I first went to Afghanistan in December 2006 as a researcher. On the first night I dined out, I went to Taverna du Liban with my supervisor, who had a favorable opinion of it. Since then, whenever I was in Kabul, I would go to the Lebanese restaurant, located in the diplomatic enclave of Afghanistan’s capital, at least once a week. I recall several friendships that began there, some forged, a few abandoned. Two of the many research assignments that I took in Afghanistan originated from my conversations with clients I met at the Taverna. In 2010 and 2011, when I lived on the same street as the restaurant, it was my favorite place to stop at during the day or in the evening for a quick, reassuring meal of Lebanese appetizers and mint lemonade. It was a preferred place to hang out with friends and to take visitors.
Taverna du Liban was more than just a restaurant. Yes, it served excellent food, but it also offered a sanctuary for the large development community in Kabul. Our meandering conversations often focused on the impacts of the international community’s long engagement in Afghanistan or individual motivations for the aid workers. We owed the pleasure of this retreat to the unflinching generosity of Kamel Hamade, the restaurant’s owner. He was a friend to everyone who visited his place. He treated customers as guests in his home.
Hamade would send free salads, falafel and other starters, and then chocolate cakes toward the end of the meal, to all tables. He would field questions about Middle Eastern politics, take interest in whatever we had to say and provide advice on living in Kabul, which was, and is, fraught with fatal risk. I often wondered how he managed to maintain his exceptional generosity amid the turmoil around us.
One evening in October 2010, my group was the last to finish eating at the restaurant. A few of us danced to Lebanese music and got him to join us. Such pleasant memories of freedom stay with me. You're unlikely to find foreigners abandon their fears and submit themselves to music late in the evening in a Kabul restaurant.
Underneath his courtesy and gentle smile, Hamade also seemed aware of the dangers of Kabul. “He always told me he had his gun at the ready to help defend his patch and the people who made it the special place it was,” BBC’s chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet, wrote last week.
In January 2008, after the attack at the Kabul Serena Hotel, Hamade fortified security at the Taverna. Sandbags and an additional entrance replaced what was a straightforward, single-door entry to the restaurant. The attacks at the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel in 2011 and at the resort near Qargha Lake at the outskirts of the city in 2012 reignited the perception that the Taliban would target civilians. As Western troops commenced their drawdown and donors began scaling down development projects in 2011, a few restaurants lost their clientele.
Like many foreigners, Hamade would often mention that he wanted to leave Kabul, that he wanted to set up a restaurant in a more peaceful and “easy” location in Europe. But he stayed on while we came and left. He continued to offer an oasis in an environment punctuated by hostility and kindness in equal measure, to expats and foreign workers alike. That changed last Friday, when an attack by the Taliban on his restaurant left him dead along with 20 others.
Hamade was one of the unsung heroes of the Afghan War. He gave us a space to be who we were at home and the time to adjust to our new reality away from home. It does not matter anymore whether we were friends or strangers, whether we met once or often. Living in Kabul drew our minds, our hearts to him. Hamade will be missed for the home he created for us. That home is now broken.
Kabul won’t be the same without Hamade. And we won’t be the same without him.