A World Apart: Coffee Shops in Afghanistan and Georgia – by Terry Howard

The Simple Cafe in Kabul

In a recent article in The New York Times, Hadis Lessani, a high school student living in Kabul, Afghanistan said this about finding a place free from harassment because of her makeup, Western clothing and chatting publicly with young men: “This cafe is the only place where I can relax and feel free.”

You see, trendy cafes like The Simple Cafe have sprung up across Kabul in the past few years as sanctuaries for women in an Islamic culture that still dictates how they should dress and interact with men. These restrictions endured years after tradition banned girls’ education, confined women to their homes and forced them to wear burqas in public.

By contrast, 15+ hours flying time away in Douglasville, Ga., it’s just another day at our neighborhood Starbucks. And like every other day, in addition to both men and women, a mosaic of folks from different cultures, races, personalities, generations, ages, etc., rolled in and out of there at the start of their day, lattes in hand, soccer-clad kids and toddlers in tow.

And this Saturday morning was no different. 

Among the first there were George and Paul, key figures in a racial bias-related article last year featured in the Chattanooga News Chronicle that went viral. These chiseled African American brothers (literally) playfully jostled each other before I exhorted Melissa, store manager, to call the local police. That got a laugh. The racial allusion purposeful.

Now to get a jump on a projected 90 – degree Georgia temperature later this day, I moved outside to the patio and pulled up to the table next to David, a retired lawyer, occasional Uber driver and deep thinker where we commenced to doling out hellos and laughs to Cathy, Mike and other familiar regulars.

Within minutes business owner Shree – an ebullient life of the party, anybody’s party – joined the table and held court with stories of her tumultuous Friday, talented daughters, cakes and pies in the oven and plans for the holiday. Pretty soon we pulled up extra chairs for a notebook carrying writer Triphenya and a smiling Shelby and that’s when debates rose to match the rising Georgia heat.

Minutes later, an author and wife pulled up a seat at an adjoining table and in a short period of time sold books he’d retrieved from the trunk of his car. And once they drove off 45 minutes later, our table occupants skimmed pages from the book, raised “you gotta be kidding” eyebrows and hotly debated its controversial contents.

From a distance across the lot, I spotted Richard Red Bull, Rodriquez, a full-blooded American Indian raised on a Crow reservation in Montana and beckoned him to join us. On his way to visit his daughter in Alabama, Richard introduced himself, raised the volume of the dialogue, promised to give us more time when he had more time, shook hands and was off westwards to Alabama.

Moments later writer Sophia and social worker Shi, mom and daughter, pulled up chairs and immediately jumped into the book debate and added brilliant insight and opinions.

In the end, the Saturday morning party on the porch at Starbucks came too soon to a finish. I had to go. And inside, a black apron-clad Melissa peeked out the store window and smiled!

Meanwhile back to Afghanistan, journalist Farahnaz Forotan relaxed inside the coffee shop, her short dark hair uncovered, longed for another type of café: “I wish there was a café full of male politicians who had one priority – peace.”

And Mini Rezaee who opened the Simple Coffee shop in Kabul a year ago – like Melissa – gestured to a table where several women, their head scarves removed, sat laughing and talking with young men. “Look at them – I love it.”

The Simple Coffee Shop and Starbucks, miles apart but the great unifiers!

Wow, who would’ve “thunk” it?

Terry Howard

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