Hash house of horrors

Kabul is a tough place for foreign workers, but Sorrel Neuss is troubled by the way some choose to u

Getting into Afghanistan's expat scene involves winning admission to a secret club. Even though a fresh batch of westerners working in construction, security and aid descends on Kabul every week, the expats' guard is up from the offset and initiation into their insular world is tough. As a journalist on a short visit on my way home from Kyrgyzstan, I had little hope of gaining entry.

The still war-torn city offers little respite for visitors. In the car on the way from the airport, Freedom Radio relays a kidnapping threat against foreigners from the Taliban and issues a warning not to walk around town. Even when we go past Bush Bazaar (called Brezhnev Bazaar in the 1980s), stocked with Gatorade and out-of-date Otis Spunkmeyer muffins left behind by US military units, mine is the only foreign face around.

Kabul has turned into a windy dust bowl since most of its forests were cut down during the 1978-89 Soviet War and later clashes with the Taliban that the Northern Alliance lost in 1996. Used for cover by resistance fighters, the pistachio and almond trees that made this mountain city a lush haven were ruthlessly uprooted. Mini tornados now wind over sunbaked earth that Kabulis exaggerate is 90 per cent faecal matter, and I have to tug at my headscarf continually to make sure I don't get a mouthful of it or blindly stumble into an open sewer.

A large number of expats are permanently confined to their compounds and it soon transpires that the most covert operation for con tractors and NGO workers after hours is sneaking out for a drink. Under prohibition in this staunchly Muslim country, the only way I can tell that a door leads to a speakeasy are the sandbags and Kalashnikov-armed guards in front of it. Finding one takes time. It is only when I share my love of James Bond with a solemn-looking Afghan American in a pirate DVD shop that I find my guide.

Past Butcher Street, lined with whole sheep carcasses that young men in shalwar kameez (otherwise known as man-jammies) cut up for dinners of marinated kebab eaten with flat bread and sour cream, we pull up at a nondescript iron door. Seeing that I'm new, an arrestingly blue-eyed Afghan takes a quick look inside my handbag for guns before offering a warm handshake and unbolting the door that leads to La Cantina. Over an untouched $15 plate of nachos at the bar, members of the exclusive Hash House Harriers club are plotting a day of open-air drinking.

The Hash House Harriers was set up in 1938 by three British bachelors in Kuala Lumpur who would meet after work on Monday evenings and run along a pre-laid trail of paper in an effort to sweat out their weekend hangover. In keeping with this colonial tradition, there are groups of expats doing the same thing in most major cities worldwide. For most Hashers it is old-school, fraternity-style fun: jogging along a marked trail leading to a crate of beer before being thrown into drinking games and ritual humiliation.

The group's bible sums up members' motives: "Hashing is a state of mind, a friendship of kindred spirits . . . [who are] releasing the tensions of everyday life and generally acting a fool among others who will not judge you by anything more than your sense of humour," it says.

The situation in Kabul makes the run more important and more problematic. Almost 120 Britons and at least 490 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, with 8,000 Afghans killed last year alone. "Life here is seriously stressful," says a Hasher from New Zealand who previously worked in Iraq. "Mates that I shared everything with have died and [I do the run because] I need to cut loose, say whatever the hell I like and just be stupid."

After scowling at me suspiciously for a couple of hours, he finally agrees to let me join in, explaining that as it's too hot to run they will be walking, and that the next day's Hash will be unmarked for safety reasons.

As soon as I join the jaunt, however, I want to run away. A US contractor nicknamed Stinky, wearing a concealed handgun and clutching a can of warm Heineken, takes up the rear of what turns out to be both a nerve-racking and a cringeworthy way to stretch your legs. Staring in amazement, a small boy sitting next to his grandfather in a dry goods shop points and shouts in Dari: "He's carrying a beer!"

The offences get worse. It is Friday, the holiest day of the week, and the mainly ethnic Hazara women walking alongside all 11 of us in this quiet residential area are buying up food for their evening meal or heading home in clean, pressed dresses from mosque. They have to swerve to avoid a collision. A funeral procession in white, bearing a small coffin, strides slowly towards us from a side alley, but Stinky is lagging behind relieving himself in the gutter. I pull my headscarf more tightly over my face in the vain hope that if I can't see the mourners, they can't see me.

Picking up the pace, we have our walk past newly reconstructed houses made of mud and dung and unusually clean streets renovated by the Canadian International Development Agency cut short by a few wrong turns and general jitters about the attention Stinky is attracting, so it's back to La Cantina for the ritual humiliation.

Ernest Hemingway might have had a good laugh putting down his gun in the closed-off back garden of the Hash house and getting beer poured down his gullet, but I felt trapped. Songs were sung, an accountant was christened with his Hash nickname as a concoction of egg, flour and beer was poured over his head, and Stinky was told off and forced by way of punishment to gulp down another can.

I found it hard to accept. It may be a much-needed way to let off steam, but by openly drinking in front of Muslims and parading around like an untouchable clique, the Hashers are creating an even stronger image of themselves as a threat in the eyes of the Afghans they are supposed to be helping.

Neither the heart nor the mind of the small boy looking down from his roof into the Hash house garden was going to be won over this time.

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire