KABUL — You summon a ride using the Kaweyan Cabs taxi-hailing app, listening to upbeat Pashtun pop as your driver takes you through streets clogged with traffic. You get to the workshare space at the Hub, where you rent a desk and spend a few hours responding to emails on your laptop, and perhaps play a few rounds of volleyball in the yard. You then head to the trendy iCafe, with handmade wooden tables, and order a latte while you chill out on the cushions of the roof deck, watching the glittering lights of the city’s skyline, and wait for friends.
“When we come back from the office we can get together here,” said Liza Noori, a 20-year-old who works as a secretary at the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. She had let her headscarf fall to her shoulders as she spoke with a group of girlfriends at iCafe. “We can sit and enjoy talking. We can lounge.”
Nestled within choked streets and obscured by the car bombs and bleak security worries that include a resurgent Taliban pushing toward urban centers and an Afghan branch of ISIS emerging in numerous provinces, a different Kabul has emerged. It is a surprisingly resilient semi-underground collection of locales frequented by young, hip, educated Afghans working for both international companies and local startups.
“It’s a great opportunity, and it’s the right time,” said Shakib Mohsanyar, a 25-year-old Kabul University graduate who founded the Hub. “A lot of entrepreneurs and startups want to do something for their country.”
A nascent, tech-savvy hipster Kabul is one of numerous success stories in Afghanistan since the toppling of the Taliban in 2001, when entire Kabul neighborhoods had been reduced to piles of rubble during previous years of civil war.
“Afghanistan was in a really pitiful state in 2001 and 2002,” said Scott Worden, Afghanistan director at the United States Institute of Peace. “Starting at an admittedly low baseline, numbers on health, education, roads, and electricity, all these basic needs and numbers have risen dramatically — there was an enormous transformation in a short period of time.”
Hipster Kabul offers a limited set of venues. The Hub, a nondescript Kabul villa that serves as a coworking space, is decorated with an antique shortwave radio and handmade furniture made of Afghan wood. Businesses subscribe for desks or offices for between $150 and 1,500 per month, including internet, coffee, and lunch. Clients include startup internet companies, aid groups, and the organizers of a local Model UN conference.
Young middle-class Afghans with a little bit of money and a sense of style eat at the Istanbul Restaurant at Majid Mall, grab sandwiches at Slice Bakery, or shop for clothes at Fariyab Market, which offers knockoffs of Western brands.
Security woes limit any effort to live a normal life of a young urban professional in Kabul. For a few freewheeling years, a flood of expatriates and Afghan returnees from abroad launched restaurants and cafes that sometimes even served alcohol and drew both local and international customers. But a series of bombs targeting such venues quickly shut down Kabul’s emerging nightlife. Mohsanyar said even trendy cafes have become hazardous for him because of death threats he’s received, including a phone call last November.
“They called me and said, ‘You have to stop this stuff or we will come and kill you,’” he recalled. “The only thing we can do now is to support each other, to motivate each other.”
Bombs and attacks in the capital have scared off many foreign investors. But Javed Ahmed, an Afghan who moved back home after years in Austria, launched iCafe earlier this year, investing about $40,000 with his sister, to create a space where the Afghan literati and artist types can relax. Women and men mingle freely in iCafe, along with a smattering of foreigners sipping some of the best coffee in town.
“When I first came back I saw so many problems having to do with war,” he said. “But I also saw many young, educated people who wanted to sit and discuss their ideas.”
Customers and embassies have gifted iCafe a small collection of coffee table books and art resting along and hanging from its exposed brick walls. “I don’t know how people live without coffee. I really don’t,” says a quote by the former MTV host Martha Quinn, painted on a wall.
Jawad Mansouri, 24, is an IT guy at a international aid organization in Kabul. It was an evening in late September and his first visit to iCafe, and he marveled at the scene. “The people are sitting at the tables and can speak about anything,” he said, sipping a latte. “We can smoke and drink coffee and relax.”
Afghanistan has few provisions for small businesses. Unlike oil-rich countries such as neighboring Iran or nations on the Persian Gulf, its people have had to hustle to get by, and an entrepreneurial spirit thrives by necessity. Small infrastructure improvements over the last year, including the extensive paving of roads inside and outside the cities and the introduction of 3G mobile data, have encouraged some to invest.
Kaweyan Cabs, Kabul’s version of Uber, is one of the most successful new businesses, founded by a woman named Kamila Siddiqi but since sold to another local business group. It oversees a network of 60 or so drivers, handling at least 50 rides a day and earning about $500,000 a year in revenue.
“We are very successful,” said Sheyma Bahadawi, president of the company. “Most of our customers are women. We saw that they had these services for people all over the world and we wanted to bring them here.”
For these Afghans, it’s not just about the chance for profits that leads them to take the risk of launching a business — it’s pride in their home. “We belong to Afghanistan,” said Mohsanyar. “As someone who grew up in Afghanistan, it’s my responsibility to do something. It’s a way to make a difference.”