How to kick back in Kandahar

Mohammad Naseem looks out the window, his finger pointing to three different locations around the whirl of traffic in the rotary below. That's where suicide bombs have exploded, he says.

And then it becomes obvious: This is a strange place to order a latte.

Starbucks wasn't about to open a Kandahar branch, so Mr. Naseem beat them to it. What began as a tiny storefront cafe shoehorned amid bakeries and cellphone stalls two years ago has become a second-floor oasis of sage-colored walls, wireless Internet, and now even a pool hall with a flat-screen TV.

The success of Kandahar's first – and only – cafe is a reminder that amid images of bearded mullahs and brisling Humvees, Afghanistan is a place where many people mostly want to get on with life, perhaps over a game of snooker and a soda.

Naseem freely admits he got the idea for his Kandahar Coffee Shop from Starbucks. He lived in Seattle for many years and returned to Kandahar after the fall of the Taliban, opening the cafe in 2005. But because of the enthusiastic response since then, the original idea has grown to include computers for the Internet, a soon-to-be-unveiled fast food menu, and – perhaps most important – the snooker tables.

On a weekday night, each of the four tables is full, with at least half a dozen onlookers waiting for their turn. When the power goes out – as it often does – players continue playing by holding tiny flashlights in their mouths.

With the exception of the prayer rug in the corner, where a young man in a red leather racing jacket lies prostrate, the hall is indistinguishable from any American establishment. That was Naseem's intent. He even went so far as to surf the Web to choose paint colors and light fixtures, importing them from Dubai.

For Mirwais Quraishi, it is almost a second home. Asked how often he comes here, he pauses. "How many times each day?" he responds.

The answer is three times, for two to three hours on each occasion, he says, leaning up against a railing, looking like a magazine model in his leather jacket. "It's a good place to meet friends and refresh," he says. "There's nothing else in the city."

It is unique – a slice of Western chic amid the Kandahar clamor of horse-drawn carts and burqa-clad women. For that reason, Naseem once considered putting up a metal detector at the front door. But in the end, he talked to townspeople and decided that would send precisely the wrong message.

"That would only set the cafe apart," says Naseem. "When people come I tell them, 'This is your business.' "

So it seems. At this point, the passion for snooker here outweighs the skill on display, with the white cue ball seeming to find the pockets as often as any of the red balls. But to those here, this is already a cherished part of Kandahar.

"All day, people are busy and they need a place to relax," says Habibi, a local bank manager who, like many Afghans, has only one name.

Looking quite at leisure himself, wearing a pinstriped suit jacket over his traditional Afghan tunic and pants, he adds, "People come here with a low profile – it's just a great place where people are being calm."

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