What It's Like to Run a Nightclub in a War Zone
There weren't any good places to go out in Kabul, so Marc Victor set one up.
Running a club is stressful enough, but try doing it in a war zone where alcohol is banned. Between 2004 and 2008, Marc Victor ran L'Atmosphere, Kabul's most infamous party spot—a notorious rooftop poolside bar and restaurant, crammed wall-to-wall with journalists, aid workers, diplomats, humanitarians, spies, contractors, and mercenaries. Or, as one VICE journalist described it, "the real-world equivalent of the bar from Star Wars."
In 2008, as Western hangouts increasingly became targets of terrorist attacks, Marc sold up, returned to Paris, and decided to write about it. The result is Kabul Kitchen, a comedy based on his life running L'Atmosphere.
I meet Marc in a cobbled courtyard outside his apartment in Paris. It is serene—pale green shutters, plants, and window boxes—like a postcard. He shows me inside and it's completely barren. The bedroom consists of a bed, the living room, and a sofa. No pictures, no trinkets, no stuff. He hands me some water in a mug. "It's hard to find somewhere quiet in Paris," he says. As we discuss his extraordinary life, it becomes clear why Marc wants some peace these days.
VICE: So firstly, how did you come to set up a club in Kabul?
Marc Victor: I never set out to run a bar. I was a journalist. I started out as a theater critic, then I went to work in Cambodia for six years for the French radio station RFI. When I came back to Paris, I was bored. So in 2002, when the Taliban fell, I decided to go to Afghanistan to work for an NGO that was training journalists to rebuild the media there. When the project came to an end after a couple of years, I wanted to stay. My friends kept saying to me that there weren't any good places to go out in Kabul. So I obliged.
Was there much of a party scene there at the time?
The expat community was young—most people were in their 20s and 30s and single. It was like a university campus. These kids worked hard, they had stressful jobs, and they wanted to play hard. Before I opened, there used to be parties at the NGO headquarters like UNICEF, and sometimes the American Embassy would host some wild nights, especially when it had contractors in town. But when L'Atmosphere opened, they started coming to my bar. Thursday was the big party night, because everyone had Friday off.
I guess living somewhere so dangerous, you'd want somewhere to let off some steam.
Exactly. That's why we built a swimming pool. Well actually, that took a while—none of the builders in Kabul had ever seen a swimming pool before, so when I tried to get it put in they literally just dug a hole and put some water in it. But I wanted to create an oasis.
In the TV series, everyone is drinking, shagging, and taking drugs all the time—like they had to make the most of every night because it could be their last. Was it actually like that?
Whenever a new young couple would arrive in Kabul, we'd place bets on how long it would be before they broke up—99 percent of them would. There's a constant, underlying tension when you live in a war zone. You never know what's going to happen from one day to the next. That really bears down on relationships. All the NGO workers were sleeping with each other, which was made even more complicated by the fact that they all lived in these dorm rooms. Finding somewhere to actually have sex was difficult. They worked together, lived together, partied together, slept together. It was intense—they needed the release.
How do you run a bar in a country where alcohol is banned?
My life became a constant struggle to get alcohol. It's easier to find drugs than alcohol in Afghanistan. When I first arrived, there were shops that sold alcohol to expats. But then they closed, so I had to go to the military bases to buy off the army. When they ran out I'd have to buy it on the black market, which would cost a fortune and you didn't really know what you were buying. Then I'd have to get it to the restaurant without being stopped by Afghan police. If officers caught me, they'd take me to the station and I'd have to bribe them with money or booze. It was always a battle—people couldn't leave my club drunk or they'd get arrested. And if an Afghan drank in my club and was caught, we'd be shut down.
How do you stop people leaving a club drunk?
With difficulty. The guy I sold the restaurant to after I left in 2008 actually ended up in prison. Sometimes, there would be periods when the Afghan forces would tighten up, just to prove that they were strong enough. They broke into the restaurant, confiscated the alcohol, and put him in jail for a few days. Karzai wanted to show muscle—that he was dictating the laws, not the foreigners.
Is that why you quit the restaurant?
Six years in Kabul wore me out. Up until 2006, the situation in Kabul wasn't bad for civilians and foreigners—all the fighting was between the military and the Taliban. But then the kidnappings and suicide bombings started. In 2008, there was an attack on the Serena Hotel: A terrorist walked into the lobby with a suicide vest strapped to him and killed six people. It was a clear attack on foreigners in the city. I closed the restaurant for a month and decided that I'd leave.
It must have been hard for you to protect your customers inside.
In the beginning it was OK. But as the years went by, and the situation between Afghans and foreigners got more tense, I needed more and more security. In the end we had six armed security guards, sandbags, numerous security doors, metal detectors. It became impossible to be safe. One incident in 2006 was a real turning point for me. A group of young US soldiers, who were apparently drunk, drove an army car through a traffic jam, causing a massive accident. A group of Afghans surrounded them, throwing stones. And the soldiers' reaction was to start shooting. There was a huge riot—and its aim was to kill all the foreigners in the city. I was out at the time in my van, buying booze for the restaurant. I was stopped by the police, with a van load of illegal alcohol. I called the restaurant. All the foreigners in the city had fled. It was chaos. All of our lives were in danger. Our neighbors saved the customers' lives—they put a ladder over the wall and hid them in their houses.
How was the restaurant seen in the local community? You had a bar and swimming pool with women in bikinis in a strictly Muslim country.
Like anyone who runs a club or restaurant, I had to have a good relationship with my neighbors. I hired a lot of them and their families. I put a fence around the swimming pool so people couldn't look in. Although the neighbors' kids would make holes in it so they could peek in and check out the women.
Did you ever have any moral problems with profiting from a war?
When I arrived in 2002, I did not arrive to a country at war. The Taliban had fallen, bin Laden had escaped. Countries have to start living again after conflict. Ninety percent of everything I made there stayed within the country. Some of the NGO types would tell me it was wrong to open a restaurant, you know, "We're here to help these people, not to drink and eat and party." I'd watch them arrive, say they would never come to L'Atmosphere, but 90 percent of them would end up there in the end once they got bored and needed a drink.
Is the club still open?
No. It stayed open for a while but it became impossible to keep the business going. In the end it got cemented over and turned into a parking lot.
Do you like being back in Paris?
Well with the terrorist attacks, I feel right at home... No, in seriousness, it's nice. It's OK. For now.
You sound like you're bored.
A bit. But you know, life is OK.
Kabul Kitchen season one box set is available now.
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