It takes a lot to shake up those living and working in Kabul, Afghanistan. But at the beginning of the year, an attack on a popular expat restaurant did just that.
The owner, Kamel Hamade, and 20 others were killed inside the restaurant.
“What I remember about my brother Kamel was that he had a strong personality and to this day, I was not able to beat him at backgammon,” said Zuhayr Hemady.
Thousands of miles away in Massachusetts, Zuhayr Hemady and five other siblings learned about Kamel's death from news reports. A suicide bomber and two gunmen attacked the restaurant.
“I heard about it from my brother, who was in Florida, who had seen it online. It was very distressing the first several hours, because we all knew the restaurant was attacked, but we had no idea whether he survived or not,” Hemady said.
Kamel was at the restaurant — as he was every day.
Kamel and his brothers grew up in Lebanon and Iraq. He was a kind child, Zuhayr recalled. He always gave away his allowance to the kids at school who didn’t have anything to eat for lunch. He was a lawyer by trade, but, as an adult, he had been bitten by the restaurant bug. After years of running a Lebanese restaurant in Romania, he decided to open a place in Kabul. And it became a hit.
“One thing he was known for is his chocolate cake. He would bake it himself,” Hemady said.
He often sent complimentary slices of cake to customers at the end of their meals. That was a small part of what made his restaurant, the Taverna du Liban, an oasis in Kabul; that, and the bodyguards out front and inside.
“The moment you step in — it's a very heavy door — you hear it shut and then you've entered into a place you feel you can relax,” said Erin Jensen, an expat living in Kabul for the past seven years with her husband and seven children.
Jensen's husband works for the International School of Kabul. They were regulars at the Taverna and they knew Hamade well.
“He asked us about our children, about the school. He knew personal things about us,” Jensen said. “For a while, I thought that was specific to us. But a year or two into being here, I realized that's how he interacted with all of his clients. He knew everyone.”
He especially loved children. He had two daughters of his own. Jensen recalled how Hamade once held her infant daughter one evening at the restaurant.
“And he said to me when I went to get her back, ‘You know, holding this baby reminds me of my family, a lot of times I just kind of forget,’” Jensen said. “That's how we survive in Kabul. You kind of have to shut the outside world out and pretend it doesn't exist.”
When the outside world did abruptly burst in, and the restaurant was attacked in January, Hamade led his staff out a back door to safety. He then reportedly went back inside to help his patrons.
“We feel as if his death brought home to us all the dangers and suffering that Afghanis and expats in Kabul are going through. Before that, it was a distant event, but now it brought it home to our house and our family,” Hemady said.
The violence is a daily reality for many families in Afghanistan. Elections are a month away, but it remains to be seen if a change in leadership will change the daily reality. Taverna du Liban owner Kamal Hamade was 60 years old.