In Afganistan’s only bowling alley, Canadian escapist inspiration

Muhammed Muheisen/The Associated Press

Monday, May 28, 2012 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

There’s no shortage of strategies to improve life in Afghanistan. But this is the only one centred around rolling heavy neon balls down wooden lanes, sending white pins flying.

Faced with a hometown she couldn’t recognize, Meena Rahmani drew inspiration from her life as an immigrant in suburban Canada: She opened a bowling alley.

The Strikers is Afghanistan’s first and, so far, only bowling alley. If Ms. Rahmani has her way, it won’t be for long.

She admits it’s a risky venture: A weird new sport; a secular hangout for both sexes; foreign-looking lighting and a set of 10-pin lanes. She has security guards to keep out trouble.

But locals are coming. They’re competing for top scores. And they’re telling their friends.

In September, 2006, Ms. Rahmani was 22, newly married and newly transplanted to Canada after growing up an Afghan immigrant in Pakistan.

She had her first driver’s licence. She was learning to navigate the vagaries of Canadian bureaucracy and Ontario weather. And she picked up a bowling ball for the first time in the Vaughan Mills Shopping Centre, a five-minute drive from her family’s Woodbridge home.

She’s the first to admit she’s no bowling prodigy: Her highest score is 184. But at the 22-lane venue, she had an epiphany of sorts. Ms. Rahmani hoped to return to Afghanistan a filmmaker. But in 2010, visiting her family’s old home in Kabul for the first time in two decades, she was stunned by what she saw. “There were rocket marks around the walls of our house, broken windows and doors.”

She was in for a second rude awakening: There was nothing to do. In the month she spent in Kabul, Ms. Rahmani found nowhere to simply hang out and have fun.

Her priorities shifted. In her mind, what her hometown needed was a jolt of normalcy: Something casual, fun, inclusive – and escapist. “People should not think they are in Afghanistan.”

Easier said than done.

Ms. Rahmani wanted something sophisticated, with nice amenities and a full-service restaurant. The land she obtained had been used as a parking lot. “It was totally destroyed. It was a ruined place. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, am I going to set up a bowling alley here?’ ”

There are no suppliers of bowling equipment in Kabul, no technicians to fix or install it. So Ms. Rahmani imported materials and technicians from China. Kabul’s electrical grid can’t handle these kinds of demands, she said, so she brought in an industrial-sized generator to power the place. An armed security detail was a must. All in all, it became a million-dollar startup.

“It was so risky. … I had just invested a very large amount of money, and I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

The real challenge was when Ms. Rahmani tried to assemble a 25-person staff. There was no shortage of applications. But female employers are not common in Kabul. “It was tough: I would overhear them saying, like, ‘Is she going to be the boss? How is she going to manage the place? She won’t be able to do that.’ ”

Ms. Rahmani plastered the city in posters – “The Strikers bowling alley coming soon.” They made an impact, albeit not quite as intended. “People were saying, ‘What is this?’ They had no clue.”

But they came, anyway – a big line of people waiting outside on opening day last September. They showed up out of curiosity, and kept coming back.

Ms. Rahmani hopes to return to Canada for her citizenship, and to do her master’s in business in Toronto before maybe trying her hand at films.

“I was so busy with this business of bowling, I couldn’t go into documentary-making,” she says. “Hopefully by next year, or by the end of this year, I’ll go do that.”

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