Friday, July 25, 2014

Iconic hotel survives Afghanistan’s bitter history

Iconic hotel survives Afghanistan’s bitter history

On the western edge of Kabul, in the saddle between two hills, stands a flaking monument to what the city once aspired to be – a cosmopolitan destination drawing chic travellers from the world over.

For nearly 40 years the Inter Continental Hotel Kabul, with commanding views over the bustling city and north towards the snow-capped Hindu Kush, has survived as a landmark of the Afghanistan that might have been. And for all that time Shir Ahmad Stanikzai has been there, watching history come and go.

From champagne-fuelled parties and bikini-clad women by the pool in the 1970s, to the Soviet invasion, the chaos of the civil war, the rise and fall of the Taliban and the arrival of US.troops, Stanikzai has seen it all.

“It was so beautiful once,” he said with a smile, sitting in the almost-empty lobby, the furnishings little changed since the day the hotel opened in 1969, the clocks behind reception giving the time in London, Paris, New York, Tokyo and Moscow.

“There were jewellery shops with diamonds and gold, a travel agency, the Pamir restaurant on the top floor. The nightclub was always full,” he said wistfully, recalling better, earlier days. “We used to have big New Year celebrations in the ballroom.”

Stanikzai began working at the hotel as a waiter in 1969, when he was just 16, shortly after finishing school. He steadily worked his way up to head waiter, then restaurant manager, food and beverage manager and now assistant general manager.

The heyday, he says, was the 1970s, when wealthy Europeans would come to Afghanistan and make the InterContinental their base, taking trips to visit the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the mountains of the north or ancient cities like Jalalabad.

The pool was always crowded with men and women swimming together, shouts of “mine” could be heard from the tennis courts and most evenings brought well-dressed couples down to the Nuristan cocktail lounge for pre-dinner drinks. Indian royalty, ousted presidents and foreign ambassadors were two a penny.

It was a gilded era that barely outlasted the decade.

Grow your beard

Dramatic change came with the Soviet invasion of late 1979, when tens of thousands of foreign troops poured into the country after a series of failed coups, plots and bloody revolts.

Following the invasion, the InterContinental Group dropped Kabul from its chain, although the hotel proudly retains the name.

The Soviet military ended up using the hotel as an officers’ quarters and the flow of international travellers quickly dried up. The resort remained busy, Stanikzai recalls, but with swaggering Soviet commanders, not frolicking guests.

“They drank a lot of vodka,” Stanikzai said, laughing. “But the hotel still made money. They paid their bills.”

Ten years later the Russians left and a new era began, with bearded Afghan warlords battling furiously for supremacy after overthrowing Mohammad Najibullah’s communist regime.

“That time was very, very bad,” says Stanikzai, recalling how one set of mujahideen fighters once held an area of Kabul to the west of the hotel and another faction, led by Ahmad Shah Masood, held the hotel and much of the rest of the city.

“There were bullets flying, rockets flying, and we were in the middle. Our front office manager was killed right there,” he said, pointing towards the reception desk. “I think 15 or 16 of our staff were killed in that time.”

The rise of the warlords brought an end to alcohol-fuelled parties and cocktail hours, and the hotel steadily fell on harder and harder times. With the Taliban’s conquest of Kabul in 1996, an already dire situation took a turn for the worse.

Stanikzai, a dapper man in a smart suit with a trimmed moustache and neat grey hair, had to grow a long beard and wear traditional Afghan dress of flowing trousers and shirt.

“I had a beard down to here,” he said, gesturing to the middle of his chest. “I had to wear a turban.”

Taliban rule was a rigid, parsimonious time. A few foreign journalists came, but mostly the hotel was empty. One memorable episode was when some of Osama bin Laden’s acolytes ordered the pool sealed off so they could swim alone for a day.

When US and Afghan forces came and drove the Taliban out in late 2001, the first thing Stanikzai did was shave his beard. Trade picked up as more journalists, diplomats and adventurers came. A Dubai company invested and the hotel was done up.

Recently the government took ownership and more improvements are promised. Another five-star hotel has opened in central Kabul, offering stiff competition as the InterConinental’s once-bright star fades. But Stanikzai is not going anywhere.

“I love my hotel and I love my job,” he says simply. “I will keep working here as long as the management will have me.”