Kabul Time Capsule

To visit the U.S. Embassy in Kabul--or indeed most other places in this city--is to enter a time warp. When I recently visited Zalmay Khalilzad, the newly appointed American envoy to Afghanistan, young Marines decked out in full combat gear and desert camouflage waved us through the embassy compound toward a 1960s concrete hulk festooned with sandbags. "It's a little bit weird [living here,]" said our Marine officer escort. "Just take the 12-year-old beer. Or the ditto machines."

For Afghanistan, history largely froze up with the Soviet invasion in 1979. Before that the country was a striving Third World upstart, eagerly and sometimes successfully blundering toward modernity. But after the caesura 23 years ago, Afghanistan plunged into the turmoil of seemingly endless conflict. First came the jihad against the Russian invaders, followed by an internecine bloodbath among the victorious Islamist guerrillas who had defeated the U.S.S.R. and its surrogates. Later, in 1996, Kabul succumbed to the Taliban, who imposed the surreal rigors of their own bizarre brand of totalitarianism right up until their resounding defeat a few months ago. For all the years in between--from 1979 to 2001--Afghanistan has been in a state of suspended animation, waiting for life to start again.

Investment, evolution, development, renovation--all these words have been virtually absent from the vocabulary of Afghans over the past quarter century. Most of Kabul's big government buildings are in the bland prefab style of the 1960s or '70s, and more often than not their interior decoration--Naugahyde armchairs and cylindrical metal ceiling spotlights--dates from the same period. As for the house where NEWSWEEK's Kabul correspondents live, our Western visitors invariably start recalling the age of disco balls, synthetic velvet, and corduroy bell bottoms as soon as they see it. Things are a bit better on the streets outside, since many Kabulis have somehow managed to put their money into fairly recent Japanese or Chinese cars. But you might still find yourself competing for space with a 1965 Russian Pobeda or a vintage Chevrolet.

Trying to orient yourself can make the vertigo worse. The most up-to-date English-language guidebook of Kabul, by the American Nancy Dupree, was published in 1972. After years of rocket attacks and close-quarter fighting, entire neighborhoods of the city look as though they've been dipped in acid, with buildings often barely recognizable as such. But open up the guidebook and you'll find yourself reading passages like this one: "The hillside echoes with the voices of countless hawkers calling out the merits of their wares and the delighted screams of little ones spinning around on carousels and merry-go-rounds, and the air is perfumed with the scent of all manner of food specialties being cooked on the spot. Visitors welcome." When she's not telling you about the city's architectural wonders (most of which have long since been obliterated), Dupree is usually describing the sleek new roads or bustling suburbs of a city whose main worry at the time seemed to be urban sprawl.

I got my copy of her guidebook at the Behzad Bookstore, a tiny corner shop tucked away in the city's ramshackle commercial quarter. The store's walls are covered with tantalizing images of the Afghanistan that no longer exists. You can buy a photo that shows the Inter-Continental Hotel shortly after its construction back in some happier time decades ago, towering over a pool filled with inviting blue water. The pool has been empty for years, and these days the hotel's guests can count themselves lucky if the electricity is on. Another postcard depicts the height of 1970s Afghan fashion. Not only is the female model unveiled, in one shot she's even holding a cigarette. Many of the books on sale are in Dari and Pashto, the country's two main languages. But there are also works in English, Russian, German, Hindi, Polish, and Spanish--a variety that reflects the country's peculiar historical metamorphosis from 1960s hippie hot spot to unruly Soviet satellite to fundamentalist Islamic cul de sac.

You can pick up English-language propaganda from the communist Afghan government ("CIA Agents Expose Their Crimes in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan") a volume of essays on "non-aligned countries," or a tract in Dari by the onetime Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini--none of it more recent than the early 1980s. Remember Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock"? Or that college anthology of atheist thought called "The God That Failed"? The Behzad has multiple copies of both.

What about that 12-year-old beer? When the Soviets invaded in 1979, most of the Western countries followed Washington's lead and withdrew their ambassadors in protest. Ironically, when the Russians finally conceded defeat nine years later and began withdrawing their troops, the U.S. reacted by evacuating the rest of its staff from the embassy. The first U.S. Marines who arrived in the embassy compound three months ago found themselves in the time capsule left behind. In the embassy basement they dug up decades-old official stationery and bottles of ink for copying equipment so outmoded that the younger soldiers weren't sure what it was. They found a horde of LP records--that's right, vinyl--as well as a suitable record player, and soon the embassy building was echoing to the vintage sounds of Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel. The soldiers were even happier to discover the embassy's long-forgotten stash of alcoholic beverages--a fortuitous find in this Muslim country, where alcohol of any kind fetches surreally high prices in the local black market (a bottle of hard-to-find vodka can set you back $60). The Marines popped open a few cans of ancient German beer that had been slumbering under a thick layer of dust--and decreed it drinkable. "It's usually pretty good down to about the last two inches or so," the press officer told us. "But you can't drink the rest because of the dregs that have settled on the bottom." Just the thing to help endure the rigors of a cold Kabul winter in a building where both running water and heating have yet to be restored.

Most of Kabul's diplomats have similarly quirky stories to tell. At the British Embassy across town, they're still savoring the circumstances of a quietly triumphant return in the wake of the Taliban's defeat. The local Afghan staff had been keeping the place in working order ever since the day when the last U.K. diplomats departed the premises in 1988. (Two Afghan employees who died in the 1990s civil war are memorialized by plaques.) On Nov. 19, 2001, six days after Kabul's fall, the new British envoy returned to his post. "That afternoon the Afghan staff dusted off the furniture, put on their white jackets, and served us tea," a diplomat told me with a grin. "And that night they even managed to make us a meal." All of which helps to explain why Queen Elizabeth II looks so youthful in the official portrait hanging in the hall--she's been there for the past 20 years or so.

And at the U.S. Embassy? The new arrivals there did manage to dig up a big framed photo of President Bush. The only catch? The man in the picture is George Bush Senior. W, it appears, will have to wait until Kabul finally arrives in the 21st century.