Thu 12 Oct 2023
Once the site of legendary parties, the Intercontinental in Kabul is still a potent symbol of who rules Afghanistan – and what its future might hold
At the first barrier, a Talib smiles; he has orders to smile. At the second barrier, a sign: Weapons Handover Point. Those who deposit their Kalashnikovs here will receive a locker number and get their weapon back upon leaving the hotel. The road winds up the hill between circular trimmed hedges. At the third barrier: a body search. Then, behind a metal gate, the driveway to the hotel finally appears. Car tires squeal on the marble slabs in front of the entrance.
The Intercontinental Hotel towers over the Afghan capital like a castle. Kabul, this war-ravaged city. The noise of its car horns can no longer be heard up here.
The Intercontinental Hotel, Afghanistan’s first luxury hotel, opened in 1969. It was built in a time that feels much further away than the year suggests. Afghanistan was at war for more than 40 years. Rulers came and went, and every one of them was here, at the Intercontinental. Its former luxury has faded, but the Intercontinental has remained a symbol: those who rule Kabul rule Afghanistan, and those who rule Kabul rule the Intercontinental.
Today, the hotel is run by the Taliban. They entered Kabul on 15 August 2021. Although they have been in power for two years, they have remained enigmatic. Only horror stories seem to leak out: for two years now, women and girls have been forbidden to attend secondary schools and universities. Women are no longer allowed in public parks. Women and men are whipped for adultery.
However, the Taliban’s biggest experiment has gone almost unnoticed by the rest of the world. It’s taking place at desks across the country. The new government is forcing Taliban and non-Taliban to work together – in the administration and in government-related businesses. Young men share an office with young fighters they once feared, and young fighters sit next to young men they once despised. A lot depends on this experiment. It will help determine whether peace will last, whether there may be reconciliation, or at least a normal life – together, as far as possible.
This great experiment can be observed on a small scale inside the Intercontinental. And there might be no better place to glimpse Afghanistan’s future than here, where past and present meet.
The automatic sliding doors rattle with age as they open. The Intercontinental welcomes its guests at a massive marble counter. Behind it, a wood-panelled wall with four clocks – Kabul, New York, London, Dubai: cosmopolitanism in a closed-off country. The Intercontinental does not accept credit cards, since Afghanistan is largely cut off from international banking. A guest arrives with a plastic bag full of cash.
Only every second chandelier in the lobby is lit. “We’re saving electricity,” says Samiullah Faqiri. Faqiri is responsible for marketing at the Intercontinental. He was immediately enthusiastic about the idea of letting a foreign journalist look behind the scenes of the hotel for a few days.
Faqiri is 28 years old, his beard neatly trimmed over his round cheeks. He has been working at the hotel for two years, since the Taliban came into power. “I’ve been marketing like crazy,” he says in fluent English, telling us that he invented the hotel’s new slogan: “Intercontinental for everyone.” He had the words printed on billboards in Kabul. Faqiri knows, of course, that only very few Afghans can afford a meal or a night in a luxury hotel right now. According to the UN, nine out of 10 families cannot even afford enough to eat. One night in the cheapest room costs £80, which for many is a month’s wages.
But Faqiri has a goal to reach in terms of how much profit he needs to make. The hotel belongs to the government. All profits go to the state, which then releases money for wages, maintenance and renovation. Although Faqiri works for the Taliban, he himself is not one of them. When Faqiri speaks of the Taliban, he says “they”. “If I don’t reach the target, they won’t kill me,” he says, laughing. When Faqiri laughs, his nose starts to wiggle, then his shoulders, his belly – a very physical, very contagious laugh, usually bursting out of him after sentences that would otherwise sound gloomy.
Faqiri comes from a family that lacks nothing. His father is a university professor. The whole family lives together in a house very close to the hotel. Faqiri studied business administration in India. Before the Taliban took power, he liked to wear basketball vests. Today, like almost everyone, he wears a shalwar kameez, a traditional Afghan garment.
To meet his target, Faqiri needs more rooms at the hotel to be occupied. The Intercontinental has 198 rooms in total. About a fifth of them are in use, Faqiri says. As long as no country in the world recognises the Taliban, there will be no busloads of tourists. But Faqiri doesn’t give up. When the Canadian government evacuated endangered Afghans, he made a deal with the agency organising flights: the Intercontinental became the meeting point for the evacuees fleeing Afghanistan. Faqiri rented out 120 rooms and managed to get those fleeing the Taliban to check into their hotel before leaving.
Faqiri works until the early afternoon. A young Talib is standing at the reception, leaning against the black marble. His name is Mohammed Elyas Niazai. Faqiri introduces him as “the night shift”. Faqiri and Niazai are part of this big experiment at the Intercontinental, a normal Afghan man and a Talib, two young men who are supposed to work together under the big plan.
Niazai rides up in the golden elevator, his contorted reflection visible on the walls of the small cabin. Niazai is 23 years old, his beard unruly and a bit patchy. His eyes are awake, but his gaze is unsteady, making him appear like both hunter and hunted at the same time.
Niazai occupies room 311 on the third floor. It has standard furnishings: heavy moss-green curtains, thick carpet with an intricate pattern so the stains aren’t as visible, ashtray. Unlike Faqiri, Niazai lives in the hotel. He says he is the human resources manager. He, too, studied business administration: “The hotel business is a good business, hardly any risk.” There’s not a single personal item in the room, but maybe it’s not actually his. He says he has a second, secret one. It’s where he keeps his weapons: an M4 assault rifle, captured from French soldiers, and a Glock 22.
Again and again, someone calls Niazai on his mobile phone. It’s the GDI, the Taliban’s secret police. They ask him why a journalist is roaming the hotel. Nothing goes unnoticed. They are hiding somewhere, watching. There are cameras in the hallways, but supposedly not in the rooms.
Niazai joined the Taliban when he was 16 years old. A special army unit had killed his uncle and cousin, and foreign soldiers had allegedly been involved. Niazai’s jihad, his holy war, was born out of revenge. He studied at a university in Kabul. He claims that he spoke very good English back then, but he has forgotten a lot of it now. On his smartphone, Niazai shows us photos from that time: a young man with a fashionably blow-dried fringe and chin beard. Niazai spied on his fellow students on behalf of the Taliban. When his studies allowed it, he fought outside Kabul against Nato troops and the Afghan army. He claims he can build a bomb with a plastic bottle and $2.
When he used to arrive late and his professor would ask him why, Niazai would reply in English: “Legends are always late.” He’s proud of this sentence, he still knows it by heart.
All this was years before the fall of Kabul. The capital was supposed to be the heart of the new Afghanistan that the Americans and their allies had built with billions of dollars in development aid over the course of 20 years. But the loyalties in this city were never as clear as some would have liked to believe.
On 15 August 2021, Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban. There was little resistance. Late at night, the Taliban drove up to the Intercontinental in their pickup trucks. In the hours before, the hotel’s security guards had abandoned their posts. Some stormed the lobby and stole the computers. The Taliban put their fighters up in the hotel and sent the staff home. Two days later, they called the hotel staff and told them to come back, and said the Intercontinental was open again. “At first, the employees were afraid of us,” Niazai says, “but we had orders to be nice to them.”
The golden lift stops on the fifth floor. This is where the entire history of the Intercontinental comes together. On the left, next to the elevator, is the entrance to the Pamir Supper Club. Starting in 1969, lavish parties were held here. The first Afghan pop musicians with long hair and guitars performed at the Pamir Supper Club. Afghanistan still had a king back then, Mohammad Zahir Shah. In 1973, his cousin, Prince Mohammad Daoud, overthrew him in a coup; Daoud was assassinated by communists five years later. The parties went on. Months after the murder, the Intercontinental invited guests to a Bavarian festival at the club, including an early drinks buffet and “schnapps on the house”, sponsored by Lufthansa. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The American officials at the Pamir Supper Club made way for Russian ones.
While the country descended into civil war, the Intercontinental remained a world apart. When the Russians left in 1989, the Afghan president, Mohammad Najibullah, pulled up in front of the Intercontinental in his black Mercedes. In 1992, the Mujahedeen marched into Kabul, groups of Islamist holy warriors equipped and trained by the US to fight the communists. The Mujahedeen ate at the Intercontinental free of charge and were soon fighting each other in the capital. Rockets flew into the hotel. The notorious guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and his men took it over.
On the fifth floor, on the right, at the end of the long corridor, is the Khyber Suite, the Intercontinental’s penthouse. A balcony winds around the suite, affording guests a view over all of Kabul. When I visited, the UN was hosting a course: how to solve interpersonal conflicts. Here Massoud is said to have planned his attacks, studying his targets through binoculars. But in 1996, new and even more radical Islamists came from the south and conquered Kabul for the first time. They were the the Taliban. They castrated and executed Najibullah, the ex-president with the Mercedes, dragged his body around the city and hanged him in public. The Taliban removed the chairs in the hotel bar and sat on carpets.
There are no windows in this long corridor on the fifth floor. Neon lights on the walls brace themselves against the darkness. The carpet smells like dust and something else, something sour. The hotel’s employees don’t like to be on the fifth floor. It’s haunted, they say.
Two days after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Taliban held a press conference at the Intercontinental. The Taliban foreign minister said they didn’t know where Osama bin Laden was. “I only know he’s not here,” he said. It was a lie. Bin Laden was a guest of the Taliban. The Americans invaded Afghanistan a few months later.
After the invasion, the Intercontinental once again became the meeting place of foreign diplomats, business owners and rich elites. The new government renovated the place with the help of contractors, but it wasn’t the same. One company closed the balcony in the dining room, where guests could feel the breeze from the mountains while enjoying their coffee. Another company added another dining room; it has clouds painted on the ceiling and looks like a cruise ship. Another sold off the marble slabs in the garden. The hotel staff says that corrupt officials just took what they wanted from the Intercontinental, as they did with so much in Afghanistan. “Those cursed people destroyed everything. All that’s left is the name,” says one longtime waiter. “Apart from that, there’s nothing left from the old days.”
For years, the Taliban fought underground. They gained strength despite the presence of thousands of Nato soldiers in the country. In 2011, they attacked the hotel. Nine suicide bombers killed 12 people and themselves. The last attacker detonated his bomb on the fifth floor, in room 523. The room has since been renovated. The bathroom is now decorated with pink tiles. Then, in 2018, another attack. For 12 hours, four or five assassins occupied the hotel. They murdered 40 people. Guests barricaded themselves in their rooms, hiding in the bathtubs. A clergyman who was staying in room 519 was killed in the attack. The man who now cleans on the fifth floor swears he hears him showering sometimes.
In 2021, just three years later, the Taliban captured Kabul for the second time. One of the guards outside the hotel knew some of the suicide bombers. “They were incredibly brave,” he says. Sirajuddin Haqqani, who orchestrated the attacks, is now minister of interior affairs. He gave a speech in the ballroom of the Intercontinental, thanking the families of his assassins. The hotel room doors are a reminder of the attacks: brown paint on bulletproof steel.
In the kitchen, Faqiri, the marketing manager, points to a large pot with a lamb simmering inside. “I sold that for $230. Write that,” he commands. Two families have rented a conference room, and the men are negotiating the bride price before their children’s wedding. Faqiri persuaded them to stay for dinner as well.
The pots in the kitchen contain food for 900 people. At noon and in the evenings, there is a buffet. Today, the kitchen staff are also cooking for the Ministry of Defence – 700 people. The food will be delivered to the ministry by truck with an armed escort – the Intercontinental is also the Taliban’s caterer.
The head chef is Sayed Mazaffar Sadat. He came to the Intercontinental before the Taliban took power. Sadat says he never considered leaving the country even after the Taliban took over. He will soon be representing Afghanistan in a cooking competition in France, and his friends tell him he should just stay there. He would be just one of countless young men leaving Afghanistan, legally or illegally, hoping to find a better life elsewhere. An estimated 1.6 million Afghans have fled since the Taliban came to power, and most of them are living in precarious conditions in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan. Sadat says, “My philosophy is: death will come anyway – it will come for you even if you leave your country.”
In the heat of the kitchen, one of Sadat’s cooks gives orders to a Talib who is standing idly by: “We don’t need you here. Go to your office.”
When the Taliban first ruled in the 1990s, they only placed one of their own at the head of the hotel. This time around, they have put their fighters in every office, integrated into several levels of hierarchy: Taliban and non-Taliban are forced to work together. All of the hotel’s female employees are at home. They are still supposed to receive their wages, but are not allowed to come to work. The only woman in the building works downstairs at the entrance of one of the security gates, screening female guests. She covers her body and hair, but she refuses to cover her face. She is too old for that, she says.
Faqiri rules the kitchen. He’s always on his phone, trying to solve a problem. Niazai tries to look busy. He sometimes lifts one of the bread baskets in the kitchen and then puts it down again, turns a single kiwi in his hands or eyes the expiration date on a can of Coke. He is also responsible for quality control, he says.
The Taliban are considered willing to learn. The leadership paid for training for some of them, and former guerrillas are now taking computer courses. The new rulers have decreed peace and reconciliation. And yet it remains a strange situation for many: the rebels everyone feared for 20 years are suddenly sitting in their offices. A former employee of the Intercontinental says, “One of the fighters was my subordinate. But what orders was I supposed to give him? He had a gun.”
Niazai looks around the hotel’s dilapidated tennis court. The net is missing and a referee’s chair is rusting in one corner. The tennis coach has fled to Spain, or so Niazai has heard. It’s his first time here: “Who knows how to play tennis?” Niazai has had many roles at the hotel in the past two years, and now he happens to be the human resources manager. He receives a salary, £450 a month, and is saving for his wedding. It’s supposed to be a lavish celebration – some day. He hasn’t met his bride yet.
“If they order me to clean rooms tomorrow, I won’t ask any questions,” Niazai says. He follows orders. The Taliban have a chain of command that is difficult to understand. What’s clear is that the emir in Kandahar and his confidants sit at the top, followed by the ministers in Kabul and their deputies. But there are powerful local commanders, in Kabul and outside. The Taliban are a less homogeneous movement than it sometimes appears from the outside. His commander once ordered Niazai to cut off his beloved long hair. He did it immediately.
He’s waiting for an order that will send him back to the front, any front. If the order came, he wouldn’t leave the next day, he says, but right away. “This hotel is like a prison for me,” he says. He misses the mountains, the forests and the cold rivers. When Niazai walks on the grass in the garden, he takes off his shoes and walks barefoot. He wants to feel the grass on the soles of his feet. Then, he says, all negative thoughts disappear.
The Hakimi family is staying on the second floor of the Intercontinental, in rooms 238 and 239. There aren’t many guests at the hotel. There is a group of Russians staying on the third floor who are picked up every morning in a white SUV. A development worker from India. A Pakistani businessman who sells lamps made from Himalayan salt. And the Hakimis.
Hayatullah Hakimi, 67, and his wife, Aziza, 64, fled Afghanistan in 1988. Hayatullah used to own a jewellery store. Then he came to the attention of the secret service.
The Hakimis have experienced the Intercontinental’s good times. Hayatullah used to close his store on Friday afternoon, and he and his wife would come to the Intercontinental. “We liked the Beatles at the time – pop music was just coming to Afghanistan,” Hayatullah says. Bands were playing concerts by the pool. Female tourists were swimming in bathing suits. The hotel was surrounded by pine trees, and in the garden, speakers piped out music by Ahmad Zahir, the Afghan Elvis. The Hakimis have photos from back then: he is sporting a thick moustache, long hair and shiny belt buckle, she is wearing bell-bottoms.
Hayatullah says: “A customer once offered me a visa to the US. But I didn’t want to leave. Kabul was the best place in the world.”
Aziza says: “Nobody wanted to leave the country, nobody wanted to go to Europe or America. People came to us.”
The Hakimis now live in Canada. They have come to Kabul to show their grown daughters the city they once left. They spend a lot of time driving around streets they don’t recognise.
Aziza says: “Everyone in this hotel wore beautiful suits. Men used to only wear their traditional clothes at home. It’s painful to see all these changes.”
Hayatullah says: “I cry every night. I hope the hotel stays open. It’s part of our identity.”
You can’t get into the Intercontinental without good connections. Faqiri’s father was one of the hotel managers during the first Taliban rule. They called him again after Kabul fell and asked if he wanted to come back. He sent his son instead. During the first period of Taliban rule, Mullah Omar, founder and head of the Taliban, once visited the hotel. The hotel had no guests, and he asked Faqiri’s father: “Why is no one here?” Faqiri’s father told the Taliban leader: “People aren’t coming because they’re afraid of you.” So Mullah Omar announced over the radio that all foreigners who wanted to be safe in Kabul should check into the Intercontinental. The next day, the hotel was full – at least that’s how the story goes.
Faqiri has ideas about how to fill the hotel. Enlarging the ballroom, building a helipad. Or moving one of the university faculties on to the huge hotel site, or a hospital perhaps. But all of this costs money that nobody has right now.
In the past, large wedding parties took place in the ballroom of the Intercontinental. Afghan weddings are attended by hundreds of guests, and traditionally have a men’s and a women’s area. Under the Taliban, it is forbidden to play music at weddings, but at some it can still be heard in the women’s section. Afghan women always find a way somehow, and the Taliban do not dare control the women’s area. But in the Intercontinental, the hotel owned by the Taliban, music is strictly forbidden.
Faqiri could have fled as well. On 15 August 2021, the day Kabul fell, a friend of his was at the airport. He would have secured a spot for him on one of the evacuation flights. But Faqiri stayed. He didn’t want to leave on his own: he wanted to marry his fiancee first. The wedding later took place in the grand ballroom of the Intercontinental. His wife gave birth to a son soon after the wedding. He hasn’t completely given up on going abroad yet. He would like to study for a doctorate. But, for now, he’ll stay here. Does he miss the old Afghanistan? “Of course I miss it.”
The golden lift stops on the first floor. Osama bin Laden briefly stayed here, rooms 196 and 197. Right next to the elevator, thick cables wind under a door and disappear under the fitted carpet, into room 114. Here, the secret police sit in front of their video monitors. They will hide the cables better in the future, one of the agents says in a contrite tone. Down the hall, room 122, is the hotel president’s office. Hafiz Zia-ul-Haq Jawad has taken a seat in his armchair. “The image of the Taliban is that we are here to break things. But we’re here to build,” he says.
It pains Jawad to see the rooms in the hotel deteriorate. It’s no longer worthy of its five-star rating, he says. He tells us that he wants to renovate it, rebuild it, make it accessible to all. Since the Taliban took over, the people of Kabul – Taliban and non-Taliban – sometimes come up to the hotel to take a picture of the view. In the past, they would have been turned away at the first security barrier.
Jawad says he doesn’t discriminate between Taliban and non-Taliban when it comes to his employees. He says he only cares that everyone works hard, is honest, serves the nation. “Sometimes I go down to the kitchen. I show everyone: I am one of you. We don’t want anyone to think that the Taliban are only here for a short period of time.”
There’s a photo from the hotel’s best days on the wall of his office, showing people swimming in the pool. Someone has painted over the women on the deck chairs with white paint.
In the evening, bats flutter over the Intercontinental’s pool, chasing mosquitoes that swarm over the stagnant water. A greenish residue lurks in the deepest part of the pool; it will supposedly be filled with fresh water eventually. A mosquito lands on Niazai’s french fries. He filled his plate at the buffet like he does every night. Faqiri is sitting next to him at the table. Above them hangs a string of lights.
The decay, the cracks, so obvious in the piercing daylight, are now softened by coloured lights. The wind rustles through the pine trees. Faqiri has put his hand on Niazai’s chair. He says they are friends. And for a moment, it really looks as if they are, two young men, both smiling. Faqiri smokes thin cigarettes. Niazai doesn’t smoke.
Most of Faqiri’s friends have left Afghanistan. Those who stayed have always been Taliban; he just didn’t know. At university in India, they once recorded a funny video, he tells me, him and his fellow Afghan students, dancing in front of the university. After the fall of Kabul, one of his fellow students called him to ask if he could please delete the video, because he was a Talib.
For Niazai, being a spy, waging a war in secret was a game. “Now the game is over,” he says. The Russians are sitting in a dark corner by the pool. They have been invited by the Ministry of Defence, and tasked with making old Russian helicopters airworthy again.
Later I ask Faqiri what he likes about Niazai. “He’s a good guy. He never says no when it comes to getting work done,” he replies. Faqiri says the Taliban need him and the other non-Taliban in the hotel. Niazai and the other Taliban are only very slowly learning how to run a hotel like this. Faqiri forms a kind of bridge between the Taliban and the other employees, as well as between the Taliban and the customers. It’s not easy with the new rulers. “I need to understand them. But they never explain themselves.”
I ask Niazai the same question: what does he like about Faqiri? “He’s got a pure heart. And he’s never jealous.” In general, if he doesn’t like someone at the Intercontinental, their days at the hotel are numbered anyway, he says. Formally, he and Faqiri are equal, but he is more senior because he’s a Talib, he explains.
Niazai loves to ride his motorcycle. For years, the Taliban rode into battle on old Hondas, always with a blanket on the saddle to sleep on at night, always moving fast. Faqiri has never ridden a motorcycle. He says working at the Intercontinental is his dream job. He wants to make £2-3m in profit this year, that’s the goal. “I can do it,” he says.
At some point during the evening, Faqiri gets up and goes home. His wife and son are waiting for him.
The chandeliers in the hotel have been extinguished. It’s after 11 pm. The laundry in the basement is closed, the sauna and beauty salon are barricaded. Only the gym casts a shimmer of neon light on to the white tiles. Niazai is pedalling on an exercise bike. Every night, he and his friends exercise here, he says, his friends being the Taliban guards around the hotel. But today he is alone. He has shed his traditional garb and is wearing an Under Armour tracksuit, a sports brand once popular with American soldiers in Afghanistan. The trash cans are filled with empty Red Bull cans.
Niazai once told me: “Peace is good for Afghanistan. But it’s boring for us.” He is afraid of getting used to this life. He was never afraid to fight, and now he worries that he will one day be afraid to go to war again.
A lot of the equipment in the gym is broken. The handle of the rowing machine is missing; a friend of Niazai’s tore it off with a particularly hard pull. The punching bag was also destroyed. It’s quiet, and only the whirring of Niazai’s pedals disturbs the silence. He says he doesn’t sleep much; none of his friends do. He sometimes sits alone in the lobby with his headphones on, watching videos of Taliban operations across Afghanistan, shared in WhatsApp groups. He doesn’t have to follow the news, Niazai says. He knows better than the journalists what is happening in the country. His oiled hair falls into his face as he leans over the handlebars. In his tracksuit, he almost looks like an ordinary young man spat out by the war.
Additional reporting by Lutfullah Qasimyar. This piece was originally published by NZZ