Award-winning Australian photographer Andrew Quilty has been calling Kabul home since 2013 – just as the rest of the foreign contingent were departing in droves.
2016 marks a very different era from the heady heyday of a decade ago when Kabul was heaving with NGOs and foreign press, and catering to the whims of these wealthy visitors was big business.
“They’re kind of dropping like flies. [now]” Quilty said of his fellow Western expats when he spoke to SBS Online.
“There’s farewell parties every other week,” he explains. “It’s a bit of a sad atmosphere actually. A lot of the houses that friends of mine have lived in for several years and had been going long before they were there with other groups of foreigners are starting to slowly close down because of lack of numbers. You have to let go of the staff that run the houses.”
“It’s a bit sad but I suppose that’s how it is in “post-conflict” environments. You see the money and the people flood in and then they’ll disappear when other opportunities arise.”
"That’s how it is in “post-conflict” environments. You see the money and the people flood in and then they’ll disappear when other opportunities arise"
So notorious was “the Kabubble’s” reputation as an expat party town during the height of the war that it’s now making for some highly entertaining pop-culture fodder.
French comedy series Kabul Kitchen (currently streaming here at SBS OnDemand) is inspired by the real-life story of Radio France Internationale journalist Marc Victor, who ran a restaurant for French expatriates in the capital that became something of haven for hedonists amid the conservative Islamic nation.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a film produced by and starring 30 Rock’s Tina Fey also played up Kabul’s more debauched side for laughs in an adaptation of former American war correspondent Kim Barker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle.
If these current portrayals are to be believed, life in Kabul is nothing but one big endless party. Quilty however assures me that that is far from the case these days.
“There’s no bars,” he says of present-day Kabul. “There’s very few restaurants that foreigners go to anymore. So social life is a bit more confined to homes and compounds.”
”Having said that, I have friends that were there around the time that movie was set – around 2005-10. They quite ashamedly said ‘oh, it actually was a bit like that’.
“Now I think it is probably a result of foreigners becoming more targeted, whereas a decade ago they weren’t at all, that people have really confined themselves a bit.
“So you don’t get these melting pots of security people and journalists and aid workers – the kind of recipe for what they show in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.”
Now, Quilty is aiming to show what life in Afghanistan is really like in 2016 - for expats and locals alike, in his stunning new photo series for SBS - 28 Days in Afghanistan.
Quilty even gives a rare glimpse into his own life at home.
“It’s quite civilized at times," he explains of his life there. "I live with quite a social couple – one of who’s Australian. She’s also a freelance journalist with her husband they’re very social. We’ve got a barbecue planned for this Saturday for about 20 people or so.”
Quilty’s flatmates Danielle and Sune have already popped up in some of his photos for the 28 Days series, although he admits to feeling a little self-conscious about sharing insight into his personal life.
“It can be quite jarring to see expat life amidst what people have in their mind as Afghanistan,” he explains.
“We’ve got a nice, very comfortable Afghan-style house. Nice green garden, a mulberry tree and a dog. Within the walls it can feel very domestic.
“I think without the context of living there day-to-day it can be a hard balance to strike to show the two working side-by-side without one seeming very inappropriate against the other.”
So with so many of the other Western colleagues departing the region, does Quilty have plans to leave any time soon?
“No, I don’t have any plans to leave yet. It’s something that’s always discussed at dinner tables and things. Particularly after incidents in Kabul – like there was a couple of kidnappings in the last few months – close to where we live. I think that really made people stop and think.”
“So, no I don’t have plans at this stage but I guess it’s always in the back of my head – where would I go? But I can’t answer that question yet.”
“So for the time being I’m in Afghanistan.”