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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