By Paktash Yasna (pseudonym)
I entered the cafe in Pol-e-Sorkh around noon. It’s one of the relatively new buildings in Kabul’s district three, or rather, one that has been given a new soul by modern design. It does not have a big sign outside or a prominent exterior, but inside the cafe there were plenty of tables and chairs for everyone. Cactus flowers lined the tables and windows. The walls were full of various sized paintings and Nastaliq calligraphies that increased a sense of splendour within the cafe.
I walked to a corner of the quiet cafe and sat on a gold-painted wooden chair. I had been in a confused headspace, and I was softly calling out to God in my heart for help. I looked around at the other tables that were occupied. A few of them were groups of friends and some of them were people sitting alone like me. We’d each taken to the dimly-lit corner tables of the cafe.
As I glanced around, I felt a deep loneliness. It wasn’t just mine. I felt the loneliness of us all there. Some of the others were gazing into unknown places or at far away points. It was as if they were miles away from where they were sitting. This loneliness is a feeling that is difficult to understand for those who do not walk this path.
I noticed among the cafe dwellers were a handful of girls. One or two of them were sitting and the other two or three had also chosen a corner by themselves. Maybe they were like me, looking to improve their mood or change their vibe. What do I know, maybe they were simply waiting for someone to come.
To my right was a young woman, also alone, wearing a long white summer shirt. Her hair was pulled back and tied in the shape of a tulip under her red veil. She was passing the time engaging with the iPhone in her hand.
I ordered a cup of espresso. I’d just finished my coffee when from another corner of the cafe, I heard an urgent voice, “It’s the vice and virtue guys. It’s the vice and virtue guys.” Three men entered the cafe with black turbans and scruffy beards, wearing white caps over their local clothes. Once inside, they separated and walked to different areas. One of the men came towards me and the girl who was sitting close to me at the end of the cafe. I felt my breath catch in my chest, a tightness gripping my throat. Maybe that woman felt the lack of oxygen more than me.
The man’s dark curly hair stuck out in all directions from under his black turban. Its wildness seemed to add to the stern look on his face. He did not look at me. He was focused on the young woman. I saw her quickly put her iPhone in her handbag as he approached.
“What are you doing here?” he asked after he stopped by her table. “Who are you chatting with?”
I was staring at them both. It looked to me like a demon interrogating an angel. The woman kept her eyes lowered and answered softly, “I am waiting for my friend here. My friend Soraya is coming to read a book with me.”
He pointed emphatically at the book on her table. “We are reading this book? This book?”
I could see the book from where I was sitting. I quickly realized it was the book “Becoming” by Michelle Obama. The former First Lady of the United States was beaming out from the cover, leaning forward with a bright smile and a bared shoulder.
“This place is not Islamic. Your dress is not Islamic. Your book is not Islamic either,” the man told the woman. “Why don’t you wear an Islamic hijab? We fought with the infidels for 20 years for your hijab!”
The woman did not reply. She did not even look at the man. Her eyes stared ahead, resting on the book in front of her. The man from Vice and Virtue warned her, “You should not be seen in this place again with this hijab.”
Then he turned towards me. He paused, but he didn’t say anything. I looked back at him. His eyes were full of hatred. His gaze slowly moved to the walls of the cafe, taking in its designs and carvings hanging on the walls, Nastaliq’s calligraphy, and the cactus flowers lining the windows. Then he slowly moved away from us.
He joined his colleagues standing near the owner of the café at the counter. They had been there for a few minutes already. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but from the hand gestures, I surmised that the young café owner appeared to be pleading with them.
Before long, the three men in their black turbans handed over a paper to the cafe owner and left. By the time they were gone, I no longer had an appetite for anything and decided to leave. I went to the counter to pay my bill and asked the owner what had happened.
“He fined me 10,000 afghanis (US$115). He fined me because there are girls here,” he replied.
That is a huge sum of money for a struggling Kabul cafe. I left with a lump in my throat and my thoughts consumed by the depths of the darkness in which we live.