Ali M Latifi
May 21, 2021
On the morning of November 21, 2020, Syed Bashir Jalili woke to the violent echo of rockets raining down on Kabul. He rushed over to Majid Mall, in the city’s Shahr-e Naw neighborhood, where his high-end restaurant, Prime Steakhouse, was to open that very day. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
Jalili may have been fortunate, but Slice Café and Bakery, just down the street from Prime Steakhouse, was not. The rockets had shattered its glass doors and windows and injured three staff members. Ahmad Farid Amiri, who opened the café in 2016, told me that he spent $2,500 on repairs and medical costs. In the same neighborhood, the NEEL Beauty Salon saw a sudden wave of cancellations. “Whenever there’s a bombing or an attack, people just won’t show up, even if it’s a fully booked day,” said Neelofar Rasouli, who started the salon in 2015. Further down the road, at the Park Bowling Center ― on the third floor of another mall ― each blast reminded owner Farshid Rafi of how danger engulfs every aspect of Afghan life.
Prime, Slice, NEEL, Park Bowling, and their owners represent the paradox of doing business in Kabul right now. On one hand, Afghanistan is home to a generation of young entrepreneurs eager to start and back new enterprises. On the other, doing business in the country is becoming less secure as U.S troops prepare to leave in September and peace talks with the Taliban lag in Doha. The Afghan economy continues to be susceptible to downturns due to disputed elections, troop withdrawals, and aid cuts. But despite the challenges, all four entrepreneurs remain committed to their customers. Last year, Jalili spent over $2 million to build Prime Steakhouse and its neighboring sports bar, Buffalo Kings. Rasouli spent the end of 2020 expanding her salon. For these entrepreneurs, the promise of a new dawn makes the struggle worthwhile.
When Amiri opened Slice in 2016, there were few establishments that catered to rich, young Afghans — by some measures, about 100,000 of the city’s 4 million people. Most modern cafés were small, nondescript renovated houses hidden behind blast walls that didn’t allow Afghan nationals — and, in some cases, even dual passport holders. Slice changed that. Park Bowling Center’s Rafi, who could be spotted at the café every evening that year, shared that the shuttering of offices and NGOs, as a result of the first phase of withdrawal of foreign troops, came as a rude awakening to Afghan entrepreneurs. “Before that, they only cared about catering to highly paid foreign workers,” Rafi told me. “They created barriers between Afghans and themselves with their armored doors, gates, and security checks because they thought the foreigners would sustain them.”