JERUSALEM – Even if you’ve only been to Kabul for a day, you know of the Mustafa Hotel. Some hated it, some loved it — but if you were a journalist, a humanitarian worker or hired gun, you’ve been there and you have a story about your time there.
Wais Faizi ran the place and there was never any question that he was in charge. His office on the second floor between the cafeteria and the bar, like most of the rooms in the place, had walls of glass.
Wais’ family turned it into an indoor bazaar during the Taliban and when seizing the post-Taliban market of hacks, do-gooders and mercenaries that flooded in overnight, instead of putting up real walls they simply hung curtains or painted the glass black. It made most of us even more concerned about bombs: If the hotel were attacked the place would be awash in flying glass. Most people requested rooms in the back, off the street.
It has been over a year since I have been to the Mustafa, but all those memories came rushing back when I heard that Wais was found dead a few days ago. His death was defined as "unexplained."
Wais was known as the Fonz of Kabul, but I never called him that. He was from New Jersey and looked a little bit like Henry Winkler, but the title came more from the name.
Growing up watching "Happy Days," I never thought Fonzy was tough, so I could never make the connection to Wais. He was always very pleasant. One thing for sure — you always wanted Wais on your team.
I lived in Kabul as FOX’s correspondent for a year and a half in 2004 and 2005, but my first time at the Mustafa was a few months after the fall of the Taliban in early 2002.
At that time there were only two places in town to stay — the Intercon Hotel or the Mustafa. If you were working for a TV network you were up the hill at the Intercon (not plush by any standards, but much better than the Mustafa), and the rest were down at the Mustafa. I was not with FOX News yet, so I was at the Mustafa.
Wais had lived in New Jersey for over 20 years and had the accent and down-home charm that was very refreshing in a place so very far from home. Both he and the Mustafa Hotel had a rough-and-tumble charm about them.
There were familiar aspects to both, but you knew there was something hiding not to far below the surface. And that was something you probably did not want to know all the details about.
Wais loved American gangster movies, but I would attempt to resist watching them with the nightly gathering. I would think to myself that the last thing I want to see is Al Pacino shooting guys while there was enough real violence right here in Kabul. But every night there I was — watching Pacino throwing the line, "Say hello to my little friend."
Walking into the Internet cafe and smaller bar on the ground floor of the Mustafa — at any time of the day — you would expect to hear the clarinet music from the bar scene in "Star Wars."
Scruffy humanitarian workers just back from far-off provinces having their first beer in weeks to shady characters who straddled bar stools as if they walked out of a Clint Eastwood movie — sidearm strapped to their leg, or rifle leaning against the bar — every face in every seat had a story.
I "lived" at the Mustafa a few months after Saddam was run out of Baghdad in the summer of 2003. At this point I was with FOX News and went straight from Iraq to Kabul to visit my then-girlfriend, now fiancee. This is when I really got to know Wais and found out he was a FOX News fan.
When I told him my employer — he did a "come here" backward head gesture to bring me into his office. He proudly showed me a FOX News hat on his bookshelf and from that moment on, any time we caught eyes as I walked past his office he pointed at his TV to show me he was watching FOX News and gave me a thumbs up.
A little over a year later, Katherine and I moved to Kabul. I ran into Wais every once in a while. We had a house at this stage so there was not much of a call to go to the Mustafa. Most of the time it was to meet a friend who had come back to town and booked into the place they knew best.
A few times I saw Wais at parties and once he even asked if I remembered who he was — I wanted to say: "Man, you are a legion; how the hell could I forget?" Thinking back now, I should have said that to him.
Now sitting in Jerusalem for a posting I came straight to after Kabul, I find it hard to read the e-mails from my buddies still in Afghanistan and articles about Wais’ death.
Afghanistan has this charm that grabs you with both hands. It’s equal parts — kindness from people who have nothing, the characters that a place like Kabul draws and the endless stories in a time like this. Wais had a peppering of all of the above.