Afghan cafe puts freedom back on the menu

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For young people in Helmand who want  to relax and enjoy their evenings and get a respite from the pressures of war,  Ayenak Restaurant and Cafe is the place to go. (AN photo)
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For young people in Helmand who want  to relax and enjoy their evenings and get a respite from the pressures of war,  Ayenak Restaurant and Cafe is the place to go. (AN photo)
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For young people in Helmand who want  to relax and enjoy their evenings and get a respite from the pressures of war,  Ayenak Restaurant and Cafe is the place to go. (AN photo)
Updated 09 September 2018

Afghan cafe puts freedom back on the menu

  • A small cafe in Afghanistan’s Helmand province has brought back a way of life cherished by many young Afghans
  • Afghanistan’s Helmand province, once described as “Little America,” now struggles with the effects of the opium trade and Taliban attacks on foreign forces

HELMAND: Afghanistan’s Helmand province, long notorious for its security challenges, is one of the most dangerous places for foreign forces operating in the country.

The area is also known for its opium trade and has a reputation as a Taliban stronghold. Even today, residents live in a state of perpetual fear since the extremist forces have yet to be fully defeated.

Nevertheless, there is an urge among Helmand’s youth to live and enjoy life. In a socially conservative culture that has left people starved for entertainment, many have discovered the magic of Ayenak Restaurant and Cafe in Nawa district.

The cafe and restaurant were designed for young people who want to forget war, relax and enjoy their evenings at a venue surrounded by a beautiful landscape with the added option of swimming in the river or visiting gardens laden with fruit.

The breathtaking beauty of the place draws visitors from across Helmand and Kandahar. Most come with friends to unwind. The restaurant also offers guests Afghan food, tea, coffee, juices and shisha.

“Our cafe can accommodate about 400 guests at one time. It has a huge yard, cabins and places for people to sit outside,” said Abdul Shakur Alham, the 26-year-old owner of the outlet.

However, Ayenak cafe is not only a tourist attraction but also a symbol of defiance. While many outlets in the main cities offer flavored tobacco and shisha openly, this is the only shop providing the service in an insecure, Taliban-dominated area.

The militant group believes that tobacco is forbidden and followers should avoid such guilty pleasures. Another pastime that can easily offend a Taliban commander is the use of playing cards. Yet the cafe continues to offer these facilities even though the area remains within reach of the militant group.

“Everything is natural in this cafe,” said 23-year-old Abdul Hai Mutmaen. “I like all of it, but shisha is something new for us in this area. I enjoy it a lot.”

Mirwais Bosti, 24, a visitor from neighboring Kandahar, said: “We have many cafes in Kandahar city, but they do not have such lovely weather and picturesque landscape.”

In the 1950s, Helmand was known among Afghans as “Little America.” At the time US engineers and experts worked there to transform the valley along the Helmand River into a modern society. Irrigation canals were built to feed farms that produced large quantities of food for export, helping Afghanistan to earn substantial revenues. New schools, modern hospitals and recreation centers were built and factories were powered by electricity produced at the Kajaki dam.

Model towns emerged in the area with streets lined with trees, and boys and girls went to community pools together. It was not difficult to find clubhouses along the river where one could play cards and consume drinks.

Helmand’s reputation changed after the Soviet invasion when it became a dangerous location for Russians and Afghan communists. More recently, it has also proved deadly to NATO and US forces. However, after decades of death and destruction, the province’s residents want peace and a happy life.

“I invested $13,000 to build this place,” said Shakur. “I’m happy that I’m making a good income from it.”

Book review: ‘Where the Bird Disappeared’ is a tale as old as time

Updated 22 September 2018

Book review: ‘Where the Bird Disappeared’ is a tale as old as time

CHICAGO: Taking a leaf from the real-life stories of Prophet Zakariyya and his son Yahya, Palestinian poet and writer Ghassan Zaqtan’s “Where the Bird Disappeared” is a beautiful yet haunting novel set in the village of Zakariyya, in modern-day Palestine.
Inspired by Qur’anic stories and political history, the novel talks about the relationship between Zakariyya and his best friend Yahya who not only share their names with the two prophets but bear a distant resemblance to their personalities and fates as well.
Zaqtan’s narrative is lyrical, heartbreaking and profound. Rooted in Palestine — a land that stood the test of time and would go on to become the hub of early and modern civilizations — the story is captivating enough to transport us to the hideaway monastery in Nuba Karam or the vineyards of Beit Jalla, the new homes for several villagers forced into exile.
Recalling the devastation and violence faced by those migrating from their homes and country, Zaqtan’s ability to take his readers through the same mountain paths and into the soul of his characters is a cause for applause. As Zaqtan writes of his central character, Zakariyya, “he felt he was walking inside a book, stumbling inside stories that had circulated in these hills since his birth. Journeys and names repeating themselves in succession without end.” And while the novel succeeds in digging deep into the annals of history, it also makes the reader realize how much impact the land of Palestine has had on the two characters and the various stories generating from the region.
Zaqtan’s tale is gentle enough to etch out images of each village, street or ancient structure that make the story and yet devastating enough that these get lost in the bigger picture. His brilliance lies in how conscious he is about the words used, while never losing sight of the historical context of his narrative or the love of the central characters for their beloved land.
Ghassan Zaqtan is an award-winning Palestinian poet, novelist, and playwright. He first published “Where the Bird Disappeared” in Arabic in 2015. It was then translated into English by Samuel Wilder and published by Seagull Books in 2018.