ALERT: Police searching for missing college student

Kabul restaurant was oasis for expats; now it’s terrorists’ rubble

(CNN) — The best chocolate cake I ever ate in Kabul was tucked away on a discreet corner near the city’s diplomatic area.

Kamal Hamade, the well-known and loved Lebanese owner of Taverna du Liban, made sure every visitor to his restaurant had a piece of gooey cake on the house, and then some.

On Saturday, the Taliban attacked the cozy Lebanese restaurant in Afghanistan’s capital. One man detonated a suicide vest while two others stormed into the restaurant and fired at those inside, killing 21 people, 13 of them expatriates. One of them was Kamal.

Taverna had a decent security routine in place: Visitors drove up and knocked. The Afghan guard slid open the peep hole to take a look. The patron was searched before being let in to the restaurant a short distance away from the metal-door entrance.

But unlike many other establishments visited by Kabul’s foreign residents, Taverna had one less door, one less pat down and lacked a long corridor away from the street. The restaurant and its owner were what security experts call soft targets — semi-armored and lightly guarded.

I walked through that aluminum metal door many times during my two years living in Kabul and working for an Afghan media company. One of those times, I was on my first date with the man who’s now my husband.

Another night, after a leisurely dinner with friends — most of it on the house under Kamal’s watch — I was left alone to wait. My ride was nowhere to be seen, and Taverna had closed. Not wanting to bother the servers, who were ready to leave, and Kamal, who looked tired, I slipped outside to the front of Taverna to wait. Kamal tried to lure me back inside, but I also enjoyed the rare few moments outside in Kabul.

When I told Kamal I would be fine, he brought out a plastic chair and sat with me. Kamal was originally from Lebanon, but it was clear from all our conversations that he loved Afghanistan. That night, we laughed, talked about Beirut, and watched his cat slink up and down the muddy street.

Forty-five minutes later, my ride showed up. I went back to Taverna dozens of times after that visit, always catching a smile and laugh from Kamal — with a hunk of chocolate cake.

It seems like almost everyone who has lived in Kabul has a Kamal story.

After the attack, friends, family and frequent patrons of the restaurant immediately took to social media to express their concern.

“Any word on Kamal, the owner of Taverna, or his staff?” development worker Una Moore wrote in a Twitter post.

Once security officials confirmed his death, photos popped on Facebook as people who knew Kamal and his restaurant shared their memories. Albums with titles like “Taverna” were filled with pictures of groups of smiling people gathered around long, wooden tables.

Kamal, like most nights that he was in the country, was in the building the night of the attack, wandering around the restaurant with a cigarette or in his office, most likely.

He lived above the Lebanese restaurant, keeping a loving eye on the falafel, staff and visitors. For many of us, it’s hard to believe someone who loved Kabul so much — and who was so much a part of the Kabul we loved — has become a casualty in a deadly attack.

Kamal’s restaurant allowed for quiet dinners or raucous get-togethers after long work days. Kabul, known to the foreign diplomat, aid worker and journalist inhabitants as the “Kabubble,” was a relatively safe place compared to the rest of the country. Much of my two years there were spent haphazardly throwing on a headscarf, walking down to the nearest supermarket to buy potato chips or use decent wi-fi at a cafe. The city never felt unsafe.

Only one similar event comes to mind in recent years. In January 2011, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a supermarket popular with expatriates and middle-class Afghans alike. Those of us in the Kabubble were thrown off for a few days, left jarred, vowing it was time to get out. After a few weeks riddled with lockdowns, the event faded into the city’s memory — a moment of violence that had passed.

This attack seems different, though. Perhaps not for the Afghan civilians who have lived through similar attacks for the last decade. But for the people who live in and love Afghanistan out of choice, it does change something.

I don’t know what this means for the country’s upcoming election, for Afghans after the NATO troop withdrawals scheduled for later this year, or for the foreigners who flock to the country, investing themselves in the nation and its people.

But I do know that without Kamal in Kabul, the city is a darker place.

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