Smoke and fire billows from the top floor of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, during an assault by gunmen in Jan. 21, 2018.

Men try to escape from a balcony of the Intercontinental Hotel after an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Jan. 21, 2018, two-and-a-half years before the Taliban reclaimed the country. Gunmen stormed the hotel and set off a 12-hour gun battle with security forces that continued into Sunday morning, as frantic guests tried to escape from fourth and fifth-floor windows.

By Ania Hull

Swiss journalist Andreas Babst roams South Asia and the Middle east as a correspondent for the German-language Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ). He lives in India, and when time allows, works on his favorite side projects: feature stories. One of these stories, “Inside the Taliban’s Luxury Hotel,” came out last September in NZZ, first in German and soon after in English. In early October The Guardian Long read published it on their site after acquiring the right to the English translation.

The story takes readers on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, a landmark in Afghanistan whose walls witnessed, so to speak, more than a half-century of Afghani history, from military and communist coups, to the end of the country’s monarchy, to wars, invasions, political assassinations and everything in between. The more prosaic events of life — weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, vacations — threaded throughout.

More than that, however, Babst’s story is about the people who’ve been running the Intercontinental Hotel side by side since the fall of Kabul in 2021, after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban retook the country and, by extension, the hotel. Employees are Taliban and non-Talib Afghanis alike. In other words, two groups of people who need to work and live alongside each other, and are still figuring out how to do that.

Swiss foreign correspondent Andreas Babst of NZZ

Andreas Babst

Before reporting for this story, Babst had already written extensively about Afghanistan. In fact, he had made a point since moving to India in 2020 to go to Afghanistan every six months or so. “Right after the fall of Kabul, especially, journalists could go wherever they wanted,” he told me from his apartment in New Delhi. “But now that honeymoon phase is over for the international press. For this story about the hotel, when I first tried to return to Afghanistan, my visa was denied.”

Determined, Babst took to writing the Afghani authorities long emails of why they should grant him entry. “I finally acknowledged in an email that the situation in Afghanistan is complicated, that there is a lot of misunderstanding about it abroad, and that for those reasons, that story would be great and would help foreigners get a better idea.” He got his visa.

Babst pepper his floor-by-floor profile of the Intercontinental with characters and scenes, and points out key areas: a room where a famous person was assassinated; the rooms where Osama Bin Laden may have stayed and the pool where his people may have lolled; the basement gym where Talib employees exercise after work in Under Armor clothing; the off-limits room where the secret Taliban police listen on both employees and guests.

On the surface, the story echoes of Wes Anderson’s film “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” or Alec Le Sueur’s memoir “The Hotel on the Roof of the World,” or Amor Towles epic novel “A Gentleman in Moscow.” Babst’s prose is light but very direct, and the narrative stops for exposition only where that exposition adds an interesting detail. The characters are all tangible, some with a great sense of humor, others a little uneasy, and the reader feels for all of them, regardless of the sides they were and are on.

At times, the story reads like a tale from a different world.

And so, my initial reaction to “Inside the Taliban’s Luxury Hotel” was, unsurprisingly, delight — a strange feeling indeed, given that the story is in great part about the Taliban and humanizes individual Talibs whose organization denies women and other people of their basic human rights and favors public executions.

Soon, however, upon a second or third reading, hesitation replaced that initial feeling. I wondered whether a story that humanizes men who would rather spray a woman with acid than let her go to school has any place in journalism. Should we, as journalists, I asked myself, humanize the foe? Should we give people who torture others a voice and individuality, and even their own life stories? What is the value in that?

“I think that’s the issue that some people have with that story,” Babst said in response to my concerns. “To be clear, I do not support how the Taliban came to power or support their policies. But in the end, the Talibs are human like everyone else. Afghanistan was taken by foot soldiers who joined the movement as teenagers and who are now traumatized. All they know is how to fight.”

With “The Taliban’s Luxury Hotel,” Babst does not ask us to agree with the Taliban, or to sympathize with its members; he simply shows us something that we, as consumers of news, are not usually privy to.

“This story is meant to give you a peak behind the Taliban curtain,” he said. “The Talibs I met are very lonely and very traumatized. They come from a context and from families who have suffered a lot under the Americans. They (the Talibs) only know war, and don’t know another life. They long for that life, they long for the next fight, and that has and will have severe consequences for the region. And you can only begin to understand what may happen next when you start understanding how Talibs think.”

The original German published in the Swiss newspaper NZZ, and its English NZZ translation, was published on September 26, 2023. The Guardian Long Read bought the rights to republishing the story in English, and edited it a little, but also removed a few paragraphs. The Guardian’s version reads better in English than the translated NZZ version, and is the version that went viral. Andreas Babst notes a few differences in his answers below between the German version and NZZ translation, and The Guardian’s translation.

Annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Babst’s answers in blue. To read the story wihtout annotations, click HIDE ANNOTATIONS in the right-hand menu of your monitor or at the top of your mobile screen.

The lead image and headline of the English-language translation of "Inside the Taliban's luxy hotel" in Switzerland's NZZ newspaper

Inside the Taliban’s luxury hotel

Once the site of legendary parties, the Intercontinental in Kabul is still a potent symbol of who rules Afghanistan – and what its future might hold

By 

At the first barrier, a Talib smiles; he has orders to smile. How do you know this?  At the second barrier, a sign: Weapons Handover Point. Those who deposit their Kalashnikovs here will receive a locker number and get their weapon back upon leaving the hotel. The road winds up the hill between circular trimmed hedges. At the third barrier: a body search. Then, behind a metal gate, the driveway to the hotel finally appears. Car tires squeal on the marble slabs in front of the entrance.

The Intercontinental Hotel towers over the Afghan capital like a castle. Kabul, this war-ravaged city. The noise of its car horns can no longer be heard up here.

The Intercontinental Hotel, Afghanistan’s first luxury hotel, opened in 1969. It was built in a time that feels much further away than the year suggests. Afghanistan was at war for more than 40 years. Rulers came and went, and every one of them was here, at the Intercontinental. Its former luxury has faded, but the Intercontinental has remained a symbol: those who rule Kabul rule Afghanistan, and those who rule Kabul rule the Intercontinental.

Today, the hotel is run by the Taliban. They entered Kabul on 15 August 2021. Although they have been in power for two years, they have remained enigmatic. Only horror stories seem to leak out: for two years now, women and girls have been forbidden to attend secondary schools and universities. Women are no longer allowed in public parks. Women and men are whipped for adultery. You mention the brutality of the Taliban rule on the people of Afghanistan only a few times. Why did you choose to mention it here? And why did you not elaborate more? I felt it was important to place this paragraph at the beginning. I have reported on the Taliban’s brutality in the past — many journalists have. Its mention has to be at the beginning of this story, because it’s a terrible fact and is the stage on which this story is set. But the story is not about that, and that’s also why I make the break away from it in the next paragraph with “However.” How it feels to be surrounded by Talibs at the hotel infuses in the rest of the story.

However, the Taliban’s biggest experiment has gone almost unnoticed by the rest of the world. It’s taking place at desks across the country. The new government is forcing Taliban and non-Taliban to work together – in the administration and in government-related businesses. Young men share an office with young fighters they once feared, and young fighters sit next to young men they once despised. A lot depends on this experiment. It will help determine whether peace will last, whether there may be reconciliation, or at least a normal life – together, as far as possible.

This great experiment can be observed on a small scale inside the Intercontinental. And there might be no better place to glimpse Afghanistan’s future than here, where past and present meet. When did you become aware of this “experiment” in Afghanistan? Was it during your reporting for this story or before? I learned of this when I travelled to Afghanistan shortly after the fall. In September 2021 you could travel quite freely around the country as a journalist, on the condition that you registered with the concerned district administration. We’d have to wait a long time for our papers to be cleared, so we’d talk to the people who worked in these offices. They were regular men who wanted to keep their job, and to do so they had to adapt themselves to the new regime. That’s when I became aware of this for the first time. This mention of the “experiment” also reads like a nut graf. When and why did you decide to use this as your summar graf? It became the nut, and basically the thread throughout this story, after I had compiled all my materials for this piece. The more you think about it, the more you realize how essential this experiment is to Afghanistan. This is a country that wants to rebuild itself after years of war. How people will forgive each other and adapt to each other will decide if peace will last and whether a future without conflict is even possible. So, in this story, I discuss how Faqiri and Niazai learn to work together. How do they behave toward each other? The answers to these questions can help us imagine what will happen with Afghanistan in the coming years.

Reception

You structured the narrative by hotel area, so the story reads like a walk through the Intercontinental. Why did you decide on this walk-through movement? I had so many scenes and so many conversations with so many people, and I knew that I needed a clear way to organize all this so that readers could follow me through this story. I decided to take the reader by the hand on a walk around the hotel.

The automatic sliding doors rattle with age as they open. The Intercontinental welcomes its guests at a massive marble counter. Behind it, a wood-panelled wall with four clocks – Kabul, New York, London, Dubai: cosmopolitanism in a closed-off country. The Intercontinental does not accept credit cards, since Afghanistan is largely cut off from international banking. A guest arrives with a plastic bag full of cash.

Only every second chandelier in the lobby is lit. “We’re saving electricity,” says Samiullah Faqiri. Faqiri is responsible for marketing at the Intercontinental. He was immediately enthusiastic about the idea of letting a foreign journalist look behind the scenes of the hotel for a few days. You had to get all sorts of permits to be allowed to report about the Intercontinental Hotel. Why did you not mention this in the story? And can you say a little more about that process? I didn’t think it’d be interesting to the readers. But in short, we went up there to the hotel, we talked to Faqiri, and he said he would agree if we have the right documents, and we spent the next days getting all the relevant signatures. In the end it was a letter, which we carried from office to office, and all relevant parties had to sign it. We sent it to Faqiri, and he gave it to his boss, to whom we presented the idea. He agreed, and then we were good to go.

Faqiri is 28 years old, his beard neatly trimmed over his round cheeks. He has been working at the hotel for two years, since the Taliban came into power. “I’ve been marketing like crazy,” he says in fluent English, telling us that he invented the hotel’s new slogan: “Intercontinental for everyone.” He had the words printed on billboards in Kabul. Faqiri knows, of course, that only very few Afghans can afford a meal or a night in a luxury hotel right now. According to the UN, nine out of 10 families cannot even afford enough to eat. One night in the cheapest room costs £80, which for many is a month’s wages.

But Faqiri has a goal to reach in terms of how much profit he needs to make. The hotel belongs to the government. All profits go to the state, which then releases money for wages, maintenance and renovation. Although Faqiri works for the Taliban, he himself is not one of them. When Faqiri speaks of the Taliban, he says “they”. “If I don’t reach the target, they won’t kill me,” he says, laughing. When Faqiri laughs, his nose starts to wiggle, then his shoulders, his belly – a very physical, very contagious laugh, usually bursting out of him after sentences that would otherwise sound gloomy.

Faqiri comes from a family that lacks nothing. His father is a university professor. The whole family lives together in a house very close to the hotel. Faqiri studied business administration in India. Before the Taliban took power, he liked to wear basketball vests. Today, like almost everyone, he wears a shalwar kameez, a traditional Afghan garment.

To meet his target, Faqiri needs more rooms at the hotel to be occupied. Do you think Faqiri hoped that the story you were writing would serve as a sort of publicity for the Intercontinental, and hopefully bring more customers? Why was he so thrilled about a foreign journalist reporting on the Intercontinental, especially as the Taliban was watching? I think he was just very curious about us. Of course, all press is good press, so why not tell the world that the Intercontinental was open for business? He is a nice guy, maybe a bit vain, so he may have thought, why not let the world know how good of a job he is doing (which he is, given the circumstances). The Intercontinental has 198 rooms in total. About a fifth of them are in use, Faqiri says. As long as no country in the world recognises the Taliban, there will be no busloads of tourists. But Faqiri doesn’t give up. When the Canadian government evacuated endangered Afghans, he made a deal with the agency organising flights: the Intercontinental became the meeting point for the evacuees fleeing Afghanistan. Faqiri rented out 120 rooms and managed to get those fleeing the Taliban to check into their hotel before leaving.

Faqiri works until the early afternoon. A young Talib is standing at the reception, leaning against the black marble. His name is Mohammed Elyas Niazai. Faqiri introduces him as “the night shift”. Faqiri and Niazai are part of this big experiment at the Intercontinental, a normal Afghan man and a Talib, two young men who are supposed to work together under the big plan.

Fourth Floor

Niazai rides up in the golden elevator, his contorted reflection visible on the walls of the small cabin. Niazai is 23 years old, his beard unruly and a bit patchy. His eyes are awake, but his gaze is unsteady, making him appear like both hunter and hunted at the same time. This line is so vivid that. Were you taking notes all along, or did you only take notes at certain times during the reporting? I always have my notebook with me. I was once told that it’s a good thing to make yourself visible as a reporter; you’re part of the situation unfolding in front of you, but you’re not part of it at the same time, and your little notebook protects you from being too involved. So, I take notes randomly, depending on the situation. Like in this elevator, I took notes two minutes later, when we were walking in the corridor. There is also an argument for noting down things on your phone, as it is less disruptive, and people feel less observed. I guess both methods have their pros and cons.

Niazai occupies room 311 on the third floor. You stayed on the third floor, too, but don’t mention in the story that you stayed at the hotel. I had mentioned it in an earlier version of the story, but we took it out. It might have helped for transparency reasons, but would it have helped the story? I did not want to be a protagonist in the story either. My NZZ editor and I believe that if you use “I” in a story, it has to serve something; if you use “I,” you are a protagonist and as every protagonist you must have a reason to be in this story. The best thing in these cases would be a little box at the end of the story, something like “Behind the story,” so the readers would get a sense of how this all came about. Unfortunately, NZZ does not follow this format. It has standard furnishings: heavy moss-green curtains, thick carpet with an intricate pattern so the stains aren’t as visible, ashtray. This is a wonderful detail about hotel carpets with intricate patterns meant to hide stains. It also reminds the reader that this hotel is perhaps not as updated as it ought to be. How did you come by the reason behind these intricate carpets? I asked myself why they were patterned like and went down a hotel-carpet rabbit hole on the internet. Unlike Faqiri, Niazai lives in the hotel. He says he is the human resources manager. He, too, studied business administration: “The hotel business is a good business, hardly any risk.” You told me that Niazai spoke to you through an interpreter, but you never mention this in this story. Why not? I didn’t think it’d help the reader, although it might have helped with transparency. I value transparency and I don’t mind telling readers how everything in a story came about. But I think what we as journalists feel it’s also important to think from a reader’s perspective, and I felt that this detail about my interpreter might have been less important to readers. I report from many countries where I don’t speak the local language, and because I mention phrases that Niazai specifically says in English, I think that most readers will assume that I have a translator with me. Lutfullah (who is an excellent translator) is mentioned at the end of this story as a contributor. There’s not a single personal item in the room, but maybe it’s not actually his. He says he has a second, secret one. It’s where he keeps his weapons: an M4 assault rifle, captured from French soldiers, and a Glock 22. Did you ask him that or did he offer that information? And did he show you the secret room? He showed me photos of it and told me the story. I fact-checked that the assault he mentioned took place: There had been weapons captured and the French soldiers had indeed used M4 rifles.

Again and again, someone calls Niazai on his mobile phone. It’s the GDI, the Taliban’s secret police. How does Niazai react to these phone calls? Why did you choose not to include his reaction? Maybe his reaction did not seem surprising or extraordinary to me. He seemed calm, explaining to the GDI that we were supposed to be there. He was slightly annoyed after a while. They ask him why a journalist is roaming the hotel. Nothing goes unnoticed. They are hiding somewhere, watching. There are cameras in the hallways, but supposedly not in the rooms.

Niazai joined the Taliban when he was 16 years old. A special army unit had killed his uncle and cousin, and foreign soldiers had allegedly been involved. Niazai’s jihad, his holy war, was born out of revenge. He studied at a university in Kabul. He claims that he spoke very good English back then, but he has forgotten a lot of it now. On his smartphone, Niazai shows us photos from that time: a young man with a fashionably blow-dried fringe and chin beard. Niazai spied on his fellow students on behalf of the Taliban. Did Niazai show any emotions (pride, regret) when he said this? Did you ask him how he felt? Or did you just let him talk? I just let him talk. He liked to brag a bit, and he definitely felt pride, as if he had fulfilled his duty. When his studies allowed it, he fought outside Kabul against Nato troops and the Afghan army. He claims he can build a bomb with a plastic bottle and $2. Did he say how he built these bombs? No. That’s why it was important for me to add “he claims.” Like I said, he liked to brag a bit.

When he used to arrive late and his professor would ask him why, Niazai would reply in English: “Legends are always late.” He’s proud of this sentence, he still knows it by heart.

All this was years before the fall of Kabul. The capital was supposed to be the heart of the new Afghanistan that the Americans and their allies had built with billions of dollars in development aid over the course of 20 years. But the loyalties in this city were never as clear as some would have liked to believe.

On 15 August 2021, Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban. There was little resistance. Late at night, the Taliban drove up to the Intercontinental in their pickup trucks. In the hours before, the hotel’s security guards had abandoned their posts. Some stormed the lobby and stole the computers. The Taliban put their fighters up in the hotel and sent the staff home. Two days later, they called the hotel staff and told them to come back, and said the Intercontinental was open again. “At first, the employees were afraid of us,” Niazai says, “but we had orders to be nice to them.” Did Niazai say how he felt about these employees at first? He was suspicious of them. The Talibs treat people they consider less “faithful” than them as below them, the way many religious fundamentalists do with people who have not found the “right path.”

Fifth floor

The golden lift stops on the fifth floor. This is where the entire history of the Intercontinental comes together. On the left, next to the elevator, is the entrance to the Pamir Supper Club. Starting in 1969, lavish parties were held here. The first Afghan pop musicians with long hair and guitars performed at the Pamir Supper Club. Afghanistan still had a king back then, Mohammad Zahir Shah. In 1973, his cousin, Prince Mohammad Daoud, overthrew him in a coup; Daoud was assassinated by communists five years later. The parties went on. Months after the murder, the Intercontinental invited guests to a Bavarian festival at the club, including an early drinks buffet and “schnapps on the house”, sponsored by Lufthansa. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The American officials at the Pamir Supper Club made way for Russian ones.

While the country descended into civil war, the Intercontinental remained a world apart. When the Russians left in 1989, the Afghan president, Mohammad Najibullah, pulled up in front of the Intercontinental in his black Mercedes. In 1992, the Mujahedeen marched into Kabul, groups of Islamist holy warriors equipped and trained by the US to fight the communists. The Mujahedeen ate at the Intercontinental free of charge and were soon fighting each other in the capital. Rockets flew into the hotel. The notorious guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and his men took it over.

On the fifth floor, on the right, at the end of the long corridor, is the Khyber Suite, the Intercontinental’s penthouse. A balcony winds around the suite, affording guests a view over all of Kabul. When I visited, the UN was hosting a course: how to solve interpersonal conflicts. With respect to “I visited:” What German verb did you use in the original? “Visited” made me think, as a reader, that you did not stay at the hotel, although you actually did. Would you have preferred the translation to have used “stayed” instead? And what about the use of “I”? So here my whole argument about not using “I” breaks down, because of the English translation. I did not realize that the translators had inserted me into the story. In German, it reads: “Gerade findet in Kurs ther Uno statt.” Which I would translate to: “At the moment, the UN is hosting a course.” I should have checked the translation better. And because now the “I” is in there in the English version, of course I could have said that I had stayed there for four days and that I had a translator and photographer with me. Did you have a chance to speak with representatives of the UN who were there? If not, why not? They weren’t representatives of the UN, only people who did logistical work, and it was all background. I also decided not to mention anyone who did not explicitly know that I was a reporter or had not agreed with speaking with me for the story, mainly so as not to cause them any problems. Here Massoud is said to have planned his attacks, studying his targets through binoculars. But in 1996, new and even more radical Islamists came from the south and conquered Kabul for the first time. They were the Taliban. They castrated and executed Najibullah, the ex-president with the Mercedes, dragged his body around the city and hanged him in public. The Taliban removed the chairs in the hotel bar and sat on carpets.

There are no windows in this long corridor on the fifth floor. Neon lights on the walls brace themselves against the darkness. The carpet smells like dust and something else, something sour. The hotel’s employees don’t like to be on the fifth floor. It’s haunted, they say.

Two days after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Taliban held a press conference at the Intercontinental. The Taliban foreign minister said they didn’t know where Osama bin Laden was. “I only know he’s not here,” he said. It was a lie. Bin Laden was a guest of the Taliban. The Americans invaded Afghanistan a few months later.

After the invasion, the Intercontinental once again became the meeting place of foreign diplomats, business owners and rich elites. The new government renovated the place with the help of contractors, but it wasn’t the same. One company closed the balcony in the dining room, where guests could feel the breeze from the mountains while enjoying their coffee. The idea of people in the past enjoying their coffee in the mountain breeze is a beautiful detail. How did find out about it? One of the waiters told me. Another company added another dining room; it has clouds painted on the ceiling and looks like a cruise ship. Another sold off the marble slabs in the garden. The hotel staff says that corrupt officials just took what they wanted from the Intercontinental, as they did with so much in Afghanistan. “Those cursed people destroyed everything. All that’s left is the name,” says one longtime waiter. “Apart from that, there’s nothing left from the old days.”

For years, the Taliban fought underground. They gained strength despite the presence of thousands of Nato soldiers in the country. In 2011, they attacked the hotel. Nine suicide bombers killed 12 people and themselves. The last attacker detonated his bomb on the fifth floor, in room 523. The room has since been renovated. The bathroom is now decorated with pink tiles. Then, in 2018, another attack. For 12 hours, four or five assassins occupied the hotel. They murdered 40 people. Guests barricaded themselves in their rooms, hiding in the bathtubs. A clergyman who was staying in room 519 was killed in the attack. The man who now cleans on the fifth floor swears he hears him showering sometimes. Your description of this likely makes the cleaning man easy to identify, and yet you don’t mention his name. Why? There were already so many protagonists, and I didn’t mention his name so as not to confuse the readers. And what he told me is in itself quite innocent.

In 2021, just three years later, the Taliban captured Kabul for the second time. One of the guards outside the hotel knew some of the suicide bombers. “They were incredibly brave,” he says. Sirajuddin Haqqani, who orchestrated the attacks, is now minister of interior affairs. He gave a speech in the ballroom of the Intercontinental, thanking the families of his assassins. The hotel room doors are a reminder of the attacks: brown paint on bulletproof steel.

Kitchen

Why did you move the story from the 5th floor to the kitchen? We already met Faqiri, and then and Niazai, and then we visited the fifth floor. And since Faqiri and Niazai are the main protagonists, I felt like the next “chapter” had to take place somewhere where we’d have a scene with both of them together.

In the kitchen, Faqiri, the marketing manager, points to a large pot with a lamb simmering inside. “I sold that for $230. Write that,” he commands. This quote by Faqiri is really funny. Why did you choose to add subtle humor here, especially as this is part of a story in which the presence of danger is palpable throughout the narrative? Because it shows Faqiri’s character: He is an amazing salesman. Two families have rented a conference room, and the men are negotiating the bride price before their children’s wedding. Faqiri persuaded them to stay for dinner as well.

The pots in the kitchen contain food for 900 people. At noon and in the evenings, there is a buffet. Today, the kitchen staff are also cooking for the Ministry of Defence – 700 people. The food will be delivered to the ministry by truck with an armed escort – the Intercontinental is also the Taliban’s caterer.

The head chef is Sayed Mazaffar Sadat. He came to the Intercontinental before the Taliban took power. Sadat says he never considered leaving the country even after the Taliban took over. He will soon be representing Afghanistan in a cooking competition in France, and his friends tell him he should just stay there. Was it dangerous for Sadat to say this to you? Niazai was sitting there when Sadat said this. So Sadat would not have considered saying this as something dangerous. Also, leaving the country is quite normal right now in Afghanistan. There’s a  common sentiment: Most of those who can leave, leave somehow. To hear someone say “I’m staying” is surprising. He would be just one of countless young men leaving Afghanistan, legally or illegally, hoping to find a better life elsewhere. An estimated 1.6 million Afghans have fled since the Taliban came to power, and most of them are living in precarious conditions in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan. Sadat says, “My philosophy is: death will come anyway – it will come for you even if you leave your country.”

In the heat of the kitchen, one of Sadat’s cooks gives orders to a Talib who is standing idly by: “We don’t need you here. Go to your office.” This line really took me aback. As a reader, I didn’t expect non-Talibs to be allowed to speak to Talibs like this. What was the unspoken hierarchy in the hotel? Was it by professional rank, or by membership in the Taliban? How did the Talib react, and why did you choose not to show his reaction? The Talib shrugged his shoulders. I wanted to include it, as it shows a bit the interaction between Talibs and non-Talibs; they are still getting used to one another and not everybody is happy to now have a Talib as their boss. The unspoken hierarchy is clear, though: The Talibs rank above all others.

When the Taliban first ruled in the 1990s, they only placed one of their own at the head of the hotel. This is a great example of “reader think,” where you discuss what the reader may be wondering just now. Why did you decide to place this very explanatory paragraph here in the story, and not earlier when we first meet the two main characters? I work in a region many of my NZZ readers don’t know much about, so I have to explain a lot because it’s very far removed from their lives. I think it’s better to have these explanatory paragraphs at the time you need them, otherwise nobody would ever find their way into my stories. I basically thought this paragraph fit here. Generally, when I write, it’s a lot about feeling rather than explanation. This time around, they have put their fighters in every office, integrated into several levels of hierarchy: Taliban and non-Taliban are forced to work together. All of the hotel’s female employees are at home. They are still supposed to receive their wages, but are not allowed to come to work. The only woman in the building works downstairs at the entrance of one of the security gates, screening female guests. She covers her body and hair, but she refuses to cover her face. She is too old for that, she says.

Faqiri rules the kitchen. He’s always on his phone, trying to solve a problem. Niazai tries to look busy. This is a wonderful contrasting image between the two men. Why do you think Faqiri seems so busy all the time, and Niazai feels the need to look busy? [/annotate] This paragraph is better in German: Faqiri herrscht durch die Küche, rudert mit den Armen wie jemand, der sein ganzes Leben lang Anweisungen erteilt hat. Er ist ständig am Handy, um irgendetwas zu klären. Or, in English: Faqiri rules the kitchen, waving his arms like someone who has been giving orders all his life. He is constantly on his cell phone, trying to sort something out. The “waving his arms” part got lost in translation, but it is actually important: Faqiri is used to giving orders, and he grew up in a household with at least one servant. Niazai, on the other hand, is new to all of this and to being in charge. He sometimes lifts one of the bread baskets in the kitchen and then puts it down again, turns a single kiwi in his hands or eyes the expiration date on a can of Coke. He is also responsible for quality control, he says. This is another line that speaks to the humor of some of these situations you observed. Did you laugh a lot in the company of Faqiri and Niazai? We did laugh a lot together. They are funny. I think we felt a general sympathy toward each other, apart from me being a journalist and somehow strange to them.

The Taliban are considered willing to learn. The leadership paid for training for some of them, and former guerrillas are now taking computer courses. The new rulers have decreed peace and reconciliation. And yet it remains a strange situation for many: the rebels everyone feared for 20 years are suddenly sitting in their offices. A former employee of the Intercontinental says, “One of the fighters was my subordinate. But what orders was I supposed to give him? He had a gun.”

Garden

Why did you move from the kitchen to the garden? I wanted to stay with one of my main characters, and the scene in the garden lend itself well to this.

Niazai looks around the hotel’s dilapidated tennis court. The net is missing and a referee’s chair is rusting in one corner. The tennis coach has fled to Spain, or so Niazai has heard. It’s his first time here: “Who knows how to play tennis?” Niazai has had many roles at the hotel in the past two years, and now he happens to be the human resources manager. He receives a salary, £450 a month, and is saving for his wedding. It’s supposed to be a lavish celebration – some day. He hasn’t met his bride yet. When did Niazai start trusting you enough to share such personal information? Or is this information not as dangerous or problematic as other information? Personal information is just personal information. Niazai would have had problems had he talked to me about the structure of the Taliban and his units. He opened up to me on my second day at the hotel. This was also thanks to my translator, Lutfullah, who is probably the warmest person I’ve ever met.

“If they order me to clean rooms tomorrow, I won’t ask any questions,” Niazai says. He follows orders. The Taliban have a chain of command that is difficult to understand. What’s clear is that the emir in Kandahar and his confidants sit at the top, followed by the ministers in Kabul and their deputies. But there are powerful local commanders, in Kabul and outside. Is this something Niazai told you or that you learned elsewhere? I learned this from all the analyst reports. Thankfully, there are still a few Afghanistan analysts left — for example, at the Crisis Group or CTC — who report regularly on the country. The Taliban are a less homogeneous movement than it sometimes appears from the outside. His commander once ordered Niazai to cut off his beloved long hair. He did it immediately.

He’s waiting for an order that will send him back to the front, any front. If the order came, he wouldn’t leave the next day, he says, but right away. “This hotel is like a prison for me,” he says. He misses the mountains, the forests and the cold rivers. When Niazai walks on the grass in the garden, he takes off his shoes and walks barefoot. He wants to feel the grass on the soles of his feet. Then, he says, all negative thoughts disappear. Is this — Niazai’s need to feel the grass on his soles — the reason why you decided to share this scene in the garden with your readers? Yes. It makes him human.

Second floor

The Hakimi family is staying on the second floor of the Intercontinental, in rooms 238 and 239. There aren’t many guests at the hotel. There is a group of Russians staying on the third floor who are picked up every morning in a white SUV. A development worker from India. A Pakistani businessman who sells lamps made from Himalayan salt. And the Hakimis. Why did you move the narrative from the garden to the second floor? Now that we know Niazai a bit better, we can take a break from him and give space to the Hakimis, who add a feeling of nostalgia to the narrative.

Hayatullah Hakimi, 67, and his wife, Aziza, 64, fled Afghanistan in 1988. Hayatullah used to own a jewellery store. Then he came to the attention of the secret service. You told me that meeting the Hakimis was one of those lucky reporting moments. They do bring an interesting dimension to the narrative, a different perspective on the hotel’s past and on Kabul. How quickly did they agree to speak with you? Were there questions they refused to answer? They agreed very quickly. We approached them the first day, or rather our photographer, Elise Blanchard, did because one of the Hakimi daughters started speaking to her.

The Hakimis have experienced the Intercontinental’s good times. Hayatullah used to close his store on Friday afternoon, and he and his wife would come to the Intercontinental. “We liked the Beatles at the time – pop music was just coming to Afghanistan,” Hayatullah says. Bands were playing concerts by the pool. Female tourists were swimming in bathing suits. The hotel was surrounded by pine trees, and in the garden, speakers piped out music by Ahmad Zahir, the Afghan Elvis. The Hakimis have photos from back then: he is sporting a thick moustache, long hair and shiny belt buckle, she is wearing bell-bottoms.

Hayatullah says: “A customer once offered me a visa to the US. But I didn’t want to leave. Kabul was the best place in the world.” Where did you interview the Hakimis? The hotel was basically empty, so we sat down in the coffee shop, and there was nobody there except us.

Aziza says: “Nobody wanted to leave the country, nobody wanted to go to Europe or America. People came to us.”

The Hakimis now live in Canada. They have come to Kabul to show their grown daughters the city they once left. They spend a lot of time driving around streets they don’t recognise.

Aziza says: “Everyone in this hotel wore beautiful suits. Men used to only wear their traditional clothes at home. It’s painful to see all these changes.”

Hayatullah says: “I cry every night. I hope the hotel stays open. It’s part of our identity.”

Lobby

Why did you move the narrative from the second floor to the lobby? We got to know Niazai a bit better in the garden. So now I wanted to focus on Faqiri. The order of the rooms is mainly driven by the scenes I experienced with the protagonists, which then informed where I placed each room in the story. The hotel may give the structure, but it doesn’t command it.

You can’t get into the Intercontinental without good connections. Faqiri’s father was one of the hotel managers during the first Taliban rule. They called him again after Kabul fell and asked if he wanted to come back. He sent his son instead. During the first period of Taliban rule, Mullah Omar, founder and head of the Taliban, once visited the hotel. The hotel had no guests, and he asked Faqiri’s father: “Why is no one here?” Faqiri’s father told the Taliban leader: “People aren’t coming because they’re afraid of you.” So Mullah Omar announced over the radio that all foreigners who wanted to be safe in Kabul should check into the Intercontinental. The next day, the hotel was full – at least that’s how the story goes. Did Faqiri tell you this story? And if so, how did you fact check it? I asked Faqiri’s father. I went to his house and interviewed him.

Faqiri has ideas about how to fill the hotel. Enlarging the ballroom, building a helipad. Or moving one of the university faculties on to the huge hotel site, or a hospital perhaps. But all of this costs money that nobody has right now.

In the past, large wedding parties took place in the ballroom of the Intercontinental. Afghan weddings are attended by hundreds of guests, and traditionally have a men’s and a women’s area. Under the Taliban, it is forbidden to play music at weddings, but at some it can still be heard in the women’s section. Afghan women always find a way somehow, and the Taliban do not dare control the women’s area. But in the Intercontinental, the hotel owned by the Taliban, music is strictly forbidden. Was the hotel loud or quiet? What sounds did you hear as you walked around? There were no sounds to speak of. All were swallowed by the thick carpets.

Faqiri could have fled as well. On 15 August 2021, the day Kabul fell, a friend of his was at the airport. He would have secured a spot for him on one of the evacuation flights. But Faqiri stayed. He didn’t want to leave on his own: he wanted to marry his fiancee first. The wedding later took place in the grand ballroom of the Intercontinental. His wife gave birth to a son soon after the wedding. He hasn’t completely given up on going abroad yet. He would like to study for a doctorate. But, for now, he’ll stay here. Does he miss the old Afghanistan? “Of course I miss it.” Did Faqiri feel safe saying this? I thought a lot about this sentence. There were sentences more explicit in this conversation I decided not to use. “Of course I miss it” is just an expression of longing, and many would say similar things on the record. Also, a small part at the beginning of this “chapter” didn’t make it into The Guardian’s version. This is how it went: Faqiri leans over a desk which is not his. His is in a corner of the office, but he sits down at the big one in the middle as a matter of course. It belongs to his supervisor, a Talib who is rarely there. Faqiri is typing on his smartphone. Today is the Afghan Independence Day, which celebrates the peace treaty with the British, and other wars, the Great Game, things that took place in the early 20th century. Faqiri is tinkering with a post on social media, and it ends up being a photo collage, with Faqiri on the bottom, and a waving black-red-and-green flag at the top. The flag of the old Afghan Republic, replaced by the white flag of the Taliban. ‘We have good memories of this flag,’ he says, referring to the black-red-and-green one. Faqiri says, ‘Most people have girls at home and hope that things will eventually get better for them. I hope everything will be fine. I don’t want to go, I want to see how things go first.’ Fleeing Afghanistan is expensive and complicated. So many Afghans just hope that life will eventually get better under Taliban rule. Or that they can wait until it’s over. Last time, the Taliban were in Kabul for five years. Only this time, there is little sign of resistance in the country. Kabul looks like a city in hibernation, and no one knows how long it will last. Those who do not flee come to terms with the situation, and that is most of the population. ‘We have to work with the Taliban. They’re the government,’ Faqiri says. Posting the flag shows that Faqiri is quite comfortable with showing his views.

The golden lift stops on the first floor. Osama bin Laden briefly stayed here, rooms 196 and 197. Right next to the elevator, thick cables wind under a door and disappear under the fitted carpet, into room 114. Here, the secret police sit in front of their video monitors. They will hide the cables better in the future, one of the agents says in a contrite tone. How did you manage to get access to the secret police room? They described the room to me. I was not allowed in there, but of course I saw the cables. Down the hall, room 122, is the hotel president’s office. Hafiz Zia-ul-Haq Jawad has taken a seat in his armchair. “The image of the Taliban is that we are here to break things. But we’re here to build,” he says. Whenever you mention someone’s name in this story, you always share a small personal backstory about their lives. You don’t do that with Jawad. Did he not allow you to ask personal questions? Or did you not want to say more about him? This was quite a formal setting. He did not want to talk about himself.

It pains Jawad to see the rooms in the hotel deteriorate. It’s no longer worthy of its five-star rating, he says. He tells us that he wants to renovate it, rebuild it, make it accessible to all. Since the Taliban took over, the people of Kabul – Taliban and non-Taliban – sometimes come up to the hotel to take a picture of the view. In the past, they would have been turned away at the first security barrier.

Jawad says he doesn’t discriminate between Taliban and non-Taliban when it comes to his employees. He says he only cares that everyone works hard, is honest, serves the nation. “Sometimes I go down to the kitchen. I show everyone: I am one of you. We don’t want anyone to think that the Taliban are only here for a short period of time.” Was Faqiri present during this interview? Or someone from the hotel who is not a Talib? How sincere do you think Jawad was with you? It was only Jawad and his assistant. I cannot say how truthful Jawal was. It’s often like that with the Talibs: They say one thing and do another.

There’s a photo from the hotel’s best days on the wall of his office, showing people swimming in the pool. Someone has painted over the women on the deck chairs with white paint.

Pool

In the evening, bats flutter over the Intercontinental’s pool, chasing mosquitoes that swarm over the stagnant water. A greenish residue lurks in the deepest part of the pool; it will supposedly be filled with fresh water eventually. A mosquito lands on Niazai’s french fries. He filled his plate at the buffet like he does every night. Faqiri is sitting next to him at the table. I thought Faqiri doesn’t work in the evenings and that Niazai takes over. Or did he stay because of you? He came back that evening to pick something up and sat with us for a bit. Above them hangs a string of lights.

The decay, the cracks, so obvious in the piercing daylight, are now softened by coloured lights. The wind rustles through the pine trees. Faqiri has put his hand on Niazai’s chair. He says they are friends. And for a moment, it really looks as if they are, two young men, both smiling. The sentence “And for a moment, it really looks as if they are” makes me think that you didn’t believe Faqiri when he say that they’re friends. Do you think Faqiri and Niazai are friends? I remain skeptical. They are definitely friendly toward each other. Faqiri smokes thin cigarettes. Niazai doesn’t smoke.

Most of Faqiri’s friends have left Afghanistan. Those who stayed have always been Taliban; he just didn’t know. At university in India, they once recorded a funny video, he tells me, him and his fellow Afghan students, dancing in front of the university. After the fall of Kabul, one of his fellow students called him to ask if he could please delete the video, because he was a Talib.

For Niazai, being a spy, waging a war in secret was a game. “Now the game is over,” he says. The Russians are sitting in a dark corner by the pool. They have been invited by the Ministry of Defence, and tasked with making old Russian helicopters airworthy again. This is such an incredible image. Did you try to speak to the Russians or were you told not to? I was instructed that they wanted their privacy. The Russians also expressed that non-verbally to me.

Later I ask Faqiri what he likes about Niazai. “He’s a good guy. He never says no when it comes to getting work done,” he replies. Faqiri says the Taliban need him and the other non-Taliban in the hotel. Niazai and the other Taliban are only very slowly learning how to run a hotel like this. Faqiri forms a kind of bridge between the Taliban and the other employees, as well as between the Taliban and the customers. It’s not easy with the new rulers. “I need to understand them. But they never explain themselves.”

I ask Niazai the same question: what does he like about Faqiri? “He’s got a pure heart. And he’s never jealous.” In general, if he doesn’t like someone at the Intercontinental, their days at the hotel are numbered anyway, he says. Formally, he and Faqiri are equal, but he is more senior because he’s a Talib, he explains. This is a lovely pre-conclusion to the story, and in a way, it’s an answer to the nut graf, where you say that there’s a quiet experiment happening in Afghanistan right now, where Talibs and non-Talibs are learning to work together. Why did you add these two questions here, almost at the end of the story? I wanted to tie them together at the end. What do they really think about each other? And also, how is the experiment going?

Niazai loves to ride his motorcycle. For years, the Taliban rode into battle on old Hondas, always with a blanket on the saddle to sleep on at night, always moving fast. Faqiri has never ridden a motorcycle. He says working at the Intercontinental is his dream job. He wants to make £2-3m in profit this year, that’s the goal. “I can do it,” he says.

At some point during the evening, Faqiri gets up and goes home. His wife and son are waiting for him.

Basement

The chandeliers in the hotel have been extinguished. It’s after 11 pm. Only now, at this point in the story, do I realize that the structure of the story is two-fold: a map of the hotel, room by room, but also a chronological narrative of sorts. You start in the morning at the reception and end at night in the basement. What came to you first? The hotel-room structure or the time-of-the-day structure? How much was the hotel-movement narrative influenced by the time-of-the-day structure? The time of day structure came later, more as an accident. I wanted to end with this scene that took place at night. the main structure is the hotel-area structure. The laundry in the basement is closed, the sauna and beauty salon are barricaded. Only the gym casts a shimmer of neon light on to the white tiles. Niazai is pedalling on an exercise bike. Every night, he and his friends exercise here, he says, his friends being the Taliban guards around the hotel. But today he is alone. He has shed his traditional garb and is wearing an Under Armour tracksuit, a sports brand once popular with American soldiers in Afghanistan. Does he tell you this or do you learn this from a different source? This is a known fact: Under Armour is a popular brand with US armed forces. They became popular because apparently they made the best underwear and rash guards for military action in the desert. The trash cans are filled with empty Red Bull cans.

Niazai once told me: “Peace is good for Afghanistan. But it’s boring for us.” He is afraid of getting used to this life. He was never afraid to fight, and now he worries that he will one day be afraid to go to war again. Did you reply something to what Niazai told you here? Did you have a conversation about it with him? No. It all depends on the person and the situation, but here I just let Niazai talk. He wanted to tell me things, not hear my views.

A lot of the equipment in the gym is broken. The handle of the rowing machine is missing; a friend of Niazai’s tore it off with a particularly hard pull. The punching bag was also destroyed. It’s quiet, and only the whirring of Niazai’s pedals disturbs the silence. He says he doesn’t sleep much; none of his friends do. Did he tell you why he and his friends don’t sleep much? No, it was a thing he just said. It may be unsaid but these men are severely traumatized. The only life they have known is one full of violence. They had been basically child soldiers, and I wanted to stress that fact in this paragraph. He sometimes sits alone in the lobby with his headphones on, watching videos of Taliban operations across Afghanistan, shared in WhatsApp groups. He doesn’t have to follow the news, Niazai says. He knows better than the journalists what is happening in the country. His oiled hair falls into his face as he leans over the handlebars. In his tracksuit, he almost looks like an ordinary young man spat out by the war. Why did you choose to end the story on this line? I didn’t. The Guardian ended there. My original story ends with one more paragraph: The Intercontinental is submerged in darkness. Niazai doesn’t yet know when he’ll go to sleep.

Additional reporting by Lutfullah Qasimyar. Can you tell me more about your interpreter/translator, Lutfullah Qasimya, and the additional reporting he does for your stories about Afghanistan? What protocol do you follow to know that what he reported to you is factual? He’s been my translator for three years now. I trust him with my life (and had to on several occasions). It would have been more accurate to say that he “contributed to this story.” Two years ago, we did a long story together with Kiana Hayeri, a photographer who speaks perfect Dari. Lutfullah was translating an interview and Kiana told me she never heard a more precise translator in Afghanistan. This was enough for me to trust his translation skills.

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Ania Hull is a multilingual editor, writer and journalist who writes about immigration, poverty, conservation and environmental justice. She is currently based in New Mexico.

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