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What's in Store

Ann Marlowe

Yet another all-too-ordinary Afghan tragedy: On Jan. 28, the Finest supermarket on 15th Street in Wazir Akbar Khan, a suburb of Kabul, was destroyed by a Taliban assault culminating in a suicide bombing. The target, the Taliban claimed, was the Afghan head of military contractor Blackwater (now known as Xe Services). But the 14 victims included a well-known Afghan human rights activist, Hamidi Barmaki, her husband, Dr. Massoud Yama, and their four children. Several employees of the market also died, but Western news reports haven’t given their names.

I shopped at the Finest about every other day during my last stay in Kabul. I didn’t know the murdered family, but I remember the Afghans who ran the market as unfailingly helpful and polite. In a country where customer service is a new concept, they were ahead of the curve. They would even send a young boy to help me carry my purchases four muddy blocks to my home. The Finest boasted not only an incredible selection of packaged foods, local handicrafts, toys, imported toiletries, and housewares, but ATMs from two different local banks. There are at least 10 other similar supermarkets in Kabul now, but of those I’d visited, the Finest had the most helpful staff.

What’s especially hateful about this attack is that the Taliban are taking aim at the fragile beginnings of a civil society and middle class in Afghanistan.

The Finest was frequented not only by foreigners but by upscale Afghans like the unfortunate Barmaki-Yama family. While some items, like pet food, were bought mainly by foreigners or hyphenated Afghans, the Finest also carried large samovars and other kitchen goods used mainly by Afghans. The toys on the second floor were also aimed at Afghans, as foreigners almost never bring their children to Afghanistan, lest they suffer the fate of the Yama kids. In November, I bought a model helicopter there for the son of Afghan friends in a second-tier city, Mazar-i-Sharif, where they don’t have such toys.

Stores like the Finest are not just providers of goods. In a place like Afghanistan, which has next to no public sphere, they provide one. Both men and women go to the elite supermarkets. Women do not buy food in traditional outdoor bazaars in Afghanistan; men do that shopping. But women can come to indoor places like the Finest, which are considered safer. As I’ve seen in another context — a popular park in a gated community in Mazar — Afghans often feel more relaxed in confined spaces that are accessible to the public than they do in more open public areas.

Even the fact that the Finest stocked a variety of shampoos is a small gesture toward civilization. After all, people who are comparison-shopping for shampoo are people who are not thinking about blowing themselves up tomorrow. The Finest turns out to have its own website, which speaks the language of retail worldwide, in often touching phrases (“afghan and expects customers”).

Private, Afghan-run businesses like the Finest are doing as much as or more than anything Western nations do in Afghanistan to pull the country out of benighted poverty and into the modern world. You might think they would have the vigorous support of the Afghan government. But you’d be wrong.

President Hamid Karzai did not offer his condolences on the occasion of the bombing, as he often does when Taliban are killed by coalition forces in a so-called wedding party. No, he was busy proposing that the war criminal and Osama bin Laden cohort Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf be the new speaker of Parliament, and condemning foreign Provincial Reconstruction Teams as “serious obstacles to the process of building government” — a description far more appropriate for Karzai himself.

And so it goes in our war, in which ordinary Afghans are often doing their damnedest to build up Afghanistan, and the president the United States subsidizes by the billions is trying to tear it down. The world was watching the thrilling events in Egypt while the Barmaki-Yama family was dying. I wonder when the Afghans too will decide they’ve had enough of their American-enabled autocrat, and stand up together as citizens to take back their country.

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