Yoga, blast walls and life in the Afghan 'Kabubble'

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 15, 2010 

KABUL, Afghanistan — If you're thinking about taking a yoga class at Kabul's Fig Health Centre, you'll be relieved to know that the yoga studio windows are packed with tilting stacks of green sandbags.

That way, if a car bomb goes off during yoga class, the sandbags and anti-blast glass will offer a little extra protection from flying shrapnel.

"It's unusual, but that's the state of business," said A., the 31-year-old Afghan co-owner of Fig who asked that his full name not be used out of fear of drawing attention to the latest attempt to create a serene sanctuary in one of the world's least-yoga-friendly war zones.

A one-hour hot stone massage at Fig costs $48. The 105-minute Moroccan recharge treatment — including body scrub, infrared sauna and acupuncture — goes for $70. One hour in the Jacuzzi is $8. Armpit waxing is $7. Eyebrow shaping is $6. And yoga classes are $4.

With its Scandinavian skin products and Arctic berry facials, Fig is part of a wider social scene catering primarily to the aid workers, profiteers, diplomats, military contractors, foreign journalists and expatriate adventurers living in the Afghan capital.

Because expat life in the Afghan capital sometimes seems far removed from the volatile war that has consumed vast swaths of the country, some people call it "the Kabubble."

Tuesday nights are set aside for ballroom dancing lessons. Until recently, the United Nations guest house held salsa classes on Wednesday nights. The Norwegian embassy offers its own yoga classes. A former demining training ground on the outskirts of Kabul has been transformed into a scruffy 9-hole golf course. And, for $200-a-month, members of the Kabul Health Club can sip freshly made smoothies from a juice bar while working out in a 24 hour fitness workout room.

"Here it truly is a bubble," said Abdul Farani, owner of the Kabul Health Club. "It's truly an oasis."

For most Afghans living in one of the world's poorest countries, life in the "Kabubble" is a guarded mystery. The thought of spending $200-a-month for a club membership is out of the question for most Afghans, who earn an average of $800 a year.

One spa treatment at Fig would be a month's salary for most Afghans in a country with a 35 percent unemployment rate, a pervasive culture of state-sanctioned corruption and constant dangers posed by the war with the Taliban.

At one time, the Kabul Health Club compound was home to a notorious restaurant run by a former British special forces commando turned security company executive who was gunned down in 2007 by robbers as he drove through Kabul.

Farani and his partners spared little expense in transforming the shuttered restaurant into a trendy health club that opened four months ago.

The club masseuse came from the Seychelles. The skin creams are imported from a popular Parisian cosmetics shop. The soccer field grass in the garden was imported from Holland. And the head of the hair salon spent years working in Dubai's signature seven star sail-shaped hotel.

"I believe in the value of a peaceful environment," Farani said while sitting in the club garden wearing Prada glasses and Diesel jeans. "We can rise to the levels of angels or sink to the level of devils and what's different is the environment."

Entrepreneurs like Farani who cater to "Kabubble" residents face a series of challenges.

Security threats often prevent people from leaving their barricaded compounds to get to yoga class or the gym. Some Afghans suspect that the spas are covert brothels, a perception that can make them a target for Taliban attacks.

Fig and the Kabul Health Club, like many businesses catering to Westerners and the Afghan elite, are hidden behind indistinguishable blast walls with no indication of what's inside.

"Afghans are really narrow-minded," said Farani, who fled Afghanistan with his family in 1979 and grew up in England.

Amid a climate of severe sexual repression, said Farani, "they feel threatened and wary of new concepts and new ways of doing things."

Only a handful of Kabul restaurants serve alcohol, and their right to do so is always in question. Afghan law prevents the sale of alcohol to Muslims.

The small number of places that serve alcohol usually rely on a vague letter from the country's cultural ministry that calls on restaurants to follow the law, uphold moral standards and not allow Afghans to drink.

It doesn't give them explicit permission to run a bar, but it does give owners enough wiggle room to serve alcohol to expats.

To enforce the rules, upscale capital restaurants ban most Afghans from coming inside.

"There are other places they can go that don't sell alcohol," said Fayez Hamdard, manager of the Gandamack Lodge, one of the more popular expat hang-outs in Kabul that bars most Afghans from coming inside at night. "There are only eight or nine places that serve alcohol."

The "no Afghan" rules create an awkward social segregation where most Afghans — save for the nation's elite — are prevented from going to the more posh restaurants in their own capital.

The segregation feeds divisions between expats and Afghans and fuels resentment among average Afghans toward the nation's power brokers who are granted privileged access to eat and drink at the off-limits establishments.

Afghans have developed a derogatory term for refugees who have returned to positions of power in Afghanistan: Sag shouey — "dog washer."

The Afghan slur is based on a story — which may be urban legend — about a one-time pet store owner in the U.S. who became a senior advisor in the interim Afghan government after 2001.

Aman Mojadidi, an Afghan-American artist originally from Florida, criticized Afghan expats who view the multi-billion dollar reconstruction effort as a chance to get rich.

"Many internationals, Afghans and Afghan expats alike, have come to perceive of the reconstruction effort no longer as a means to an end, but rather as the end in and of itself, resembling a free-for-all, a country where everyone is out to get what they can before the foreign armies and international organizations begin to pull back and the country begins its rapid descent from atop the mountain of aid money that has sustained it for so many years," he wrote in a recently published essay, "The Era of the Well-Intentioned Dog Washers."

A., the Afghan-born Fig club owner, thinks the expats are here to stay.

"I don't believe they would leave Afghanistan because nobody can afford to leave Afghanistan as it was in the 1990s," when civil war engulfed the nation, said A. "I am quite optimistic that they will remain here for a long time."

ON THE WEB

Kabul Health Club: http://www.thekabulhealthclub.com

Fig Health Center: http://www.fighealthcentre.com/Home_Page.html

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