The guerrilla restaurateur: how to organise a piss-up in a warzone

Black market booze, a Kalashnikov cloakroom, and women in bikinis escaping over barbed wire: meet Marc Victor, the king of Kabul nightlife.

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Think of Kabul in the mid-2000s and the last image that springs to mind is a swimming pool surrounded by women in bikinis and boozy late-night revelry. But, for a motley cohort of spies, aid workers, journalists, diplomats and the military, this was a key scene in the Afghan capital throughout the invasion.

Squatting in an orchard just outside the city, seemingly closed off from the dust and danger of its surroundings, L’Atmosphère was the hedonistic hub of Kabul’s expat community during the Afghanistan war.

Marc Victor, 54, a French journalist who set up the restaurant/bar in 2004 when he went out to Kabul to work for a media development NGO, describes L’Atmo as being “like a diplomatic zone; it had a special kind of status”. Before reaching Kabul, he had worked as a theatre critic, a broadcaster for French radio, and as a war reporter in Cambodia.

Marc Victor pouring drinks at his bar. Photos: Marc Victor.

A three-metre metal wall, barbed wire and sandbags surrounded the premises, with armed security guards manning the entrances. Guns of guests had to be handed in to the cloakroom at the entrance, where there were special drawers for Kalashnikovs and pistols. Victor recalls one of the mercenaries (“they elegantly called themselves contractors”) – who used to drink and brawl at his bar – accidentally firing his gun when picking it up, drunkenly, on the way out.

“It was closing time, he took his pistol out of the drawer, he charged it and shot. And the bullet went like...” he gestures with his hand close to his head, “skimmed my head, went just over my head right into the wall”.

L'Atmo revellers.

Escalating security problems and financial woes led to the restaurant closing a few months ago, but Victor has now immortalised the bizarre stories and scandals that took place behind that metal wall in a new television series, Kabul Kitchen.

Jacky, the character based on Marc Victor, in Kabul Kitchen. Photos: Kabul Kitchen stills.

I meet him at his apartment in central Paris, where he returned after selling up to new owners in 2008, after six years in Kabul. Since then, he has written a book, Le Bout du Monde (The End of the World), and the 12-episode show called Kabul Kitchen – both fictions based on his experience as Kabul’s king of nightlife. We speak via an interpreter.

The picturesque courtyard of his apartment block, all crumbling turquoise shutters and little window boxes, is a world away from the raucous debauchery and superficial glamour of Victor’s bar and home in Kabul – an aesthetic rendered faithfully in the TV series.

Kabul Kitchen is a dark comedy based on the drama of Victor’s bar through the years of growing tensions in Afghanistan. It’s available on Channel 4’s new on-demand foreign language drama service, Walter Presents (so named because its curator, Walter Iuzzolino, handpicks the best dramas from around the world). 

Marc Victor poses with one of his guards.

“At the beginning, the security situation wasn’t too bad actually, things were pretty relaxed – nobody said for security reasons that I was foolish to open a place like this,” Victor tells me. “My friends and people around me were more ‘hmm’ on a cultural level – to open a place that had a pool and served alcohol. They were saying, ‘are you sure you want to do this?’”

But Victor, who loved working in Kabul and craved a place where he and his friends could relax and socialise, went ahead and began building the restaurant. They even dug out the swimming pool themselves.

The L'Atmo pool and garden.

Sitting forward on the dark blue sofa in his small, minimalist flat, he is clearly nostalgic about his adventures as a guerrilla restaurateur (he also opened a restaurant/bar in a military base close to Kabul, and tried to establish one in Islamabad, Pakistan, which didn’t work out).

But for someone who made a name for himself in the hospitality industry, he still looks every bit the weathered war reporter. Sensible gilet indoors, battered suede boots, hair speckled with grey, and an intellectually-lined face make up an image of a man who has a far drier sense of humour and more diffident manner than his flashy, money-mad onscreen persona, Jacky.

Jacky in Kabul Kitchen.

And he had to use his reporter’s nous to ensure his restaurant was always stocked – particularly with alcohol, which is banned in Afghanistan. “Sometimes it would come in through the embassies, and then that stopped, and it would come in through the military bases – they would have stores inside the camps – so I would go in and buy it off them,” he recalls.

He used French diplomats for his vital supplies of salmon, foie gras, and cheese. The restaurant’s menu adds to the incongruity of L’Atmo in terms of its surroundings – $17 boeuf bourguignon, $15 salmon and kiwi tartar, an $8 crab starter, and lots of pork dishes to choose from.

The L'Atmo wine list from 2005.

There is a lot of sex, naked pool dive-bombing, doing shots with rugged mercenaries and beautiful humanitarian workers, and mocking idealists and aid work (“Clowns Without Borders”) in Kabul Kitchen. When I mention this, Victor insists he is more of an “observer” than a party animal, and that the hedonism in the TV series is exaggerated.

But the nightlife was still far removed from Afghan culture. Victor says, “there weren’t really any witnesses, except for the staff, and the staff were too well-paid to want the restaurant to close. So they were indifferent to what was happening, and used to it at the same time. But of course, the image that was projected outside, what was said of the restaurant, the rumours that went around and that could hit the ears of the Taliban – that was something you can’t really control.

Jacky takes a taxi in Kabul Kitchen.

And L’Atmo was indeed notorious. TIME magazine reported in 2007 that, “If Star Wars were to be remade in Afghanistan, the bar scene where Han Solo encounters – and kills – a bounty hunter would take place at L’Atmo.” And Vice reported in 2014: “In Kabul, the place to go was L’Atmosphere, which I’d always found filled wall-to-wall with journalists, spooks, contractors, drug dealers, Chinese prostitutes, and aid workers.” It gave the same example of the Star Wars Mos Eisley cantina.

Victor could always tell when spies arrived, because they would have their own bodyguards who would sit a few seats away and would never drink alcohol. “They would come in, look around, screen the place, book a seat, and afterwards other people would walk in, take a seat close to them – but not too close,” he smiles.

Later on during the war, the military stopped selling alcohol, so Victor had to turn to the black market. “It was very risky because I could be caught by the Afghan police on the way back; it was hard to transport and all that. Sometimes I felt like a drug trafficker,” he says. He was caught a few times, but would buy the police off with boxes of beer.

L'Atmo at night.

It was on one of these days in 2006, when he was out buying alcohol, when his restaurant suffered its most dramatic security threat. Some young US soldiers, who had reportedly been drinking, caused a deadly car accident when they tried to overtake in a traffic jam. A crowd gathered, and they began shooting into it, according to witnesses. This sparked an anti-American riot that travelled from the north of Kabul through the city.

“A big riot formed and walked down all the streets of Kabul, destroying everything that was foreign,” says Victor. There were around 20 clients in his restaurant, and his Afghan manager brought the guards in and locked the door. “He probably saved the restaurant that day.”

The clients had to climb over the metal wall and barbed wire of the restaurant and jump into the houses of baffled neighbours. Victor chuckles as he describes one woman in her bikini, screaming for help on a ladder while climbing into a confused Afghan’s house. “It was a little bit comical to see, but it was a tragic day.”

A L'Atmo guard.

The turning-point for Victor was when another expat haven, Hotel Serena, was attacked in 2008. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, in which three gunmen killed six people in the five-star hotel.

“Until then, civilians were never targeted in any attacks; fights had always been between the Taliban and the military; that was the first really massive attack on foreigners in Kabul,” says Victor.

“From 2006 onwards, there was a wave of jihadists coming in from Iraq, and that did change things – suicide bombers started to appear; people just blew themselves up. Kidnappings started in Kabul too.” Indeed, the street outside L’Atmo was nicknamed “Abduction Alley”.

The atmosphere in Kabul changed, and Victor had to close up for a month or so in 2008, so spooked were his clients. “People stayed in,” he shrugs. “When we reopened, that’s when I started to look around for buyers.”

Although he laments how volatile the situation has become in that part of the world – only this month, a suicide bomber attacked one of the last remaining expat restaurants, Le Jardin – Victor is keen to point out the hospitality of ordinary Afghans.

“It’s a country that’s actually more tolerant than it seems. They’re traditional, yes, but they’re not radical. They were welcoming and they accepted us very well, were very friendly, and curious about our differences . . . that war belonged to minorities.”

Kabul Kitchen series one box set is available now for free and on-demand exclusively at All4.com/WalterPresents.com.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.