The South Asia Channel

The Legacy of La Taverna's Kamel Hammade

Kamel Hammade was an exceptional man. Since our first meeting in December 2006, I was enamored by his warm mannerisms, his infectious enthusiasm to contribute to Afghanistan, and his endearing willingness to listen and engage. He wasn't just a restaurant owner; he was a friend to everyone he met; "otherness" was simply not a part of his vocabulary. Like many of the expatriates in Afghanistan's capital city, Hammade came to Kabul to contribute in his own way. But unlike many of them, he soldiered on, while others came and left.

That changed on Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, when his life, among 20 others, was cut short in a Taliban attack on his restaurant, La Taverna du Liban. Unfortunately, this tragic incident has brought to the fore a cluster of narratives about the foreigners in Kabul that are neither illuminating nor helpful in defining our partnership.

When Farhad Peiker remembers Hammade's contributions as a "bittersweet legacy," he has a point. Restaurants in Kabul that cater to an expatriate clientele can indeed come across as practicing discrimination, advertently or inadvertently. Peiker also correctly argues that La Taverna was not the only restaurant that was accused of such a practice. And I share his frustration.

Since 2006, I have seen this discrimination first hand. I was denied entry to a few restaurants in Kabul because the security guards mistook me for an Afghan national. On a few occasions, though never at La Taverna, I was allowed in, but my Afghan friends were not. In protest, I refused to go in as well. Peiker and I thus share not only our opinion about this practice in several restaurants in Kabul, but also our response.

But is this perceived notion of discrimination a legacy that we ought to remember Hammade for? Peiker's outsized narrative, ostensibly engineered to commemorate the man, ignores the context.

Discrimination by those who serve foreign citizens is not unique to restaurants in Kabul. It is part of the larger context of international engagement in Kabul that Hammade inhabited. The Western military and civilian presence in Afghanistan created a bubble of expatriate existence that altered the character of the country. It bestowed specific interest groups -- those who enjoyed close ties and shared material interests with the ruling elite in Kabul -- with enormous financial resources, unwarranted access to political power, and a driver's seat in the country's future -- almost to the exclusion of the majority of those who were not entrenched in politics. The foreign presence thus perpetuated relative deprivation and discrimination for most Afghans on several fronts, including access to basic services. Being denied entry into restaurants that served alcohol was the least discriminatory of it all.

As such, it would be wrong to hold Hammade to this unforgiving, unalterable context, one in which he had limited agency. It is dangerous to be seduced by the narrative that the practices and policies of these restaurants can be framed independently of any contextual constraints.

The Afghan government has strict laws against the buying, selling, and consumption of alcohol by Afghans. Even if those laws are not common knowledge, public sale and consumption of alcohol is socially unacceptable in Afghanistan, as it is in several other Islamic countries. The restaurants in Kabul initially refused entry to Afghans simply because they were threatened with notices of closure, although a few restaurants in the upscale Wazir Akbar Khan enclave that enjoyed better connections with the Afghan government were given leeway. (Owners of a few of these restaurants would even flaunt their connections with specific Afghan ministries.) La Taverna, like many other restaurants, opened its doors for Afghans as soon as it was possible, without running the risk of closure.

Opening up his restaurant to Afghans is, however, not Hammade's legacy. His legacy instead resides in his unstinting generosity and in his ability and willingness to brave the turmoil around him to provide a sanctuary to those foreigners around him who were out of their comfort zones in Kabul.

An insinuation that is becoming part of the narrative surrounding the attack on La Taverna is that the international media commemorates slain foreigners as heroes, but does not reserve similar eulogies for Afghans. This is, unreservedly, true as there are many unsung Afghan heroes of this war whom the larger public is unaware of. Unless they are public figures, Afghans who lose their lives are reduced to mere numbers (of casualties) instead of names, while foreigners who meet death at the hands of the Taliban are commemorated with their names intact. The irony of the war reporting in Afghanistan is that one is more likely to read the names of insignificant Taliban foot soldiers than those of the Afghan police or army personnel who are killed routinely by the militant organization. The Afghan government, starting with President Hamid Karzai, can play an instrumental role in addressing this issue.

Instead of doggedly chasing the misplaced illusion of peace talks with an adversary who is hard to define, challenging to identify, difficult to engage with, impossible to trust, and who remains, irredeemably, a bane to the very idea of progress, Karzai could reserve some praise and the cherished title of "brothers" for those who are actually paying for this war in blood and sweat -- the Afghan National Security Forces -- and who are the supposed foundation for the Afghan state. Once Karzai sets the right example, the international community and the media is more likely to follow suit.

Another troubling suggestion by Afghans depicts foreigners as seeking a Western atmosphere in restaurants like La Taverna so they could turn a blind eye to the harsh realities on the ground. This is a highly problematic oversimplification of the profile and activities of the international community in Afghanistan. No amount of sacrifices from the international community could match the hardships and suffering endured by the Afghans. At the same time, many, if not most, members of the international community do not choose to be in Kabul for anything other than work. When they do seek downtime and visit restaurants, it is more to momentarily relieve stress than to ignore the realities of the country.

The partnership between the Afghan government and the international community is forged in a context that is becoming increasingly volatile. Neither the Afghans nor the foreigners should continue to represent or defend the worst that this context has to offer. A better focus on stories that inspire and encourage the international community to continue helping the Afghans drive the transition process forward is needed.

Hammade's is a story that began too late in the lives of those who knew him and one that ended prematurely -- a story of a man who was gracious to his friends, committed to his work, and dedicated to his guests. We should leave it at that.

Prakhar Sharma is a second year PhD student in Political Science at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and a contributing editor to the Fair Observer. He has worked in Afghanistan since 2006, leading research programs in three local institutions, as well as with the World Bank, the American University of Afghanistan, and UNICEF.