Memories of the Serena Hotel

By Deborah Mitchell Contributing Columnist

March 28, 2014

Well, it has happened again.

I got news via Facebook that another place in Kabul has been marred by a terrible act of violence. In the Serena Hotel in downtown Kabul, some gunman shot an entire family who were guests there. One of my co-workers was in one of the hotel rooms and escaped unharmed, for which I am grateful. But my heart goes out to the family who seemed to simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Serena Hotel is one of three or four in a chain of hotels across the Middle East. It is simply beautiful, a true oasis in the middle of the bustling, dirty city of Kabul, where dust floats in the air, settling on fresh vegetables at the farmers’ markets, on newly butchered meat hanging from hooks in open-air butcher shops on the side of the road, and on the people who are out walking in it, shielding their noses and mouths with thick scarves to block it out.

The Serena sits somewhat by itself, not too far from what looks like the center of the city, where the tallest buildings house banks and other businesses. Unless a person knows what to look for the hotel blends into the scenery, another building surrounded by concrete walls, another entrance patrolled by guards.

I went to the Serena about a month before I came home. No one I worked with seemed interested; however, Sarah, who left a month before I, told me that it was a great place to go to get away from camp. She described a pool and a spa, where we could pay $75 to spend the day relaxing in the sun. I was finally able to talk three women into going with me just so I could say I had been there before I left. It was a good decision.

Entering the hotel was just like entering any other building in Kabul. Our driver dropped us off at the steel door and then sped away while we were admitted to the first anteroom. There we were searched and our purses scanned as they are at airport security. We went through another steel door and then another room and finally we exited onto the hotel grounds.

What I saw took my breath away.

After living for months where everything looked brown, the grounds were a sight for sore eyes. I saw green everywhere — grass, leaves on trees, manicured shrubs and garden mazes, and flowering perennials. Stepping onto the grounds made me forget that I was half a world away from my real life.

We went in the hotel lobby which was resplendent in white marble. It looked like any other nice hotel lobby in America — except, of course, that it wasn’t in America. Patrons were checking into the hotel, some were drinking hot tea and coffee in the lobby “bar” (of course, no alcohol was served) and others were sitting in overstuffed chairs reading newspapers.

We headed down the hall toward the spa, stepped inside and breathed in a clean, peaceful scent. We were greeted by two young Afghan women, one of whom spoke flawless English and neither of whom was wearing a head cover. They offered us coffee or tea and asked us to wait in a dimly lit lounge.At that moment, I felt worlds away from Kabul — although I knew I was still worlds away from home.

We took a quick tour of the spa and made appointments for our next visit and then headed to the hotel coffee shop where we ate beautiful desserts and drank hot tea. On our way out we saw a young man playing classical music on a grand piano in a secondary lobby outside the gift shop.

Then we left the hotel and went back to the life we had happily left just two short hours before. Our ride back to camp was very quiet. I think we were all trying to extend the experience for a few more minutes.

And now, that hotel’s elegance and other-worldliness has been shattered by yet another person trying to destroy normal Afghans’ attempts to have a normal life.

I will never understand.