New book reveals underbelly of expat life in Kabul

London-based Canadian journalist and author Heidi Kingstone, left with her book, Dispatches from the Kabul Cafe, right

London-based Canadian journalist and author Heidi Kingstone, left, with her book, Dispatches from the Kabul Cafe, on the right

New book reveals underbelly of expat life in Kabul

15 December 2014

By Jemimah Steinfeld

A new book casts light on the realities of expat life in war-torn Kabul.

London-based Canadian freelance journalist and author Heidi Kingstone lived in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2010 to write freelance stories about events and people in the ISAF-controlled city.

Dispatches from the Kabul Café is an illuminating series of vignettes of personal encounters  and experiences that she had in Afghanistan.

“It was a unique time in history. Afghanistan was once again at a crossroads and I was there to observe it,” she said, over the phone one cold December’s day.

Her book will be published in May 2015 by Advance Editions, a pioneering publishing house which offers peer-to-peer editing. It contains a memoir of her various experiences there, ranging from light and entertaining anecdotes (such as dalliances with other expats and finding the best coffee in Afghanistan) to treacherous missions to track down weaponry and to save locals in fear of their lives.

Kingstone starts the book writing that “as a journalist there was no more exciting story” than covering Afghanistan.

“There are endless stories of shocking brutality and cultural clashes – of cruelty, sadness, struggle, hardship and unendurable compromise. It’s never-ending,” Kingstone continued.

The Afghanistan that Kingstone lived in is still recovering from the height of the ongoing Nato-led War, which had begun in 2001. When Kingstone arrived seven years after the War begun, buildings were no longer shells, electricity and running water had largely been restored and life was starting to get back on track. But it was, and still is, a zone of conflict, and this forms the backdrop of the book.

“There was the context of the war. It’s all there and it’s not theoretical. It’s real. You live life in a heightened level,” she said.

At the same time “Afghanistan is more than just war, weapons and women,” she insisted.

“I wanted to write a book which represented Afghanistan in a different light. The Afghans are not all just faceless victims,” she added.

If this was Kingstone’s intention – to turn newspaper headlines into something more nuanced and personal – then it was a mission accomplished. Right from the start the reader is drawn into a world which is simultaneously familiar and alien.

Ariana, for instance, is introduced as a young woman who works at a beauty salon. She has fallen for an English man and pines after him; the lovesick teenager angle is instantly relatable. The ending, conversely, is not. Ariana can’t easily travel beyond her country’s borders and she can’t easily escape the clutches of another lecherous man.

Kingstone said she was acutely aware of the discrepancies between norms of life in Afghanistan and those back home and did everything she could to fit in. For example, she covered her head and wore baggy clothes. “All the stuff that you needed to conform to I did it,” she said. She also never walked alone, with trips to the local café being her main solo activity and taxis drivers who could speak some English and who knew the way to local expat hotspots becoming her lifeline. Kingstone said Kabul was not as dangerous then as it is today, pointing out that earlier this year a Lebanese restaurant, popular with foreign nationals, was blown up in Kabul, leaving 21, including 13 foreign nationals dead.

“When we were there we lived in a bungalow. We had guards who had lost their legs and carried no guns. They were very low-key. At the same time Dr Karen Woo was murdered in 2010. So it was safe, but there was always that element that something bad could happen,” she explained.

Kingstone paused, then added: “Of course for the Afghans it was much less safe.”

When asked about the best parts of her trip, that was undoubtedly the locals, Kingstone said.

“They were lovely, kind and considerate,” she enthused.

Other highlights included the stunning blue sky and the trees.

“The light was amazing! The sky was totally clear and in the spring it looked amazing. They also have beautiful roses – they’re famous for roses.”

Together with the highs were, of course, the lows. In particular, Kingstone said she felt frustrated she could not do more for the  local Afghans she befriended. For instance Ariana, the woman who fell for a British man, was in trouble and wanted to immigrate to the UK. Kingstone had no power to bring this about.

“You go there to report as a journalist, but also you want to help. But help comes from Afghanistan alone [meaning the government and people are ultimately the ones who can change the country’s fate]. So leaving was a low point,” she added.

Kingstone was based in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, which she described as“pretty chaotic”.

In the past she has been to Bangladesh which she said she found “overwhelming.” But she said of all of these Afghanistan was the most “bleak and desperate.”

So what of the future? What will the main challenges in Afghanistan be? Corruption is a big issue, “a blight” she said. Then there’s the economy. The influx of foreigners and aid has helped improve the economy and transform Kabul. The question, she said, was whether that was sustainable, now that foreign money was largely being withdrawn.

“That’s why expats call it ‘Ka-bubble’. It’s a hot bubble which might burst,” she added.

Heidi Kingstone’s book, Dispatches from the Kabul Café, will be published in full in May 2015. The first half of was published in September to allow for editing by readers. Find out more about the way Advance Editions works here.

Read an extract from the book here.

Heidi Kingstone’s top six books on Afghanistan

Descent into Chaos: How the War Against Islamic Extremism is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid

Cables from Kabul by Sherard Cowper-Coles

The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by Sir Rodric Braithwaite

Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan by Frank Ledwidge

Heidi Kingstone will be talking at Asia House on her new book as part of our Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival 2015. Click here for more information on the event, which will be held on Monday 11 May.