War in Afghanistan

Lin Gendi

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 February, 2012, 12:00am

CALCULATED RISK I've been a businesswoman all my life and came to Afghanistan in 2003 because some friends were here. I didn't want to run a restaurant in the beginning and opened a shop in Kabul city centre [a Western-style mall] selling Chinese products - clothes, decorations, everything. But I was losing money and after a year I started looking for something more profitable. At that time many Chinese businesspeople were coming to Afghanistan, along with more and more foreigners who I knew loved Chinese food, so I decided to open a restaurant. I had run a restaurant in Shanghai but it's easier to operate a restaurant in Kabul. Shanghai is a nice city - it's No 1 for everything but money. Here, there are many opportunities to make money. I [took over] the restaurant in 2005 - it's always been here [on a small street in the upmarket Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood].

BETTER THAN SEX I had some problems during the first year, such as police raids. My tactic was to pay them a little money to get some peace and quiet. After a while, they came to understand that we are a proper business, not like some other 'Chinese restaurants'. I'm operating a legal business. Foreign people come to eat. Afghan people think all Chinese restaurants are 'women' businesses [where prostitutes are available]. Even today, at eight in the morning, some [Afghan] people came. I saw them on the CCTV camera and thought, 'Why have these people come? It's eight in the morning! It's crazy!' One of my staff members spoke to them [in the Dari language] and told me: 'Hey, mamma, they want a lady.' I told them to f*** off.

MAMMA'S THE WORD I get maybe half of what I need [for the restaurant] here and half from China. I have a good relationship with the Chinese Embassy here. There is a direct Ariana Afghan Airlines flight between Kabul and Urumqi [in Xinjiang autonomous region] once a week. The embassy always gets fresh produce - vegetables, whatever - flown in from Urumqi and they give some to me. I have an international contact for getting alcohol - but I only sell it to foreigners. My chefs are Chinese and my waiters are Afghans. We communicate in English. Some of my [Afghan] staff know a little Chinese because they've been here for a long time and they always hear me talking. Everyone understands this is a dangerous place, but in China [waiters make] maybe US$500 [a month]. I give them double that. My staff and my customers call me 'mamma'. Afghan women are not the same as me. Sometimes my staff ask me: 'Are all Chinese women like you?' I say, 'Not all, but all Chinese women are good at doing business.' We are strong. I've been here for many years now and all the people understand I am strong.

AN HONEST WOMAN My husband, Andy, is English. We met here. He used to work for Ariana, writing flight manuals. We've been together for five years now and got married more than a year ago. I had been married before, when I was 26, 27, for two years and had one son. Andy had never been married before and didn't have any children. He never wanted to get married, but maybe I am more direct than other people. I say what I want to say. After a few years together, I said to Andy: 'If you don't want to marry me we are finished.' We went to Shanghai to get married and have a party. Last May, we went to England to celebrate our one-year anniversary. Now my husband and I run the restaurant together.

ON GUARD Life in Afghanistan was OK before. Yes, there were bombs - boom, boom, boom - but I knew they were targeting United Nations cars, government cars, not us. But last year there were too many explosions. It's not the same. I have started to worry. Security is expensive. I hire security guards to man the gate outside the restaurant and they account for a large part of my operating expenses - maybe 10 per cent of the overall costs. My restaurant has UN approval and I always have security people telling me I must upgrade my security otherwise UN people won't be able to come here. Quite often, people phone up to book for 20, 30 people, then at the last minute they cancel because of security concerns. What can I do? I can't get angry. Now I am careful about preparing food for large groups. If I tell the chef to prepare food for 20 people in advance and they don't show up, then I'd be left with a lot of wasted food.

PLAN B Business is pretty good, but if the security situation doesn't improve then I will pack up and go. I'm not very old and I still have power [as a businesswoman]. Maybe I'll go to England, to do business there, open a restaurant. If life looks like it will be easier in England, maybe I will wind things up here. And it'd be great if I could find people to take over the restaurant in Kabul.