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ON A ROLL

Bowled over in Kabul

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Most of the bowlers at Strikers' are Afghans, not expatriates.

The tale of Afghanistan's first bowling alley seems to be that rarest of things - an Afghan good news story.

Behind the black door in downtown Kabul is a place unlike any other in this city, even in the whole country. It is an entertainment setting without alcohol - guards inside the half-ton fortified steel door turn away anyone with a trace of it on their breath. Patrons have to surrender even their cigarettes, which are put for safekeeping in lockers, along with the usual array of weaponry carried by some Afghan visitors.

From outside, it is marked only by a simple sign over the door that reads "Strikers". Beyond the gate, a covered, sandbagged driveway leads well away from the public road - a precaution against bombers.

Inside, though, it is another world. A capacious and fastidiously clean restaurant space greets you. Walking past a wall of cubbyholes with crisp new bowling shoes in assorted sizes, you reach the main hall, with 12 lanes fitted with Brunswick pinsetters and multihued Day-Glo balls clacking out of the return races. A brightly coloured sign above the pins shouts "Advertise Here". Welcome to Afghanistan's - first bowling alley. The tale of how Strikers made Afghanistan the 91st country with a modern 10-pin bowling alley seems to be that rarest of things, an Afghan good news story. So far it has remained one, save for a spoilsport or two.

Though Strikers' opening last autumn was the country's introduction to bowling, most of the bowlers now are Afghans, not expatriates. Strikers was started by an Afghan, not a foreigner. It was built with Afghan money, not funneled-off international aid. And the founder and owner is a 28-year-old woman, Meena Rahmani, who has managed to keep her mostly male staff of 25 working well despite Afghan society's deep bias against women. "I knew how hard it would be, " she said. "I'd be in a difficult condition with the labour, but it's my right, and if they get offended, I can't help that. I'm the boss. " Starting out, a few workers didn't take well to the situation, and she fired them. "I made them respect me, " she said.

Rahmani grew up as a refugee in Pakistan and later in Canada and decided to return to Kabul last year. "I really found nothing in the entertainment sector, a place where everybody, children, even women could get affordable time out, " she said. So she persuaded her parents to let her sell some family land in Kabul, and she put up $1 million to bring in the equipment from China, as well as three technicians from Brunswick to train her staff.

Rahmani said that what really amazed her, though, was to stumble onto an unsuspected bowling aptitude among Afghans.

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