What it's like going out for dinner in Afghanistan

A journalist shares stories of hospitality, humanity and meals in war zones

Published November 4, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

Afghan women prepare a meal.
Afghan women prepare a meal.

Last spring, an Afghan man everyone called Uncle Satar pushed at me plates of rice, creamed spinach, and lamb across a canvas dastarkhan spread over the earthen floor, and heaped salad onto my plate. He had just showed me a hill on which he had fought against the Soviets 17 years ago; and another hill, on which he had fought against members of a rival militia a few years later.

There was a third hill, too, where he had wintered once. Now the Taliban controlled it, and Uncle Satar, who had laid down his gun a few years back and was now working as a driver, was sitting cross-legged at the farmhouse of a relative, plying me with food. Eat, he said, and made little lifting motions with his hands, hands as familiar with the wooden barrel of a Kalashnikov as with a loaf of home-baked bread. Eat, he commanded: because I was too thin, because I ate too little -- but, mostly, because I was his guest and he wanted to show me a good time.

So what if his homeland was a war zone?

 Many people say that outsiders don't understand Afghanistan. Perhaps this is because to the world, most Afghans are voiceless. Two-thirds of Afghans over the age of 15 cannot read or write. Much of the country is believed to be so dangerous that few Western reporters venture into the outer provinces without the armed escort of NATO troops. The haunting images of war that confront us from the front pages of newspapers and from television screens show young men and women in NATO uniform staring at the world through the barrels of their guns, or through eyes hollowed out by combat trauma; American mothers weeping over their dead children here, in the States; and two-dimensional stick figures of anonymous, veiled women and robed men moving and collapsing like plywood stage props against the cauterized backdrop of the Central Asian battlefield.

But 28 million Afghans live and die -- often violently -- in the land where American troops perish. They raise crops, graze sheep, cuddle their children. They dispatch their preteen sons to haul cement to augment meager family earnings. They fall in and out of love, go to sleep hungry, quarrel, cook rice. Their land has the second-highest child mortality rate on the planet and supplies most of the world's opium; it is ticking with millions of landmines and has known no peace pretty much since the beginning of recorded history. Somehow, in this violence and privation, they find strength for hospitality.

The hopes, the dreams, the resentments of a driver from Balkh or a wheat farmer from Kunduz may not seem significant. But they are: Every man here is a potential warrior, and sooner or later, he may throw his weight -- and maybe his antiquated Kalashnikov semiautomatic rifle, its barrels decorated, incongruously, in Hubba Bubba wrappers -- behind one force or another. Ultimately, these people will determine the future of Afghanistan. What kind of future do they have in mind?

Their answers are rarely heard because it is difficult, or dangerous, or not expedient to document them, or because they are hard to fit into cut-and-dried made-for-TV snippets. As we ponder Afghanistan's future, we need to sit down in an Afghan living room, and listen to their stories. Preferably over a meal served on a tattered dastarkhan stretched on the floor of mud and straw.

The following is an excerpt from "Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories" (Free Press), a collection of stories and recipes from lives and meals in war zones.

The restaurant was like many others that interrupt the pale monotony of northern Afghanistan's half-marked roads: a house of mud and straw propped up on exposed, crooked wooden beams, with no name, no tables, and no chairs. Along the dining room walls ran a wide, wooden seating area that resembled a stage; upon it, the diners sat cross-legged, with their shoes off. Elevating the floor was the easiest way to keep the food from being mixed with too much dust. Plastic dastarkhans lay spread on wooden planks before the diners. Unlike the scarlet beauties hand-embroidered with magical flowers and birds that wealthier Afghans save for meals served to important guests, the dastarkhans in these roadside diners were essentially linoleum runners that usually came in thick rolls. One end of the runner was always rolled up over yards and yards of extra plastic, like wrapping paper; the free end was reused until it became too tattered or grimy to be considered presentable, even by Afghan roadside diner standards. At such a time, the owner of the dastarkhan snipped off the tattered end and tossed it away, into the vast desert. This was not littering. Nomads or paupers always recycled the plastic as shelter material.

To accommodate Berget and his friends -- these, at the moment, included several Northern Alliance militiamen, Wahid the translator, Ghulam Sakhib the driver, David, and me -- the restaurant owner had rolled out several feet of dastarkhan before us. The fighters rested their battered Kalashnikov rifles, muzzle up, within their reach, against uneven mud-brick walls. They ate unhurriedly, deliberately tearing off small pieces of thin, flat nan bread and wrapping them around tiny pieces of marinated lamb meat and fat cooked over hot coals on sharp metal skewers. They pulled the meat off the skewers with elegant, long fingers that looked more like they belonged to violinists than to gunmen.

We had met Berget earlier that day, in the middle of a vast, harvested rice field that separated two armies: the embattled troops of the ruling Taliban and the bedraggled soldiers of the Northern Alliance. It was the same field where I first had been told to hide from Taliban snipers behind a wall, and then invited to the other side of the wall for a hot cuppa. It was the same scorched, dry field Berget had crossed three days earlier, when he had abandoned his post on the Taliban side and joined the Northern Alliance.

Berget, at twenty-six a skinny, pale man with a straggly beard, had joined the Taliban of his own volition, in 1995. Rival warlords had been battling over control of the country, razing entire villages and raping their way through Kabul block by city block, laying waste even further to a land that had not yet recovered from the decade-long Soviet occupation. People like Berget -- who, even after his defection, recalled fondly the way Taliban troops had confiscated all weapons from Kabul's residents and stopped, at least temporarily, the pillaging -- had seen the militia as a unifying force that could restore order. (Berget had been less enthralled by the new regime's moral police and strict rules that banned all movies and music.) The reason for his defection, Berget explained, was that many Taliban commanders were Pakistanis or Arabs. If there is one thing all Afghans have agreed on since time immemorial, it is that foreigners have no business running their country.

"I thought that if the fighting ever ends and the opposition wins, how would I look my brothers in the eye if I were fighting on the same side as foreigners?" Berget said. Maybe there was a lesson or two there for American troops who were trying to quash the Taliban's network. Nine years after that dinner with Berget, the White House -- now under President Barack Obama -- was still trying to defeat the Afghan insurgency, which, rather than die down, had grown stronger with time.

Now, the young Tajik was a Northern Alliance fighter. He was eating kebab, bragging about Taliban losses at the hands of American air strikes and rebel mortar fire as though they had been all his doing ("Since the beginning of the U.S. strikes, most of the Taliban have been killed, and a lot of their ammunition and radar installations have been destroyed"), and telling jokes (Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar* at a Friday prayer: "Do not listen to music, because it is a sin. Do not shave your beards, because it is a sin. Above all, do not watch movies, because it is the gravest sin of all sins, and it will make your souls sink to the bottom of the ocean, like Leonardo DiCaprio in the blockbuster Titanic"). Berget's new comrades, weathered, sinewy fighters whose gray and brown plastic flip-flops sat in a neat row at the foot of the eating stage, listened and laughed with him as though he had not trained his gun on them -- and they, on him -- just days before. From time to time, the men sitting to Berget's left and right would drape their slender hands around his shoulders, in the universal gesture of brotherly love.

Berget's swift transition from enemy to ally was not at all extraordinary. As our smuggler-host Mahbuhbullah had taught me, switching sides was common among Afghan fighters, be it a foot soldier who would rather defect than be captured or killed, or a renowned warlord like his former Uzbek commander, Dostum. Acquaintance, family relations, and simple survival were often more important than political affiliation. The local rebel commander, incidentally, turned out to have been a friend of Berget's family.

"I fought" -- this had been against the Soviet troops -- "alongside his father and brothers," the commander had recalled when I had sat with him and Berget in the middle of the harvested rice field, before our meal. "He," the commander had pointed at the defector with his bearded chin, "used to bring us lunch to the front lines."

And now we were all sharing a meal of kebab. All's well that ends with a few skewers of lamb over a plastic dastarkhan.

Especially that cursed, hungry year.

It was late fall, and the first winter frost had hit prematurely the previous week, destroying whatever crops had managed to push through the dehydrated desert floor. Ice had encrusted the massive tangle of the Hindu Kush. Snow had silenced the mountain passes. In the spring, the snowmelt would run off the crumpled peaks, nourishing the thirsty valleys below. But right now, snow was bad news, possibly a killer of millions. It had blocked the Northern Alliance supply routes to the militiamen fighting on the southern frontier: the rickety old Soviet eighteen-wheelers that the guerrillas were using to transport ammunition and artillery to the front lines could not make it through the ice and snow. Relief agencies no longer had a way of getting food and clothing to Kabul's northern outskirts: because of the air war, all helicopters and planes that were not part of the U.S.-led military campaign had been grounded. Some anti-Taliban commanders worried that American air strikes, which were supposed to give the mujahedin an edge over the ruling militia, were not going to produce enough momentum to defeat the Taliban before it became too cold to fight. If the standoff were to continue into the winter the skies would remain off-limits to relief agencies, and no humanitarian aid would be delivered to millions of Afghans suffering from famine after the fourth consecutive year of drought. While we were turning up our noses at too much kebab, the United Nations was reporting that more than five million people -- one quarter of Afghanistan's population -- were on the verge of starvation.

The military campaign that was supposed to deliver Afghanistan from an inhumane regime was delivering a new humanitarian catastrophe. We left Mahbuhbullah's house and his vegetable patch, shared a meal with Berget, and headed south, toward Kabul.

At the end of each day, Ghulam Sakhib, Wahid, David, and I would find an eatery where unshod patrons sat on a wooden table-stage. We would take off our own mud-caked boots and climb onto the podium as well, swatting away flies and making a true spectacle of ourselves: two Afghan men, a foreigner with long hair, and an unveiled woman with a crew cut who smoked cigarettes and ate with the men. Almost always, I was the only woman in these chaikhanas. Almost always, we were the only unarmed diners. Every time we dined out, we were the entertainment: everyone would stare at the foreigners as they ate.

The restaurant owner would approach to take our order. Inevitably, we would order "kebab, garm" -- hot, one of the most important words in Dari for foreign travelers who believe that heat kills bacteria -- and a few minutes later, the man would reappear with a pewter tray laden with bouquets of thin skewers spearing juicy meat.

Around the world, grilled meat on a skewer is the ultimate bonding dish, the object of envy and the subject of mockery, the source of bitter disputes between friends and rivals, and the meal of celebrations. In Somalia, it was made with goat. At the al Hamra Hotel and Suites in Baghdad, chicken tikka was a reliably overcooked (and barely edible) staple. At the palace of one Iraqi sheikh in Saddam Hussein's tribal village of Auja, kebab was made with lamb (not as good as the meat we had had in Afghanistan, sorry). The photojournalist Kim Komenich and I were in Auja in 2005 to report on an American army doctor making house calls as part of the U.S. military's "hearts and minds" strategy for winning over hostile Sunni tribes. The doctor, a full colonel, was a woman, which was why everybody assumed that it was Kim -- with his imposing 280-pound frame and a neatly trimmed gray beard, both clear signs of superiority -- who was the guest of honor. While the rest of us were handed plates with moist, perfectly spiced red meat, Kim, with much ceremony and to everyone's amusement, was served a pair of grilled lamb testicles.

Sometimes the owner or the other diners would join us, telling stories of loss: of family members killed in the quarter century of fighting; of wealth and youth robbed by wars and droughts; of fertile gardens left behind when the Taliban invaded their villages, forcing all men to either join the militia's ranks or run away. Kitchen help -- boys barely in their teens, tomorrow's warriors, who had known no heroes or role models other than rebel field commanders -- would listen politely, waiting for the older men to ask the question that was the most important to everyone, the question we had no answer for: how soon would the war end, how soon would the men of Afghanistan be able to put down their guns and return to their fields?

Afghan Lamb Kebab

Serves 8

In Afghanistan, fat-bottomed sheep wander the pastures everywhere, oblivious of the land mines, so there is never any question about the freshness of the meat on your skewer. The lamb you'll buy in the United States is most likely imported from Australia, therefore you should allow it to marinate overnight to make it more tender. If you can, use a charcoal or wood grill.


  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • Salt and white pepper, to taste
  • 2 pounds boneless lamb (leg will work)
  • 8 ounces lamb fat, cut into thumbnail-size cubes
  • Ground sumac (sumac is a crimson spice you can get in most Middle Eastern groceries)
  • Lemon wedges, for serving
  • 4 loaves fresh lavash or other flatbread


  1. Combine the lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add the lamb and lamb fat. Mix well, cover and marinate in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight.
  2. Skewer the lamb, threading 4 pieces of meat and 2 or 3 pieces of fat onto each skewer. Alternate the meat and the fat so that the fat nuggets are skewered between pieces of meat. (You don't have to eat the fat, although Berget and his crew did; its main purpose is to keep the meat moist while you're grilling it.)
  3. Grill, turning frequently, over smoldering coals for about 15 minutes, until the lamb is brown and cooked through (when you pierce the meat with a fork or a sharp knife, juices should run clear).
  4. Sprinkle with ground sumac and serve with lemon wedges, flatbread, and hot black tea, preferably very sweet.

 Anna Badkhen's new book, "Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories," a travelogue about war, food and humanity, came out this month. 

By Anna Badkhen

Anna Badkhen has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Somalia, the West Bank and Gaza. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, David Filipov, and their two sons.

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