Afghan entrepreneur Said Bashir Jalili was on holiday with his family in Istanbul when he received calls from the 10 Turkish members of staff in his two Kabul restaurants — Prime Steakhouse and Buffalo Kings sports lounge — to say they had been told by their embassy that they must leave the country.
That was on August 15, 2021, and for the previous 11 days Mr Jalili, like Afghans around the world, had been on his phone, constantly reading text updates as province after province fell to the Taliban.
By late afternoon, the news arrived that the president, Ashraf Ghani, had fled the country and that the Taliban were walking into Kabul. Mr Jalili worried for his restaurants, in which he had invested more than $2 million to set up in 2020, but he was more worried for his staff.
“My biggest investment isn’t the businesses, it’s our people,” he says by phone from Dubai, where he spends his time when not in Kabul.
That first evening, few people ventured outside, and most businesses put the shutters down as people waited out yet another political upheaval in Afghanistan in their homes.
“There wasn’t order on the streets, no one knew who was a Talib and who was a thief, so everyone stayed in,” he says.
On August 19, Afghanistan's Independence Day, his restaurants reopened to little fanfare. No more than 10 or 15 people showed up between both establishments on that day, he says.
Most of his clientele, well-to-do younger Afghans — journalists, aid workers, embassy staff, mid to high-level government officials, influencers, entrepreneurs and photographers — had already left by that point or were too busy looking for ways leave to make time for a shisha or a coffee.
In fact, it took more than three months for customers to return properly. And it was not until the early winter months that families began to get in their cars and go out for a pizza or kebabs. By that time, Mr Jalili had had to cut his staff by half to 60.
“They call me every day, asking when they can return to work, and it breaks my heart. Each one of them provided for an entire family of five or six other people,” he says.
But slowly, life in Kabul started to return to some semblance of normality, and those families who were not immediately affected by the sanctions and aid cutbacks imposed on the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate were looking for any form of entertainment.
“People needed a change of scenery. If you lock yourself in your house for 20, 30 days, you’re no different from a prisoner, and the people of Afghanistan refuse to be caged once again,” Mr Jalili says of the people who started to return to his restaurants, including young men and women.
In the spring, the Taliban dealt a blow to the social lives of Afghan families when they ordered that public parks must be gender-segregated, with men and women going on separate days.
An entire family could no longer enjoy Kabul’s few green spaces at the same time.
Even at home, with electricity cuts and poor internet connections, people have limited options for entertainment. Most of the Afghan and Turkish entertainment shows that families used to watch every night have been taken off-air.
“There’s not much else to do in Kabul other than go to a restaurant,” Mr Jalili says.
“People who used to come once a week, now scrape together what money they can to come once or twice a month.”
That is why he is one of the few Afghan entrepreneurs looking for new ventures. On his list are a new entertainment centre in the capital and possibly a restaurant in the central province of Bamiyan, which has become popular with families and young people in recent months.
Mr Jalili understands the fears of other Afghan entrepreneurs he has spoken to.
They worry that if international sanctions on dealing with the Taliban are not lifted and Afghanistan does not become part of the global financial system again, they will not be able to continue to do business.
There is the anxiety that the Taliban’s government will never be internationally recognised, which would deal a further blow to the struggling economy.
He says the Taliban, who are desperate to restart the sanctions-hit economy, have been supportive of and encouraging to Afghan investors at home and abroad, but for many of his peers the fears are still too strong.
Last week, he sat in the sports lounge with an official from the Afghan Central Bank to discuss plans for jump-starting the economy.
Despite the many concerns, Mr Jalili feels now is the time for local entrepreneurs to engage with the local economy, because the Afghan people should not have to suffer because of the government.
“‘We have to do something. It’s our nation. We have to take our investments and bring them to our own country,” he says.