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Serena Confidential: Intrigue at Kabul’s Only Five-Star Hotel

“It’s like high school,” I said to Matt, “with people gossiping about who’s walking with whom or sitting in the lunchroom together.” We were in the coffee shop of Kabul’s only five-star hotel, the Serena.

Matt lives there while on assignment in Kabul; I was on my longest stay to date, eight days of luxury in the midst of Afghan squalor.

We’d been debriefing one another, gossiping about our fellow guests–-Ambassador Zal, it seemed, had just checked in to a room down the hall from Matt’s, while our mutual friend Tawfiq was checking out, heading to Dubai, it later emerged.

I’d seen Tawfiq, a businessman with connections high in the Karzai government, the night before at a party by the British Embassy’s pool, and he hadn’t breathed a word about his departure—but then, I hadn’t even told him I was coming to Kabul. When we ran into each other in the Serena coffee shop, he barely contained his surprise.

Something about Kabul makes everyone act like spies, though not, alas, in the high-Bondian style. Because the Serena is dry (think Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, or, indeed, high school), its coffee shop occupies the social niche that bars usually hold. And so the Serena doesn’t have the fun quotient of, say, the Al Hamra pool scene I remember from Baghdad in May and June 2003, or the legendary rooftop bar of Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel in the 1960s.

Tawfiq seems to live in the Serena coffee shop, telling everyone about an extremely complicated business deal gone wrong. The other habitués run the gamut: dazed-looking Japanese aid bureaucrats, plump Afghan businessmen, small clusters of what my friend Lisa calls “teshukor ladies.” “Teshukor” is the Dari for “thank you,” and it’s the only Dari this species seems to know. They are women of a certain age who do good works, like training Afghan women to sell useless small handicrafts. They veil themselves profusely so as not to be culturally insensitive, and I don’t have the heart to tell them that when you’re sexually hors de combat, no one cares whether you cover your head or not.

Because there’s just one place like it, everyone ends up at the Serena sooner or later, both wealthy Afghans and foreign workers (called “internationals” rather than the quaint-sounding “expats”). Recently, another friend had called to tell me he’d just seen a powerful Afghan political figure materialize in the large, open Serena lobby in the company of an American from Spectre Group. (No, you couldn’t make that up. There is something very literal about Afghanistan. It took me years to realize that the reason some Afghan businessmen of my acquaintance wore black shirts with white ties wasn’t that they were from “another culture”; they dressed like gangsters because … they were gangsters.)

The Serena lobby boasts none of the nooks and crannies of grand old Western hotels—the coffee shop comes closest—so sightings tend to be immediate and journalists quickly start texting and emailing. The hotel is probably wired–-the only question is by whom, and what tolerance they have for tedium. I can picture the bored monitors listening with headphones in some basement: “If I have to hear Tawfiq complaining about his business partners again…”

This was just the second time I’d stayed at the Serena in eight years of visiting Afghanistan regularly. It didn’t exist in my first trips in 2002-2003, the rough times when I’d lose ten pounds on a month-long stay, and then when it opened, in 2005, it seemed decadent to stay there. The cost of one night, about $200 at the “journalist’s rate,” was a decent Afghan salary. Most of us visitors rented rooms at the homes of other internationals, which also provided access to English-medium social life. I sometimes went to the Serena to swim laps in its pool, Kabul’s best, but I resented the $31 charge.

In 20052006, when I spent a fair amount of time in Kabul, any stay in town was a guilty pleasure, and even the most modest guesthouse or international’s home was a five-star fleshpot in comparison to the life I led while visiting Afghan friends in the provinces. Hot showers, flush toilets, wireless Internet, espresso, and the chance to exercise were all thrills. (What ultimately drove me crazy about real Afghan life was the enormous amount of time spent sitting.) Kabul social life, by contrast, was great fun, with mad, adventurous sorts and a lopsided male-female ratio to gladden the heart of a woman past her prime.

By the summer of 2007, as it became clear that Afghanistan wasn’t going to grow its way out of poverty and instability until the insurgency ended, I started going on embeds with the American Army. This offered the comforts I was culturally primed to value—the gyms and coffee shops and real bathrooms, and food that didn’t make you sick. Having spent my share of time projectile vomiting or urinating blood in remote locations, digestive calm counted as a huge advantage. I would spend brief stints in Kabul to interview generals and government officials, but my life was once again in the provinces. I had the sense—or perhaps I just wanted to believe—that Kabul social life wasn’t as amusing as it used to be, with free spirits replaced by mercenaries, and then by bureaucrats.

This April, I stayed at the Serena for the first time, between visits to Afghan friends in Khost and Kabul and an embed in Zabul Province. It was mainly the pool that drew me: By April, it routinely climbs to 90 degrees at midday. Every day, I swam a mile or more. Every day, I chose my breakfast from the elaborate buffet, which even includes sushi for Japanese guests. (All the meals at the Serena are buffet style, and its nearest competitor, the Intercontinental, has an equally lavish but cheaper variation. Afghans know that they can’t be poisoned by their enemies at a buffet.) Sometimes I’d fire off an email to a colleague, “E.M. having breakfast with L.T and unknown African American—who?”

But every time I walked through the Serena locker room to the outdoor pool, I thought for a moment about an acquaintance, Thor Hesla, who was murdered there on January 14, 2008, in the course of a Taliban suicide assault on the hotel.

I’d met Thor at what still passes for Kabul’s raciest bar, the bunker under the Gandamack Lodge, just a month or so before. It was a memorable night, not least because it was the only time I’d kicked someone to the ground outside a martial arts dojo. A fellow American had picked a fight with me about opium cultivation statistics. (Where else but Kabul?) When he called me a “f***ing bitch,” I couldn’t help myself: thwack! An hour later, I met Thor and a much nicer group of Americans. He was funny and smart, and after an hour’s chat I hoped to add him to the list of my Kabul friends. But that was not to be.

Reminders of danger lurk elsewhere in the Serena. The outside-facing rooms are undesirable, not just for the street noise, but because the Serena has been a favorite target for rioters and, at no higher than three stories, the rooms rest easily in the crosshairs of high-powered rifles. Tawfiq liked to talk about a frenemy who boasted that he had the largest room in the hotel. “But when he invited me up there, I saw that he also had the worst room in the hotel—it was right by the street!”

On this pre-election trip, I got to re-immerse myself in Kabul’s international life. I attended a formal birthday dinner at the French restaurant Le Bistro, where the other women’s floor length dresses made me abashed for my clothes, more suited to trailing soldiers around Zabul. Then there was a traditional Afghan garden party at the home of a very gracious Afghan-American businesswoman, and a drink at the Gandamack with an old friend. We agreed that the crowd was more female, younger, and less eccentric. The glory days of Kabul’s social life might be gone.

The pleasure on this last trip came in rushing about trying to stay ahead of events, which moved at a frenetic pace before the end of Ramazan paralyzed the country during a four-day holiday. (“What do you do for Eid,” I asked Afghan friends when I first learned about Ramazan. “We visit our families”. “But you do that every day,” I replied.)

Grab your BlackBerry and your two phones (one for each of the major mobile carriers, for those occasional network outages) and head out to the central bank, or a political gathering, or to ISAF (the Kafka-esque warren where the war is run, guarded by barely-English speaking soldiers from countries one wasn’t entirely certain existed—thank you, gallant little Macedonia). Or NTM-A (the blander, more rational command center for the disastrous mission of training the quite irrational Afghan Army and police), or one of those eerily quiet Afghan government ministries.

Many of my colleagues on the right side of the spectrum still spin every obvious disaster in Afghanistan as an opportunity, but it’s been clear to me for about a year that all the trend lines point Down, and that very little can be done to reverse that without changing the Afghan government. I sometimes wonder how much longer the Serena will be open. And, more to the point, under the regime that sooner or later topples Karzai’s, will they still let women use the pool?

Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, reports frequently from Afghanistan. She is the author of the first extended biographical study of David Galula, recently published by the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College