The Triplegem Afghan Expedition: Kabul Part 3
The Chinese Brothel Scene
Black marble and maroon velvet, modern rock blasting from the speakers, ivory balls clacking on the pool table and an assortment of hard characters all bellied up to the bar or leaning over the green baize – they turned their heads as I walked in. I strolled up to the bar, asked for a Beck and listened as Wais, his New Jersey accent making him sound like a wise guy from the Sopranos, was showing his .45 to a shaved-headed ex-marine expat named Bryan. Bryan had his Russian Makarov 9mm on the palm of his left hand and was comparing it to the .45. He reminded me of my old friend, Eldon, from Kathmandu – he had the same intense, almost over-the-top, energy and enthusiasm. He was a born entrepreneur with his multiple deals being juggled like chainsaws and hand grenades in the volatile, but lucrative, war zone boomtown that Kabul had become.
After the guns, we all started comparing knives – not for size, like some sort of macho phallic contest, but for steel quality and blade usability, like wine connoisseurs comparing vintages. Mine’s an all-metal Spyderco folder with a wicked-looking serrated edge made from AUS-6 stainless steel. We continued exchanging information for awhile – I talked of gems and carpets and antique beads, he mentioned real estate, 4WD vehicles and special services, the hustle and connections. He was a middle man, could get anything, and was working on a deal to contract security for a convoy of supply trucks headed from Kabul to Kandahar. Our conversation was interrupted by a phone call. Leap-frogging the inefficient landlines, Afghanistan vaulted into the 21st century with several competing cell phone systems. A smile spread across Bryan’s face – the kind of smile usually seen on a child when he spies an unguarded cookie jar.
“Have you eaten? Do you like fried dim sum? I know a Chinese brothel that serves great dim sum, wanna come?”
Chinese brothel? Go out to dinner in the middle of the night? Wasn’t there a shoot-on-sight-curfew or something? Not to mention the lurking kidnappers, and rabid bandit gangs roving the post-apocalyptic nightmare landscape! This was obviously a trick question. Was it a test for the newbie? No, it had to be more, and it sounded like dangerous fun. Sure, I could huddle in my room at night and read, but this was Kabul, and no one ever comes here if they want to live forever.
He noticed my hesitation and raised his eyebrows and tilted his head, “Come on, I’ll call my driver, but I need more backup for this…”
Josh leaned over the bar. “Chinese food? Ya need more backup? I can go,” he said enthusiastically. Josh was a 30-ish American, bearded and one of the bartenders at the Mustafa. He’d been in country for a few years, first as Air Force Intelligence, now a freelance security consultant – maybe. Nobody could know what anyone was completely up to or who they really worked for.
“What a minute while I go up to my room and get my gun.”
I followed Bryan out of the bar, and as we waited for Josh he called his driver.
“I’ll come along,” I spoke casually, “It sounds like fun, but what’s going on?”
“I’ve seen this Brit around town for a while, and the rumor is that he’s good. This is my first chance to throw some business his way. I need a bid on a security contract for that truck convoy. I’ve seen him with Chinese hookers before, so I invited him to meet us at a place I know.”
Just then Josh came down the stairs with a well-worn, Soviet-era Kalashnikov hanging from a ballistic nylon strap over his shoulder.
ADVICE FOR FIRST TIME VISITORS TO AFGHANISTAN: Never get into a car at night with heavily-armed strangers, either local or foreign!
Bryan’s Afghan driver was waiting outside in a gray Toyota Corolla. I salaamed and gave him a short greeting in Dari, just to point out that I wasn’t a normal tourist. I got into the back seat with Josh. Bryan chambered a round in his Makarov and flicked on the safety before jamming it into his waistband and getting into the shotgun seat. He spoke to his driver in decent Dari, and off we bounced into the Kabul night.
The streets were eerily deserted at night. We passed the occasional armored car and several official land cruisers. Daytime traffic was horrendous, but nighttime was spooky with long angular shadows. Eventually we came to a quiet neighborhood and the words Shanghai Restaurant in red above a solid metal gate. Bryan got out and spoke to a speak-easy-styled slit in the inset door. A scrape of metal on concrete tore the night as the small door slid open. We looked around nervously then filed through the dark.
Inside there was an old-style, thick mud-walled Afghan house with a garden. An attractive Chinese mama-san led us to glass-topped rattan tables and cushioned chairs on a patio between the back of the house and the garden. Languid Chinese women in heavy make-up and skimpy outfits seemed to materialize as we passed through the house and were already beginning to parse us into couples by the time we sat down and made ready to order.
Bryan ordered the fried dim sum for all, Josh and I had cold green tea and Bryan had a beer. Our British guest arrived before the food. Though middle-aged and slightly overweight, he still walked with a spring in his step and his eyes were everywhere. Everything about him screamed commando and SAS. He had the cold, gunfighter’s eyes I knew so well from the Muj commanders in the 80s – killer’s eyes. Introductions were made, and another beer ordered. The prerequisite gun, knife and flashlight seminar then took place. Ex-military men in an active war zone tend to place a high regard on the quality of their equipment. Sharing reviews and first-hand experience takes the same place as prosaic chatting about the weather as an icebreaker. The Brit carried a Glock 22 and offered to provide others to any who might need them. Interestingly enough, everyone had a SureFire flashlight, including me. I guess it has the best reputation in military circles.
Bryan was a war zone entrepreneur, a Milo Minderbinder, if you will, but the Brit was a Merc, pure and simple. He was a professional who worked both Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously, and who exclusively used ex-British Gurkhas from Nepal for his main security force. I’d lived in Nepal for over ten years so I was quite familiar with Ghurkas. During the Raj, the British Gurkhas were the only soldiers who were a match for the wild border Pathans.
It was one of the more bizarre evenings of my life. The food was good, the ladies beautiful, the night pleasant and the conversation informative. I learned several ways in which to assassinate Hamid Karzai, why Gurkhas make the best security men, the proper way to organize a convoy though ‘Indian Country’ and much more. The ladies attending Josh and myself were polite and never too forward with their caresses. They could tell right away that we weren’t going to be customers, though the two ladies of the evening with The Brit and Bryan were encouraged to become quite friendly. I listened attentively with only minimal talking. As the night wore on I could tell from the way that the business talk was developing that the Brit had the mistaken impression that I was somehow involved, an impression that Bryan obviously implied without being overt, so I understood the true reason for my presence. Josh, with his AK, obviously looked like the bodyguard and, since I’m older than the others, I looked like one of the principles behind the convoy deal. It gave Bryan a stronger position from which to deal.
After a few hours Bryan called his driver to take Josh and me back to the Mustafa. The others would probably stay the night after concluding their business. I had a last beer before hitting the sack. It had been quite a first day back in Afghanistan.