'Casablanca Rick's Bar of Kabul' serves up its last drink

Abdul Hamid spends his last night behind the U.N. guesthouse bar where he worked for 23 years.
Abdul Hamid spends his last night behind the U.N. guesthouse bar where he worked for 23 years. (Ernesto Londoño/The Washington Post)
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By Ernesto Londoño
Friday, July 2, 2010

KABUL -- The nearly naked swimmers and the pounding disco music might have left the impression that Wednesday night's crowd at the storied U.N. guesthouse bar was a routine gathering of expats blowing off steam in this war-weary town.

But the ruckus and revelry were a swan song for the country's oldest watering hole, the only place in Afghanistan where the booze flowed generously during the dogmatic years of Taliban rule.

The privately owned guesthouse has been used primarily, and at times exclusively, by U.N. staff. But it has fallen on hard times, and soon a developer will take over the property.

Early Thursday, as the crowd finally began to fade, Abdul Hamid, Afghanistan's unofficial dean of bartending, served one last round. It marked the end of an establishment that since the late 1970s had served countless spies, diplomats and journalists during decades of war and intrigue.

"You know those foreigners," Hamid said. "They like to enjoy their drinks. It's important for their relationships and their work."

Hamid landed his job at the bar in 1987. He was barely making ends meet as a government engineer when his sister-in-law, who worked at the compound, told him about an opening there.

Afghanistan's Soviet-backed communists were in power then, the customer base was heavily Russian and the drink of choice was vodka.

There were a handful of other pubs at hotels in Kabul, but the U.N. bar was the main haunt for people seeking to trade in gossip, political chatter and secrets.

"The best days were the communist days," Hamid said recently, leaning against the bar. "This was the central place to exchange information and news."

There were dozens of embassies in Kabul back then, and the bar's patrons were a sophisticated, genteel bunch.

"All the people were so polite," he said. "They came in, enjoyed themselves and left."

The Soviet withdrawal two years later and the civil war that followed gradually forced out the international community. The United States closed its embassy in 1989, and others soon followed.

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