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Thursday 16 October 2014

Despatches from the Kabul Café, Book by Heidi Kingstone, Advance Editions (2014), 8* out of 10

With her empathy for the position of women in Afghanistan, a healthy dose of irony for expats living the (good?) life in Afghanistan and an eye for beauty and fashion in the most unlikely places, Ms Kingstone's very readable vignettes are a thoroughly worthwhile addition to the plethora of writing sparked by the West’s intervention in Afghanistan.

When western democracies go to war in far away places in the 21st century, public opinion demands that they win hearts and minds. Moreover, they must  set-up institutions for democracy to take root after the killing of enemies and the collateral damage to friends and undecided or innocent bystanders is done.

So besides the military and their private sector entourage - security firms, contractors of all kinds - western governments will want to make sure that they bring with them a whole group of idealistic civilians. They do this by generously funding so-called non-governmental organisations, which can recruit the right kind of individuals for various projects and organise their stay in their war-torn destination.

In “Dispatches from the Kabul Café” one of these, journalist and foreign correspondent Heidi Kingstone, provides a collection of vignettes in which she turns a critical yet sympathetic eye on the people who have come to make Afghanistan and the world a better place, of which Ms. Kingstone herself was one. The period to which most of her stories and their cast of characters refer is 2007/2008 when Ms Kingstone was based in Kabul was one more hopeful (for some) than the present. But, with the benefit of hindsight, she includes events that happened after her departure. 

Ms Kingstone’s book is readable, ironic and sometimes sardonic without becoming downright cynical, and occasionally moving. The lives of people who seek adventure, career advancement, romance or (just) the opportunity to do good are often veteran NGOers moving from one of the world’s crises to another: Iraq, Darfur, East Timor, Afghanistan…. 

Next to a belief in meaningful work, there is a risk premium that not only heightens income but also adrenaline, testosterone and oxytocin. So amorous adventures, lust and sometimes even love can thrive among the expats ducking Taliban-rockets and attempting to avoid Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). But if the reader were tempted to give up Tinder and look for romance in the Afghan expat community rather the author has a warning in the form of a Local saying: The odds are good but the goods are odd; and so Ms. Kingstone finds herself holding a machine gun on a Nevada shooting range. 

Ms Kingstone is at her best when her stories are about the women in the Kabul, either  among the expat NGOers or  among the Afghan women they meet outside their work. Her eye for beauty and fashion in the most unlikely places and the gentle irony in her writing make there despatches not only readable but a worthwhile addition to the plethora of writing sparked by the West’s latest intervention in Afghanistan.

Heidi Kingstone

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