Few Afghan eyes are smiling

Thursday, April 17, 2003

KABUL, Afghanistan -- In Taliban times, it would have been unimaginable: a fully stocked Irish pub serving whiskey and cold beer in the heart of Afghanistan's ultra-Islamic capital.

In the post-Taliban era, Kabul's new Irish Club -- the country's only bar -- is still unthinkable, at least for Afghans. But it's a huge success with the many foreigners who are desperate for a little bit of nightlife.

"Walk in that front door and you'll find a very different world in here," says Allan Ferguson, a 57-year-old Australian businessman sitting on a barstool as Irish folk tunes blare from speakers overhead. "You could be anywhere -- Ireland, Australia, America. But walk outside, and you'll be back in Afghanistan."

The Irish Club opened on a secluded side street in central Kabul last month on -- what else -- St. Patrick's Day.

Concealed by a nondescript outer concrete wall with no sign out front -- not even a number on the door, it's not an easy place to find. In a country where terrorists are still a threat, that's exactly the way the Irish-born owner wants it.

"We wanted to keep a low profile, so we didn't advertise whatsoever," owner Sean Martin Mc Quade said. "But people know where to find us. News travels fast by word of mouth."

Judging by the club's popularity, Quade was right.

In a mock-Tudor style house behind the blank outer wall, immaculate Afghan waiters in black pants, white shirts and black bow ties serve drinks to dozens of expatriate aid workers, diplomats and journalists crowded around a wooden bar topped off with green marble imported from Ireland.

"We're the first people to stick our necks out and say this can be a cosmopolitan city," says Quade, who's worked as an engineer in Afghanistan for 11 years. "But we don't want to disrespect anybody."

Toward that end, Quade sought the approval of a neighborhood mullah to open the bar. In return, he has promised to help rebuild the potholed road in front of the club and help relocate an adjacent school to a bigger, better lot.

The bar is officially licensed by the state to sell alcohol -- but only to foreigners. Just inside the bar's entrance, an Afghan bouncer keeps Afghans out, checking IDs and requiring patrons to sign in.

"I'm sad we can't let them in, but this is a Muslim country and it's the government's wish that we don't encourage their sons and daughters to participate," Quade says, before taking a swig from a tall glass of Foster's lager.

There are Afghan staff of course, but they've all been given Irish names -- Kevin, Jimmy, Michael, George -- "to protect them from possible retaliation."

Most of the staff, too, are keen on keeping a low profile.

"Our families know what we do, but we tell other people we just work in a restaurant or a guesthouse selling food and soft drinks," says 22-year-old "Paddy."

The claim is not far off. The club already serves up pork chops and steaks for lunch and dinner. And rooms are being refurbished for what will soon be a full-blown inn.

Out front, several soldiers -- paid by the bar -- prowl the street with automatic weapons. Afghan drivers, slumped in four-by-four vehicles, wait listlessly for aid workers and diplomats to emerge, hoping their nights on the town don't last too late.

The risk of a terrorist attack is always present, but in a city with little in the way of nightlife, few patrons seem to mind.

"We all accept a certain level of risk in coming to Afghanistan," Ferguson says with a shrug. "You can't live in a cocoon."

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