'King Fixer' Kabul hotelier
Friday 05 January 2007
Wais Faizi, hotelier: born Kabul 1970; died Kabul 27 December 2006.
Meeting Wais Faizi for the first time was a surreal experience. It was November 2001, the Taliban had just fled Kabul, and the place was in a state of upheaval. There he was, an Afghan with a Glock pistol in a shoulder holster and speaking in a broad New Jersey accent. Faizi was a busy man that day, directing building work in the family hotel, the Mustafa, hiring guards - a bunch of grinning Pashtuns with Kalashnikovs - and selling Herati rugs to a group of Swiss aid workers.
Hotel rooms were at a premium. The Intercontinental, where most of the influx of hacks were staying, was full, and I desperately needed a bed for the next few nights. "Yeah, yeah, you'll get one by nightfall. Trust Wais, I always deliver," he muttered through the side of his mouth.
And deliver he did. That night I slept in what was basically a glass box divided by tattered curtains, Faizi's rapid reconversion from indoor bazaar. The hastily put-up frontage was mainly glass as well, and a well-placed bomb would have probably shredded the residents. But the Mustafa Hotel survived, and Faizi and his family prospered as aid agencies, diplomats, the military, journalists - and with them, money - flowed into the Afghan capital.
Wais Faizi became one of the "characters" of Kabul. The city, in those early days after the "liberation", had a number of them. Some were bad and possibly mad, like Jack Idema, who claimed to be ex-CIA, sold video footage of what he insisted were al-Qa'ida training camps, and was later jailed for using his house to torture people his private militia had abducted.
Faizi, on the other hand, was considered to be a good guy. He had been brought up in Germany and then the United States, returning to Afghanistan in 2001 after 21 years in exile. One got the impression, though, that his heart lay in New Jersey. He drove around in a 1968 Camaro Convertible, played Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin tapes, and, back in the Mustafa, would be found hunched in front of the television watching gangster films on DVD, preferably starring Al Pacino.
Faizi acquired the nickname "the Fonz of Kabul" and "King Fixer" from journalists, and he gained more fame when one of them, Christina Lamb, mentioned him in her book on Afghanistan, The Sewing Circles of Herat (2002). There was nothing, he used to declare, that he could not fix; no demand he could not meet. He even persuaded the British military to open their official press information centre in his hotel.
For a while the Mustafa became the focal point for the media and all manner of adventurers. Some genuinely scary guys, others Walter Mittys. There was an Irish bar with a boxer as the head barman, a dancing Osama bin Laden doll, bullet holes in the ceiling, and men who carried guns and wore wrap-around sunglasses at night. Guns and knives would regularly get drawn after too many "Tora Bora" cocktails. During warmer months there were barbecues on the terrace with aircraft seats - which Wais swore were from Russian Migs downed by the mujahedin - to sit on.
Faizi had a gentle disposition, but he could become excitable. I once shared a journey out of Afghanistan with him that involved an overnight stay in Dubai. The next morning at breakfast he appeared with cuts and bruises and a torn shirt. He claimed he had fallen over. But what actually happened, we discovered later, was that he had been involved in an altercation in a night-club. At one point Faizi had exclaimed, "Who do you think you are looking at? I am a Pashtun warrior." The other guy had responded, "What's that then, a band?"
Later, sober, Faizi acknowledged that the young man, part of a stag party from the Home Counties, probably genuinely did not know what a Pashtun warrior was.
During a visit to Kabul last month I dropped in on the Mustafa Hotel. It looked tired and run-down. Wais, however, was his ebullient self and was soon in a huddled meeting with a group of security contractors. Two days later I ran into him in a restaurant at lunchtime wearing dark glasses. "Someone else didn't know what a Pashtun warrior was?" But he shook his head. "Just a heavy night. This place is changing; it's all about business now."
Faizi apparently died in his sleep, although the exact cause of death is yet to be ascertained. His grave, on TV Hill overlooking Kabul, has a fine view of his beloved Mustafa Hotel.
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