Restaurant Owner Loved The Patrons He Died Trying To Protect

Jan 18, 2014
Originally published on January 20, 2014 8:04 am

Taverna du Liban was a welcome respite from the pressures of living in a third-world war zone.

The cozy, Kabul restaurant with its Middle Eastern décor served up a tasty variety of Lebanese dishes and the best chocolate cake I've ever eaten, courtesy of the Lebanese owner, Kamal Hamade, who baked the cakes himself.

But the appeal of Taverna — where I ate nearly every week when I lived in Afghanistan — was about much more than the food. It was about friendship.

Kamal treated each of his customers as a personal friend. Whenever my friends and I went there, he'd come over to chat. Each time, he sent over free appetizers and other goodies, despite our protestations about the pounds he was adding to our hips.

After Afghan authorities cracked down on Kabul restaurants that served alcohol, Kamal began serving red wine in tea pots, and we soon learned to ask for "red tea."

I occasionally asked Kamal about why he chose to live and work in Kabul, given how the Afghan capital was growing more dangerous over time. He told me he loved the place and the people, and that business was good.

Kamal took the war raging around him in stride, having grown up in similar circumstances in Lebanon. But he wasn't lax about security, and his restaurant was one of the few Western agencies would allow their personnel to frequent.

There were multiple steel doors separating the restaurant from the street. Patrons and their belongings were searched by armed guards before being allowed inside.

But just as other attacks on heavily guarded establishments have shown, no place in Kabul is impenetrable.

Afghan police say the well-executed bomb and gun attack Friday night killed 21 people.

The BBC reports that Kamal grabbed a gun from his office to take on the assailants. But I knew even before I read it that he had died defending his restaurant and his customers.

Like so many who had the privilege of knowing Kamal, I am absolutely devastated that he's gone.

I will raise a tea cup filled with red wine to you, Habibi. You won't be forgotten.

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One of those killed in the attack on that restaurant was its owner, Kamel Hamade. He was a Lebanese entrepreneur whose desire to open a restaurant landed him in Kabul six years ago. La Taverna became an oasis to aid workers, diplomats, journalists, all looking for a pleasant and safe evening out in a big city with very few options.

In fact, our own Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson dined there often in the years she was based in Kabul. She's in Berlin now, but at the news of Kamel's death, she joined an outpouring of sadness and affection for Kamel Hamade. The flowers, now piled high at the restaurant in Kabul, speak of a man who cared deeply for his patrons and his their safety.

Just to enter the restaurant involved a gauntlet - armed guards, steel doors and metal detectors.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: I mean there was even a password that the guards would have to use with each other before they would open the internal door to let you in. And, in fact, I was told by a colleague today that he had an oil barrel, a drum filled with oil that apparently he was planning to spill over if somebody ran in so that they would slip, they wouldn't be able to sort of get into the restaurant.

The idea was that these sort of layered approaches would make it more difficult for anybody to get into, except on Friday night, with the distraction and the damage caused by the suicide bomber outside, that sort of paved the way or somehow opened a path for the two gunmen to get inside.

MONTAGNE: And then this attack, Soraya, it's important to say 21 people died. It was not all foreigners. There was a young couple, newlyweds, Afghans, who were in there eating that night, and also staff.

NELSON: Yeah. I mean he really enjoyed being in Afghanistan, not just to cater to foreigners, but because he had the opportunity to work with Afghans. He really enjoyed training them. He taught them to make all these delicacies that he was so fond of and, you know, provided employment opportunities, which were very, very much sought after.

MONTAGNE: You took me there the first time that I went to La Taverna and I went other times without you, but with you, Soraya, it was especially warm, because when that door finally opened into the restaurant, there he was, Kamel. He was waiting to greet all visitors and he would really light up when he saw you.

NELSON: Well, it really felt almost like going home or something. I mean, you really needed that, being in Kabul. I mean it's a very intense environment. You're constantly on deadline. You're constantly vigilant because of the dangers. He also was very good at packing on the pounds for me because he kept sending over free goodies and his chocolate cake, which normally I'm not a big cake fan, but boy, that was something else.

It's definitely the best cake I ever had. So I would just really enjoy going there. I mean, it was always an experience.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, and it was also one of the few places where Westerners could, say, have a sip of wine.

NELSON: Well, yeah. I mean in the beginning there were still bottles. Unfortunately, once the government started to crack down on restaurants that were serving alcohol - because technically alcohol is illegal in Afghanistan - he, just like some other proprietors, started serving them in teapots. You had to ask for red tea or white tea, depending on what kind of wine you wanted.

MONTAGNE: I know his wife, Nabila, must be absolutely heartbroken. But she did tell you something about what it meant to her, that there was so many people who missed him.

NABILA HAMADE: I am touched beyond words and this is one part of feeling great about Kamel, that everybody was able to see him as he really is, a genuine person, very helpful, very supportive. I appreciate every single word, every single person who remembered Kamel, and I really hope they will never forget La Taverna du Libon and Kamel Hamade.

NELSON: There's no doubt that I won't forget him and I know there are many others who feel the same way, because Kamel had a way of just making you forget where you were for a few hours, I mean sort of transporting you away and just, you know, like you were relaxing with friends.

MONTAGNE: Well, Soraya, thank you for sharing this with us, and it's a sad story among so many over there in Afghanistan.

NELSON: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2010. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.