Sometime in November, I received an email from one of my Kabul co-workers, who told me that there was an opening in my former department (Gender Equality). He thought I had a good shot at getting the job. I politely demurred, thanking him but telling him that I am happy here at home.
Then when I heard the news last Friday regarding the bombing at La Taverna, that decision seemed both prescient and brilliant. You see, I was at La Taverna about two weeks before I came home for good last February. All Western contractors in Afghanistan are provided a list of “safe” destinations, including shopping areas, public areas and restaurants. La Taverna was on the list.
When Esman came from Herat to Kabul with his family to apply for their American visas, he and I planned a night out because he wanted to see me before I headed home. I asked one of my colleagues at camp for a recommendation, and he suggested La Taverna; I made a reservation for dinner and let Esman know that we would meet there.
That night, I got into an armored vehicle and told my driver where I was headed. He assured me, as we started our bumpy, dusty, dirty trek from the camp to the restaurant, that the food was good and that the owner usually throws in an appetizer for Westerners. We reached the city, and he drove down alleyways until he stopped in a wide space in the lane. I looked around and saw nothing indicating a restaurant’s presence. “Where do I go?” I asked him.
He gestured to a door flanked by two men and an oil drum. The door looked questionable — almost as if it were ready to fall down. Nevertheless, I got out of the SUV alone and stumbled in the cold through the ruts, snow and mud from the car to the door. The guards demanded that I tell them my name, then they checked to see that I had a reservation, and then they wanted to know the name of the person joining me. They let me in through the door and I entered an anteroom somewhat like the one I passed through on Christmas Eve. I was “wanded” instead of patted down, my purse was searched, and eventually I was let through the next steel door.
I entered a room that was warm and welcoming. I was seated and given a menu, and then I ordered a glass of wine to drink while I waited for Esman, who was traveling to the restaurant on foot from his relative’s house, not too far away. My wine was served in a glass, instead of being served in a teapot as it was in the restaurant where we ate on Christmas Eve.
Esman eventually arrived, and we had a wonderful time at dinner, talking about my trip home and his eventual move to the United States. It was one of my most memorable evenings in Afghanistan, and I thought then that if I were to stay longer, I would go back to La Taverna.
And then the news came that La Taverna and its kind owner were no more. In a sad retrospective report, NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, one of the Westerners with whom Esman worked, told of her many trips to La Taverna and of the people who made her feel so welcome. She said the oil barrel by the door was actually meant to be a deterrent to anyone wanting to storm the place, in that the doormen would spill the oil in hopes of causing any invader to slip and fall. She paid tribute to La Taverna’s owner, and to the restaurant itself.
All in all, the frightening part of this story is that La Taverna was deemed safe. Westerners like me went there to escape the oppression and fear of daily living in a truly foreign country where safety seems out of reach. How horrible that the fleeting respite of a few on one random night was annihilated by terrorists who are determined that no one in that country feels secure.
And again I say, it’s good to be home.