both began to weep. “O Khuda (Oh God),” said Shaheedeh, 12, Sosan’s sister. Iranians and Iraqis, mortal enemies during the eight years of the Persian Gulf War, had become friends thrown together in that crumbling hotel hundreds of miles from home.
“Did you remember Sosan and Shaheedeh?” I asked Raad. “I do and often think about them,” he said. “Met them again?” I asked. “No, although I tried my best,” he said. “I remember, you were going to France, how did you end up in the US?” I asked.
“America is one country that everyone curses and still wants to come here,” said Raad.
“Since I had always liked America and had never cursed it, I kept trying to come here and I did.”
The Kabul Hotel, destroyed after the Mujahideen took over the city in April 1992 but restored again, had seen a lot of action. In mid 1970s, US Ambassador Adolph Dubs was kidnapped by radical Muslims and brought to a room in the hotel. A few hours later the room was raided by Afghan policemen on the orders of the Soviets. Dubs was killed in the shootout.
But the hotel would have presented an eerie sight even without that memory. Its corridors were so dimly lit that people involuntarily looked over their shoulders and quickened their pace when they left their rooms at night.
Even during the day, the place was not comfortable. Despite Kabul’s sub-zero temperatures; the heating had been turned off to save fuel. Kabul’s food shortage, which worsened after the Mujahideen take-over, meant that virtually the same fare was offered on the menu every day.