Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghans Head for the Mall

A glittering complex housing a hotel and nearly 100 expensive shops is a source of wonder for Kabul residents.
By Mohammad Jawad

Hamaduddin, 24, stands outside the capital’s latest newest attraction, the Kabul City Centre shopping mall. He is dressed in traditional Afghan pirhan-tunbon – baggy grey trousers and a long shirt, topped with an off-white waistcoat and a bedraggled patu or shawl draped around his shoulders. And looks a bit bewildered by the glittering array of shops behind the emerald-green glass of the mall entrance.

Asked why he was not going inside, Hamaduddin said in surprise, “You mean they let us in there?”

Kabul City Centre, which opened its doors in September, is a centrepiece in the capital’s rapid construction process. The mall boasts 97 shops selling everything from watches to shoes and cosmetics, at prices well beyond the reach of most Afghans.

For some Kabul residents more accustomed to doing their shopping in makeshift shops in rusty freight containers, the sight of such ostentatious consumption is upsetting.

“God is great. He gives so much to some people that they’re able to build places like this, while I don’t even have enough to eat,” sighed Hamaduddin.

The new shopping centre is in a 10-storey building – a skyscraper by Kabul’s modest standards - in the central Shar-e-Naw district. Inside an eye-catching mirrored glass exterior, the first four floors are given over to shops, with the 130-room Safi Landmark hotel occupying the upper six stories. The hotel boasts such amenities as a health club, conference rooms and cable television.

The mall itself has three all-glass lifts and four escalators, quite a sight for Kabul residents who often have no running water or electricity at home.

“I guided one old woman into the lift,” recalled lift maintenance man Shirullah. “She thought it was a corridor, and tried to get out the other side. I explained it to her, and she was just so happy we had something like this in our country.”

People’s lack of familiarity with technology can cause other problems as well.

“Last week a woman tried to go down the up escalator, and fell,” said Shirullah. “She broke one of the steps.”

Mohammad Daud Sharifi, the mall’s manager, said the property was owned by Haji Abdul Qudus Safi who purchased the land 15 years ago and began construction of the 20 million US dollar facility three years ago.

The hotel, which is being managed under a one-year contract by a firm from the United Arab Emirates, is staffed by 100 Indian nationals and 150 Afghans.

The average price of a hotel room in 200 dollars a night, although Sharifi said cheaper rates are sometimes available, depending on a customer’s bargaining skills.

“Sometimes a customer comes to us, and we don’t want to lose him or her,” he said.

Both hotel guests and shoppers tend to be foreigners, and the rest are among the few relatively well-heeled Afghans who work with international organisations or have access to money from abroad.

Fareshta, a doctor, had a shopping bag full of cosmetics, and looked thrilled with her purchases as well as with the mall itself. She praised the polite and helpful sales staff as well as the facilities.

"In my opinion, this is a source of honour for Afghans," added Fareshta.

Even those who cannot afford to buy appear to enjoy window-shopping.

"I lived in Iran and Pakistan for 10 years, but I never saw such a beautiful shopping mall there," said Fateh Shah, who had come with two of his friends to have a look around. “The prices are high and we can’t afford to buy things, but I feel comfortable here.”

But not everyone feels equally at home here. Some Kabul residents argue that rather than spending money building fancy shops, investors should think about the vast army of unemployed in Afghanistan.

"These buildings are good, but first of all factories should be built so that the unemployment level falls and people have jobs," said Nasrullah, a government employee.

So far, window-shoppers appear to outnumber actual customers, which is a cause for concern to some shop managers.

"We pay 50 dollars per Square metre, so my monthly rent comes to 700 dollars. I can’t make enough to pay this,” said Sayed Shoaib, who runs a shop selling perfumes.

In the city’s still unsettled atmosphere, such a commercial undertaking is a risky venture. A staff of 40 security guards works around the clock to provide protection. Most are interior ministry police, although the mall’s owner pays their salaries.

Still, the management thinks it’s worth the risk.

"There is a lack of security in the country, but we’re hoping no incidents will occur. It is a risk for us, but we have accepted it," said Sharifi.

Mohammad Jawad Sharifzada is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.

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