Kabul was a fishbowl and not conducive to actual dating, even though the foreign women were vastly outnumbered by the foreign men. Our attractiveness rate skyrocketed accordingly. A ten in Kabul became a five as soon as she walked off the plane in Dubai. We were Kabul Cute, we were Mission Pretty. But still, the men here rarely asked the women out on actual dates. Most of the attempts at mating involved bad tongue action and groping near or inside the bathrooms at L'Atmosphère, the French restaurant that had turned into Kabul's major watering hole.
We were a function of our environment. For many, life was a pressure cooker, going from home to office to restaurant, rarely being outside, and the only release was liquor, was parties, was dancing to the same soundtrack, week after week—"Hips Don't Lie," "Crazy in Love," "Don't Cha," and "Let's Get Retarded." (In my nightmares, I can still hear that song list, over and over.) By this point, the social scene resembled a cross between a fraternity party and the Hotel California, where the same characters always seemed to stay too long and drink too much, where entertainment occasionally consisted of spelling words on legs with Nair hair-removal cream. The best pool table—or the only one—was at a brothel called Escalades. The disco Coco Cabana had opened a few months earlier but had rapidly turned into a seedy joint featuring alcohol-fueled grope-fests. The Elbow Room resembled a homey ski lodge, featuring a bar and a fireplace; Thai and Italian restaurants promised bad lighting and chilled red wine. A few thousand foreigners lived in Kabul, and even though many of them never went out at night, enough did to justify a dozen thriving businesses. The expatriate scene of Kabul even had its own magazine-Afghan Scene-that included articles and pictures of people at various parties, in various states of inebriation. (To be fair, money from magazine sales helped street kids.)
At this point, the fall of 2005, prostitutes seemed more in danger of taking over Kabul than the Taliban. Brothels came and went-the Lighthouse, the Tree House, Escalades, the Disco Restaurant, Bobo's, Ching Ching (a so- called Chinese "restaurant" that advertised something called "mosic"). These brothels, mostly staffed with women from China or one of the former Soviet republics, had blossomed in Kabul like poppy farms after the Taliban's fall, even though they were theoretically illegal and catered mainly to the security and contractor communities. Enforcement was spotty. A quixotic Afghan lawyer in a cape would raid one brothel. The women would then be bundled up and shipped back to their native country, only to be replaced by another brothel in another two-story house with new Chinese women who barely spoke English and did not speak the local languages at all. In some ways, these women in thigh-high boots and fishnet stockings were much like the Taliban-led militants—a flexible cast of characters who would be somehow eliminated and then replaced by others. A ready supply of bodies always existed for war and sex.
Often, the reality of Afghanistan interrupted the fun. A security guy shot up a bar; an attention-seeking journalist tossed a stun grenade at a party, blowing out all the windows. A consultant company threw a dance and trampoline party with camels and actual Afghan nomads—a measure of authenticity, I guess, that had become legendary with Afghan nomads, who spread rumors across the region of a foreigner trampoline orgy. A rooftop party at the Mustafa Hotel the year before had been interrupted by three rockets overhead, but only slightly, as the revelers, one in a pink feather boa, waved their hands in the air and started to cheer. A toga party two months earlier was cut short by a power outage and generator failure. At that party, most people dressed in white sheets, looking regal and even arranging leaves in their hair. Mindful of how it would look to be killed at a toga party in Kabul, I had opted for compromise—I went, but wore jeans and a pink Puma T-shirt, the Afghan equivalent of wearing clean underwear in case you're run over by a bus. My friend, who worked for Human Rights Watch, had declined his invitation. "Human Rights Watch does not do toga parties in Kabul," he said, and he had a point.
Kim Barker spent more than five years doing the Taliban shuffle between Afghanistan and Pakistan as the South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune. Last year, she held the press fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she decided to write a darkly funny memoir about covering the war, once forgotten, then remembered, then forgotten again. Barker's now an investigative reporter at the nonprofit ProPublica. She gets her adrenaline fix by biking to work in New York City.
Excerpted from The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker Copyright © 2011 by Kim Barker. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.