Maija Liuhto | Longreads | September 2017 | 10 minutes (2875 words)
In the Old City of Kabul, there is an area known as Ka Forushi, the bird market. Visiting this old, roofed bazaar with its tiny lanes, spice sellers, and dancing boys is like walking into a scene out of “One Thousand and One Nights.”
It is here, among the clucking chickens, crowing roosters, and cooing doves, that Kabul’s oldest restaurant, Bacha Broot, has been serving delicious chainaki — traditional lamb stew — for over 70 years. Bacha Broot, named after the original owner who had peculiar facial hair, is from the Dari, meaning “boy with a mustache.”
While wars have raged on the restaurant’s doorstep, very little has changed inside. The claustrophobic stairs, the sparse interior, the tiny door easily missed in the maze-like bazaar; all in their original state. While modern fast food joints lure Afghanistan’s younger generations with pizza and burgers, Bacha Broot stays loyal to its recipe for success. The famous chainaki — lamb on the bone, split peas, and onions cooked for four hours in tiny teapots — has drawn customers for decades, during war and peace, good times and bad.
To get to Bacha Broot, one must first walk past the old Pul e Khishti mosque and the jewelry and watch sellers outside on the sidewalk. It is rumored that in the early 20th century, the mosque’s imam was a British spy, as any true Kabulian knows.
After the mosque, the bird cages appear. Take a right by the man selling roosters the size of a four-year-old child, step into a narrow lane, and you enter a different world. The bazaar is an assault on all five senses: the smoke from the open-fire kebab stands hits your eyes and nostrils as hawkers yell in your ears trying to sell you anything from bottles filled with a dark brown liquid — suspiciously reminding you of whiskey — to massive Afghan carpets. The bazaar is packed at any time of the day, mostly with men in traditional Afghan clothes, but there’s also the occasional woman in a blue burqa floating by.
After the carpet shops, there is a tiny blue doorway, with a sign reading: “The best chainaki from goat meat.” This is where you enter Bacha Broot. The rich, oily smell wafts from the restaurant as you climb stairs that seem like they haven’t been repaired in 70 years.
Upstairs, there are two rooms: one for women and one for men. Behind the counter on the men’s side stands Faridoon Bacha Broot, 37, one of the three brothers now in charge of their father’s business.
On the wall behind him, there is a picture of the sons with their father — an old man wearing traditional clothes and a turban. Faridoon pulls out a much older photo of his father from under the counter. In it, he wears a blue western suit, his hair neatly separated in the middle. The most striking feature is his full mustache.
“His mustache wasn’t actually that long, or anything special. People just called him [Broot] because he was so handsome,” Faridoon says and smiles.
The brothers grew up running around the restaurant while their father cooked and served customers. Their father encouraged them to go to school — he didn’t want them to follow in his footsteps. “He used to tell us that if we end up working here, it will make us sad.” Now, Faridoon believes his father was right. “We come here at three in the morning and go home at nine in the evening. It is only during Ramadan that the restaurant is closed and we can finally sleep,” Faridoon says.
It is unusually quiet today at Bacha Broot, and Faridoon has time to chat. It is Friday, a holiday in Afghanistan, and most men are at the Pul e Khishti mosque for afternoon prayers. One man has decided to perform his prayers inside the restaurant, in the corner under a picture of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a legendary mujahideen leader (Islamic freedom fighter).
An old TV set attached to the wall is switched to a channel playing nonstop melancholic songs of Ahmad Zahir, an Afghan singing legend from the ‘70s.
In the kitchen, Wahidullah Bacha Broot, 40, supervises the careful, time consuming preparation of following his father’s recipe. The wide, traditional stove is filled with dozens of bubbling teapots of chainaki. In the corner, there is an old Russian samovar where waiters prepare the chai they serve customers. “We make about two hundred servings of chainaki every day,” Wahidullah says. “We cut the meat, cook it, and distribute it in these teapots.”
It takes three to four hours for the meat to become tender. It is cooked with garlic, tomatoes, split peas, and salt — a simple recipe with a surprisingly delicious result.
In the dining area, old bearded men wearing prayer caps slowly pile into the restaurant. Some of them have been coming here for decades. They sit down and solemnly wait to be served. The young waiters bring them naan, a traditional flatbread, and doogh, a savory yogurt drink. Finally, the waiters pour the chainaki onto their plates from the teapots. Most of them eat in complete silence.
“I have been coming here every day for 35 or maybe 40 years,” says Mirza Mohammad, a 70-year-old man sitting next to the counter, slurping his tea. “I was Faridoon’s age when I first got to know their father. Now I’m getting old,” Mohammad says. “He was a good man, he cooked food for us and we always prayed for him. This restaurant hasn’t changed at all in all these years. The only change you can see here is in the people — many of them left the country during the wars and some of them were killed because of rockets or suicide attacks. All of my friends who used to come here have died,” he says. “My name is next on the list.”
During the four decades of war that Afghanistan has been through, the Broot family never left the country. They kept their restaurant open and continued serving chainaki to the hungry people of Kabul as rockets rained on their neighborhood, bombs exploded, and regimes changed.
During the four decades of war that Afghanistan has been through, the Broot family never left the country. They kept their restaurant open and continued serving chainaki to the hungry people of Kabul as rockets sometimes rained on their neighborhood, bombs exploded, and regimes changed.
Kabul once looked quite different. The Broot sons were all born in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when Afghanistan was under communist rule and Soviet troops invaded the country. Then, women could be seen wearing miniskirts in Kabul and there were clubs even in Lashkar Gah, Helmand, a city in the now conflict-ridden and extremely conservative south of the country.
“Back then, women would come here without headscarves. They were free, like foreigners today,” Wahidullah says.
Mohammad Eshan, 55, started coming to the restaurant with his father when he was little. Later, during communist rule, he started working at the Ministry of Interior. “I used to come here with my friends. The place has become much cleaner, but the people here are still very honest and pure like before,” he muses.
But the communist times were also riddled with violence. “When the Russians came, they killed everyone. Women, children, men… everyone was being killed,” Mohammad says. During this time, he left Kabul for his home in Panjshir, a province 60 miles from Kabul. The Soviets never managed to capture the province, because Ahmad Shah Massoud, the mujahideen leader, made it his base for the guerilla war against the occupying troops. The Soviet troops killed at least 900,000 civilians in Afghanistan (others estimate millions more), mostly in the countryside.
In 1988, Soviet troops finally withdrew from the country and four years later, in 1992, the mujahideen forces captured Kabul from the last communist leader of the country, Dr. Mohammad Najibullah. But internal power struggles soon led to a bloody civil war between different mujahideen factions.
“We were all going to school, like our father had told us to. But then, when I was in second grade, the war started,” Faridoon says. The heavy fighting forced schools to shut down in Kabul, and the boys ended up having to help out their father in the restaurant.
During the civil war, Faridoon remembers how they sometimes had to lock the door of the restaurant when fighting broke out in the street outside. The area around Bacha Broot is inhabited mainly by Tajiks, one of the many ethnic groups of Afghanistan. In the civil war, the country’s ethic groups organized behind rival mujahideen commanders and their forces; the area of Ka Fourshi was under the Tajik commander Massoud, and the militias of the Uzbek Abdul Rashid Dostum and the Pashtun Gulbuddin Hekmatyar often attacked the area.
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“We would have to wait for the fighting to finish, for our security. Then we would just go back to cooking, like always. This was quite usual those days,” Faridoon recalls.
Mohammad says he saw countless rockets land in this area. “One morning, twenty rockets landed here. There were dozens of dead bodies lying outside in this alley.”
Behind the restaurant, there used to be a big three-story building. “It was entirely destroyed by Gulbuddin’s [Hekmatyar] rockets.”
“Whenever rockets were being fired in this area we had to escape and leave the restaurant. But after that, we always came back and continued our work,” Faridoon says. He remembers how one day a rocket landed in an alley behind the restaurant. It didn’t explode, and remains there to this day.
The war and mujahideen infighting gave the Taliban the perfect opportunity to emerge. In 1996, the group entered Kabul, forcing the mujahideen to flee the capital. The last communist ruler of Afghanistan, Dr. Najibullah, had sought protection from the UN and had since been living inside their compound in Kabul. Before the Taliban took over, Massoud had offered to take Najibullah with him, but he refused, thinking the Taliban would spare him. But the Taliban came for Najibullah and brutally tortured and killed him by dragging him behind a truck. Then, they hung his body for public display.
‘We would have to wait for the fighting to finish, for our security. Then we would just go back to cooking, like always. This was quite usual those days,’ Faridoon recalls.
Under the Taliban, the bird sellers had to leave Ka Forushi. Keeping songbirds is an old tradition in Afghanistan, popular even among the poor, but for the extremist Taliban, birdsong was a distraction from religion.
“The Taliban came and told [the bird sellers that] they had to free the birds from their cages. They threatened them with punishment,” Faridoon remembers. The punishments the Taliban regime inflicted were horrific — public floggings, stonings, and executions were common. “I never went to see them, they were so brutal,” Wahidullah says. But he remembers how he heard about people’s hands being cut off by the Taliban.
Although Ka Forushi lost much of its liveliness, the restaurant kept its doors open. Women, who were then largely forced to stay indoors, could no longer come. Then, it was the Taliban’s turn to come eat chainaki.
“One of my father’s friends was a police officer in one of the police districts of Kabul. When the Taliban took over, he joined them. When they came here, he asked my father if he knew him. My father replied, ‘yes, I know you’,” Faridoon recalls. “They only asked us to pray regularly, nothing else.”
Whenever the Taliban came to the restaurant, they would secretly listen to music, something that had been strictly prohibited by the regime. “We asked them, ‘mullah sahib (sir), why are you listening to music but won’t allow us to do it?’ They claimed music was good for them, but not for others.” Ironically, the Taliban loved listening to the songs of Naghma, a famous female singer who often sang love songs, Faridoon remembers.
Whenever the Taliban came to the restaurant, they would secretly listen to music, something that had been strictly prohibited by the regime.
Thus, music could now only be heard from Bacha Broot when the Taliban were paying them a visit.
After the U.S. invasion in 2001, following the attacks on World Trade Center orchestrated by Al-Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden, Kabul was suddenly the center of world’s attention. The U.S. airstrikes on the capital sent the Taliban and al Qaida fleeing.
“We all know what the bombing was like,” Esham, the former Ministry of Interior employee, says and laughs dryly. He had to leave Afghanistan after the mujahideen took over, but returned shortly before the Taliban regime collapsed. “I saw the Taliban escape the city to the mountains. They gathered their weapons and left. They were in a bad condition,” he says.
In only a few days, the Taliban regime was finished. A new, Western-supported government was soon installed, with President Hamid Karzai at the helm. With the arrival of Americans in Kabul, money also followed.
“Karzai was at least a little bit good, because he brought dollars to Afghanistan,” Mohammad says jokingly, referring to the regime’s alleged corruption. “He didn’t bring money for us, just for himself and others with a big belly.”
As Afghans started returning from asylum, new businesses mushroomed in the city and modern restaurants opened, serving Western food. Soon there were even bars in Kabul where foreign aid workers, contractors, and spies went to spend their dollars on alcohol.
But the people of Kabul still appreciated the old fashioned style of Bacha Broot.
“Boys and girls started coming here, wearing jeans,” Faridoon says.
But then, as quickly as everything had started, it ended. The Taliban had slowly regained their strength and were now knocking on the gates of Kabul. Suicide bombers started blowing themselves up near embassies and government installations. The city was unsafe again, and foreigners stopped coming to Bacha Broot.
In 2014, new president Ashraf Ghani was elected and international troops began to withdraw. Unemployment rose exponentially, and the Taliban now holds more territory than at any point since 2001.
“This is the worst time I have seen in Afghanistan,” Mohammad sighs.
He used to have a small secondhand shop in Ka Forushi but is now unemployed. “Things have become expensive. All the bad things happen to common people, not politicians.” But despite his financial troubles, Mohammad still comes to Bacha Broot every single day for lunch, just like he has for the past few decades.
“People are poor, and the food is expensive,” says Shadana, a 40-year-old widow. She has sat down in the half-empty women’s side with her cheeky-looking eight-year-old nephew. Shadana’s husband started bringing her to Bacha Broot in 2002, after Karzai came to power.
“My husband used to bring me here. It has been nine years since he passed away. That’s why it has been a long time since I was last here,” she says as she watches her nephew devour his plate of chainaki. “All of Kabul has changed and only this place is like the past.”
Someone from the men’s side tells Shadana it’s time to leave. Her nephew quickly wraps the leftover flatbread in a scarf and slips his bottle of water in his pocket. “Little boys like this food,” she says and smiles as they leave.
It is still mostly men who come to Bacha Broot.
“Women rarely come to this area because it has a bad name. There were prostitutes here before. Now, poverty is a very big problem here in comparison to the past,” Muhammad Hashimi, 58, says.
Hashimi comes to Kabul twice a year from Germany where he has lived for 38 years. Each time, he makes sure he has time to come for chainaki, like he did in the ‘80s with his friends and brothers. “Places like this don’t exist anymore. The tradition has been lost. Being born and growing up in Kabul, the city itself was an adventure,” Hashimi says. “But that was before. It’s like a jungle now. So when we come here, we have a certain longing for everything that is no more,” he adds as he tears his flatbread into little pieces and dips them in the broth.
Faridoon and Wahidullah plan to keep this nostalgia alive, although they are looking for a new, larger space for the restaurant to accommodate a growing clientele. “Around us, everything has changed. There are many new restaurants that have modern interiors and serve different kinds of foods. But here we have changed nothing. The building is still the same, the food is the same and also the people,” Faridoon says. “We don’t want to lose that feeling.”
At Ramadan, the restaurant closes for a month as Muslims around the world fast from sunrise to sundown. For the Broot brothers, this means a month of well-deserved rest: lazy afternoons spent in prayer and sleep and long evenings eating at home with the family. But once Ramadan ends, the brothers will once again return to the bubbling chainaki teapots, aging guests, and clucking chickens of Ka Forushi.
No matter what happens in Kabul, at least chainaki will always be served here.
Maija Liuhto is a freelance journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan. She covers Afghanistan for the Los Angeles Times and the largest Finnish daily, Helsingin Sanomat. Her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English, the Christian Science Monitor, and VICE.
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