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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Plane converted into a restaurant in the heart of Kabul

The aircraft will be converted to a restaurant but has already become an attraction at the Afghan capital's only amusement park

A decommissioned commercial plane installed at Park Shahr, Afghanistan’s only amusement park, in Kabul has attracted the attention of thousands of visitors, some of whom have never been inside an airplane before. Ruchi Kumar for The National
A decommissioned commercial plane installed at Park Shahr, Afghanistan’s only amusement park, in Kabul has attracted the attention of thousands of visitors, some of whom have never been inside an airplane before. Ruchi Kumar for The National

It was the night before Eid Al Adha and Kabul’s streets and markets were crowded well past midnight. Families were out shopping, young boys and girls thronged the colourfully lit streets, and there was anticipation in the air as Kabulis looked forward to celebrating the festival after weeks of mourning for victims of recent militant attacks the Afghan capital.

However, what no one expected was to see a commercial airliner rolling through central Kabul that night. In a city living constantly on the edge of fear, panic ensued, with Afghan social media users assuming the worst.

“Emergency landing in street in Kabul nearly a km away from #KabulAirport,” one user tweeted.

The rumours quickly escalated from stories of a crash landing to an unauthorised return by vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has been in Turkey since May after being accused of detaining and torturing a political rival. A plane believed to be carrying Mr Dostum had been refused permission to land in the city Mazar-i-Sharif in July.

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However, the truth turned out be a pleasant surprise. The private airline Kam Air cleared the air the next morning when it announced that the mystery plane was in fact a decommissioned aircraft on its way to be installed in Kabul’s only amusement park, Park Shahr.

“Our intention was not to scare people; but we had no other way to bring the plane to the park,” said Habibullah Esmati, the owner of Park Shahr.

The plane's 25-kilometre journey to the park from Kabul airport took nearly five hours, he told The National.

Mr Esmati said hauling the MD-87 aircraft through the city was not intended as a promotional gimmick, but admitted receiving thousands of messages about it after photos and videos of the plane rolling across Kabul streets with its wings removed went viral.

The plane is to be converted to a restaurant, the first of its kind in Afghanistan, and will be called Hawai Park Shahr — Persian for Aero City Park, Mr Esmati said.

“We have rented this plane from Kam Air on a special contract, and while the exteriors will carry the airline branding, we plan to redecorate the interiors,” he said.

“A lot of the design inside the plane will be preserved to resemble an actual plane, except we will modify the seating arrangement to accommodate families. The restaurant staff will also be dressed like airline stewards and will have to be summoned using the overhead buttons.”

The restaurant will serve fast food and is scheduled to open to public in a few weeks, but the plane — which has now had its wings put back on — has already become an attraction.

“How did it land here? Did it crash in the park?” asked Murtuza, 10, who was visiting Park Shahr on Saturday afternoon with his father and sister, Fatima, 8. Unlike him, Fatima had never been in a plane, and Murtuza tried his best to describe air travel to her.

“I can’t wait to take Fatima inside,” he said, echoing the excitement of thousands of Afghan families who flocked to the park over the three days of Eid to see an actual plane up close.

“Many Afghans have never travelled by an airplane and the idea of being inside one can be very fascinating, especially for children,” Mr Esmati said.

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He said airports and planes had fascinated him in his youth. “I wanted to be a pilot when I was younger, however the constant war in Afghanistan did not allow me to pursue the education required."

Now a successful businessman, Mr Esmati, remains passionate about travelling and visiting amusement parks in every country he goes to — another of his obsessions.

“He has been to every big amusement park around the world,” said Almas Qasemi, chief operating officer of the Esmati Group. “It was no surprise that he would be the one to start the first large-scale amusement park in Kabul four years ago."

An increase in militant attacks in the capital since then has affected business and the park receives fewer visitors than it did in its first year.

However, its operators remain optimistic.

“With so much despair in Afghanistan, we are providing this city with a safe space to leave behind the stress and unwind with their families,” Mr Qasemi said. "I feel people appreciate that."

While the airplane restaurant is expected to bring in more visitors, Mr Esmati said the park was a pet project to him, not a business venture.

“When we were still installing the aircraft, two little girls from underprivileged backgrounds, walked up to me and asked to be let into the park just for two minutes to get a closer look at the plane. They were ecstatic when I gave them a free tour of the park and access to some of the rides.”

Watching the girls enjoy themselves was what he had always wanted to achieve with his park, Mr Esmati said.

“I consider their smiles as my profit.”