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American or Afghan Restaurants: Mirrors of Modern Culture

Afghans walk past a lit up guest house and restaurants at a street in Kabul (Photo: AP)
Afghans walk past a lit up guest house and restaurants at a street in Kabul (Photo: AP)


The last day of spring break marked the birthdays of two of my school friends. We had planned to treat them to a surprise party in a restaurant, however as we struggled to decide on a place to go it was I who experienced the biggest surprise. Typing “great restaurants in Boston” into Yelp’s search bar yielded gazillions of results, and with so many options to choose from, finding a restaurant turned into more work than anticipated. Finally, after much ado, we agreed to an Indian restaurant some miles away from the university.

During my stay in the United States, I have discovered that eating out constitutes a major part of the culture. Americans turn to restaurants for everything from catching up with friends, to holding business meetings, to finding an easy alternative when they just don’t feel like cooking at home. Restaurants also bring a touch of international flavor into peoples’ domesticated lives. New cuisines and pastries from every corner of the world continue to pop up in major cities, and nowadays even small towns seem to have at least one sushi bar.

But unlike in America where restaurants are part of mainstream culture, restaurants in my home country of Afghanistan are a newer phenomenon, and they are starting to find a unique niche in our culture.

Conspicuous among the cacophony of Kabul are newly-constructed restaurants, with fancy and often foreign names. Passersby’s mouths water at the strong scent of seasoned kebabs emanating from the open-fire grills outside that tantalize the rich and leave the poor green with envy. Only those who can afford it are welcome.

Although the facades of these restaurants feel very integrated with everything else in the city, the insides have a culture of their own, a culture far removed from that of the outside. Inside, finely-dressed waiters greet visitors with broad smiles that outside would be lost in the chaos of the city, and Western music and décor provide an international backdrop for exotic dishes like pizzas and sandwiches. Menu items are written in both Farsi and English (although often misspelled). Inside these restaurants is evidence of how globalization has finally slithered its way inside Kabul.

Unlike in the U.S., the primary visitors of these restaurants are not families, businessmen, or busy moms grabbing take-out. They are middleclass and upper middleclass teens and young adults between 16 and 25; the age group representing more than two thirds of the entire Afghan population. Their dominance on the restaurant scene, however, is not necessarily because they have the busiest schedules or most disposable income. It is rather because these restaurants have realized the profitability of catering to the urges of this vast population, a valuable offering for Afghanistan’s disgruntled youth. In turn, these youth bring with them the youth-oriented culture (slangy language, hipster music taste, trendy clothing, etc.) that welcomes the young and distances the old.

These young people come to discuss soccer, show off their newest high-tech gadgets, scorn at politicians, and smoke hookah—the closest substitute for alcohol in Afghanistan. The restaurants provide a sanctuary for minds that are overwhelmed with melancholy and fanaticism, and they offer a brief respite from the general mayhem of the city.

More notably, they are also clandestine meeting spots for young couples seeking a place to show the affection that, in other locales, would be suppressed by extremism. In the outside world, exhibitions of romance are prohibited—and even holding hands is frowned upon—but inside couples can elude the scrutiny of their families.

While restaurants in the U.S. have long reflected the values of contemporary American culture, restaurants in today’s Afghanistan are rapidly becoming more confident in catering to the desires of a particular and determined clientele.

And so, that night as we celebrated my friends’ birthdays in the most commonplace of American ways, and as I savored the spicy yet delicious chicken tikka and the yummy naan that came with it, I started to wonder whether this is the future for Afghanistan or if our restaurants will take on a very different significance for society. I pondered what the restaurants in Afghanistan will look like ten years from now, and how they will reflect the culture at that time. I admit, I cannot tell for sure, but my optimistic side looks forward to discovering what surprises that 2023 has in store.

Editor: Yu

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US campuses are battlegrounds in free speech debate

Students hold up a photo of University of Southern California 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum in protest to her canceled commencement speech on the campus of University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, April 18, 2024.
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This week the University of Southern California canceled the graduation speech of its senior class valedictorian at a time when there is a growing debate over the limits of free speech on American college campuses.

USC’s Asna Tabas­sum, a Muslim biomedical engineer major, was selected from among 100 outstanding students to address the graduating class of 2024 this May. However, the school withdrew the invitation for her to speak at the graduation ceremony citing safety concerns.

Tabassum denounced the decision, which she attributed to her public support for Palestinian human rights. She said it is part of “a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice.”

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The school maintains it is a safety issue, not about free speech. School officials say they received an alarming number of violent threats after selecting her as speaker.

USC is one of many American universities that have struggled with policies over free speech and campus protest since October’s Hamas terrorist attack on Israel and the continuing fighting in Gaza. After weeks or months of on-campus protests and rallies, schools have been taking more forceful action to punish protesters who administrators say have become disruptive.

On Thursday at Columbia University in New York, police arrested more than 100 students who had gathered on campus for pro-Palestinian protests. The school’s dean wrote that the protesters had been told several times that they were violating university policies and would be suspended. The students say they were exercising their free speech rights.

At Washington’s American University, protests in all campus buildings have been banned by the school’s president since January. Under the new policy, students may not hold rallies, engage in silent protests or place posters in any campus building.

Protests and safety

University students have a long history of engaging in political activism. From the Vietnam War to abortion rights, universities have played a key role in American political debates.

However, students now say that schools like AU with a long-standing protest culture are silencing protesters with new rules.

Arusa Islam, American University student body president-elect and current vice president, says the policies are preventing an open discussion about U.S. foreign policy.

“Indoor protesting was never a problem, it was never an issue before October 7th,” Islam said. “Students were allowed to put up posters in buildings and students were allowed to have a silent protest.”

“And now we don’t have that right anymore,” she added. “We have been silenced and it is affecting us greatly.”

American University’s president, Sylvia Burwell, says the school’s new policies are intended to ensure that protests do not disrupt university activity.

Burwell also referred to recent events on campus that “made Jewish students feel unsafe and unwelcome.” She added, antisemitism is abhorrent, wrong, and will not be tolerated at American University.

While administrators insist that they are making narrow restrictions in the interests of providing an education, critics say the policies have a far-reaching effect.

At Cornell University, where new rules took effect in January, Claire Ting, the executive vice president of the Cornell Student Assembly, said the policies have had an unsettling effect on campus.

“The campus climate at Cornell has been tense surrounding free speech in recent times,” Ting emailed VOA.

Ting said that both students and faculty feel the policy has had chilling effects on free expression.

“Students report facing arbitrary, escalating punishment for violating the policy, with the policy itself lacking clear outlines for the consequences of civil disobedience,” she added.

In its new policy Cornell warns students that disciplinary action may be taken if protests impede people or traffic, damage school property or interfere with the school’s operations in any way.

In its campus-wide notice explaining the new guidelines, the school wrote that the new policy would ensure that expressive activity is allowed but must remain nonviolent.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also known as FIRE, has tracked free speech issues on American campuses.

FIRE and College Pulse have produced an annual survey, since 2022, ranking colleges based on their policies and what students say about the free speech climate on campus.

This year the group reported that “alarming” numbers of students say they self-censor or “find their administrations unclear” on free speech issues.

“College campuses have always been places where students have been unafraid to express themselves and with the recent Gaza conflict after the 10/7 attacks, it’s been very heated on both sides of this issue,” said Zach Greenberg, the senior program officer of FIRE.

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The controversy came to Congress late last year, when Harvard’s president testified over complaints of widespread antisemitism.

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“I don’t think you’d find many students on campus right now that would say we are the model for flourishing free speech and ideas exchange in the country,” said J. Sellers Hill, president of Harvard’s school newspaper The Harvard Crimson.

“But I think you’ve really seen that be acknowledged by administrators and it seems to be something they are dedicated to taking on.”

As the head of The Harvard Crimson, Hill manages the paper’s 350 editors and 90 reporters, who’ve covered, in detail, the ongoing free speech/protests controversy and the resignation of former President Claudine Gay following her testimony to Congress.

“I think no one would dispute Harvard has work to do and progress to make,” Hill said. “I think it’s a tough sell, for me, that Harvard is uniquely in its own league in terms of intolerance of speech. That doesn’t square with what I have seen on our college campus or on other college campuses around the country. I think Harvard is held to a higher standard.”

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