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Taleban hotel

This was one of several features I wrote when I was posted to Afghanistan after the Taleban takeover in October 1996. One lunchtime I took a ride up to the near-empty InterContinental Hotel to have a look round. It yielded a sort of lunch and a great interview.

Dusty Kabul hotel looks back to heyday.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

KABUL, Oct 21 (Reuter) – Scenically located with excellent views of the Afghan capital’s war zones, Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel is long used to tanks in the car park and armed mujahideen lounging by reception.

The walls are pockmarked with bullet holes, there is more plastic sheeting than glass, and one end of the lobby still sports a mangled mess of wiring and ducts where an artillery shell once scored a direct hit.

But it hasn’t always been like this, and some hope the hilltop hotel, once a swinging focus for westerners and cosmopolitan Kabul, will again throw its doors open to the kind of big-spending tourist Afghanistan desperately needs.

“Now we are trying to rebuild the hotel to what it was 20 years ago. But as you know there is still fighting and we are waiting for peace so we can be in a good position again,” says Mohammad Anwar, assistant general manager.

Peace in Afghanistan shows no sign of breaking out soon. Factions, packing the kind of weaponry some national armies would kill for, have battled for Kabul and other parts of the country for years, and show no sign of stopping.

As Anwar speaks, the former government forces of Ahmad Shah Masood are consolidating their hold over a military airbase less than an hour’s drive north of the hotel after ousting the Islamic Taleban militia.

But it is still the Taleban — a purist movement seeking to rid Afghanistan of its warlords and impose their strict Islamic faith — who rule Kabul, at least for the moment.

And, while they have brought a kind of peace to the city in the three weeks they have ruled, the Taleban are also determined outfits like this hotel follow its version of Islam.

The Taleban require all women to wear the burqa — an all-embracing veil that leaves only a gauze slit for the eyes — and bar them from most work and education.

They outlaw music, dancing and alcohol; for international hotel management, this could be a problem.
“I am trying to make this hotel like it was 20 years ago, but one question is most important. Everything must be according to the law of Islam,” says Hayatullah Hayetay, a mullah appointed president of the hotel on October 13.

This, he says, rules out dancing, music, singing, drinking alcohol, and allowing women to use the swimming pool.

But Hayetay, a doctor of Islamic law and a former military engineering officer, is aware this may not appeal to people out for a good time, so he is seeking advice from his superiors and looking for ways round the problem.

Sitting in an office surrounded by Korans, the characteristic Taleban white flag and an incongruous sign in English reading “I want to help you out. Which way did you come in?”, Hayetay mulls possible solutions.

One way round the music problem would be to allow guests to listen to it in their rooms. A way to avoid women and men sharing the pool would be to build a second for females only.

It is not clear whether these ideas would catch on. At present the hotel’s only guests are a handful of journalists, some Taleban guards and a clutch of people thought to be Pakistani military advisers to the besieged Taleban.

The doorman seems pathetically grateful to see a new arrival, even if it is only for lunch. The lobby, sporting vintage decor from the year it was opened (1969), also boasts three red plastic bowls catching dripping water.

Of 200 rooms, only 85 are currently usable and 15 occupied. A glass display touts the wonders of Intourist, the Moscow-based tourism organisation, and wilting Russian dolls, throwbacks to the 1980s Soviet occupation.

Dusty leaflets at reception offer an unlikely mix of information, ranging from a 1984 KLM flight planner to a guide to London’s Westminster Abbey and an Aeroflot timetable.

Staff morale seems poor. Their pitifully low wages have not been paid this month, reportedly because the outgoing government took with it most of the local currency.

One complained quietly that he had to wear an Islamic cap, which he said did not match his uniform, a threadbare suit.

The menu — still available to those who request it — features dishes that range from French vineyard snails poached in burgundy wine and gratinated with buttered herbs to sauteed fillets of pomfret garnished with sliced mushrooms. All are “off” today.

“Would you like lamb chops, lamb cutlet, or if you are in a hurry, may I suggest lamb stew?” the waiter asks politely.

Anwar and other staff recall fondly the days when, in summer, occupancy was 100 percent, it was the beat of the music, not the thud of shells, that made the top-floor disco shake, and the poolside was Kabul’s place to be.

Now a thick carpet of dust covers the tables and dancefloor, and the only relic is a letter offering a customer free food and beverages — dated 1978, the year of the communist takeover and the last time the Pamir Supper Room was used.

Anwar is hopeful the Intercontinental chain, who ended their contract that year, may come back and make the place hum again.

“Five years ago we sent a delegation to the Intercontinental Hotel chain and they promised to come back. But they said they would wait for peace,” he says.

(c) Reuters Limited 1996

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