‘Talibanned’: Favourite Afghan Pastimes Again Under Threat
The Taliban had outlawed dozens of seemingly innocuous activities and pastimes in Afghanistan during its 1996-2001 rule, including kite flying, TV soap operas, pigeon racing, fancy haircuts, and even playing music.
These have made a comeback in the years since, but fears are growing they will be banned again if the armed group returns to power.
Taliban fighters have made enormous military and territorial gains since US troops began their final withdrawal in May. The group’s leaders say they want Afghanistan to return to being an Islamic state ruled by religious elders.
The AFP news agency looks at some of the activities the Taliban banned, and the fears of those now taking part in them.
Sayed Mohammad makes a living as a professional musician playing the japani, a traditional Central Asian stringed instrument he first picked up as a boy.
He still remembers the evening 20 years ago when the Taliban broke into a house where he and his friends were playing music and singing songs.
According to the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islam, only the human voice should produce music – and only in praise of God.
“I was young, so I was beaten less than my friends,” said Mohammad, now 40 and a resident of the former Taliban bastion of Kandahar.
“I was still unable to stand for three days,” he added.
He was lucky, he said, describing how on another occasion the Taliban cut off the fingers of one of his friends for playing the japani.
When the group was removed from power, Mohammad celebrated by attending a concert.
“When the music played, I felt a tremor passing through my body out of sheer joy,” he said. “Joy that our country was free and that people were now free to start a new life.”
Since then, many Afghans like Mohammad have become professional musicians and singers.
“There is no pleasure in life if we live in fear,” the father of eight told AFP.
He is determined to pursue his passion, even if the Taliban returns to power. “It’s like an addiction. Even if they cut our fingers we will still play music.”
In a bustling Kabul market shop, surrounded by hundreds of colourful kites of all sizes, Zelgai says he is determined not to give up the business his family has run for generations – and he has flown close to the wind before.
The Taliban outlawed kite flying on the grounds it distracted young men from praying and other religious activities, but Zelgai and his family kept operating.
“Of course, we did it in secret,” the 59-year-old told AFP at his shop in the capital’s Shor Bazaar.
His colourful store has hundreds of fragile readymade kites for sale, and he also takes orders for elaborate custom designs.
And business has soared in the years since the Taliban was out of power.
“This is freedom … we are able to showcase and sell our kites openly without any fear,” Zelgai said.
The much-loved national pastime earned a reputation abroad after Afghan author Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 bestselling novel The Kite Runner was turned into a film.
Today, when the wind is right, thousands of kites can be seen fluttering in Afghanistan’s clear blue skies.
Some are engaged in fights, with the pilots trying to outwit each other with their flying skills and some using glass-encrusted twine to cut the strings of their opponents.
“People would suffer if it is banned. Thousands of families survive on this,” Zelgai said.
The day Manizha Talash took up breakdancing, she knew she would become a target for the Taliban.
Talash is the only female member of a group of mostly Hazara boys who practise breakdancing in Kabul, usually in secret.
The 18-year-old has the support of her mother, who has several jobs to support the family after her husband went missing a few years ago.
But for Talash, who dreams of representing Afghanistan at the Olympics, the risks of continuing are multiple.
Not only is she a girl taking part in a forbidden activity, but she is also a member of the Hazara community, considered heretical by some Muslims.
Despite the risks – the troupe was forced to switch practice venues after receiving death threats – she is determined to pursue her passion.There have been women pioneers in many fields in Afghanistan, and Talash now sees herself as one of them.
“We had no women police officers before; now you see them everywhere,” she said, dressed in a T-shirt, cap and black leggings – an outfit that would be anathema to the Taliban.
“I took the risk of becoming a target. I have fear in my heart but I won’t give up.”
The makeup artist
Oversized false eyelashes are delicately glued on, followed by the application of a rich carmine-red lipstick. Next comes eyeshadow, before beige and ochre blush is delicately brushed on.
Despite its bustling popularity, Farida’s beauty parlour is one of the hundreds across the country that face an uncertain future.The Taliban severely restricted the movement and activities of women and girls during its rule, and banned beauty parlours from operating in public.
“If they come back, we’ll never have the freedom we have now,” said 27-year-old Farida, who asked not to be further identified.
“They don’t want women working.”
Farida’s shop is busiest on Thursday and Friday – the weekend in Afghanistan when hundreds gather for huge wedding ceremonies.
Out of the sight of men, the women come to be pampered for a few hours.
Beauty comes at a price, however. At Farida’s salon, one of Kabul’s most popular, a full treatment package can cost up to $300.
“I think the Taliban will force us to leave when they come,” Farida said, adding she would love to move to Canada given a chance.
The shisha smoker
On the bank of a river flowing through the eastern city of Jalalabad, Mohammad Saleem and his friends gather every evening to smoke shisha, an ancient pastime enjoying something of a renaissance across the world.
“Smoking shisha is very normal at the moment in Afghanistan,” said Saleem, puffing the vapours of fruit-flavoured tobacco from a bubbling hookah.
But the Taliban says it is an intoxicant, something prohibited by the Quran.
Shisha cafés have popped up across the country since the fall of the Taliban, serving hot saffron tea to customers occupied with their pipes.Café owner Bakhtyar Ahmad believes the habit is a good way to keep youngsters off the streets, or from indulging in worse vices, such as drugs.
“There is peace here. We serve shisha and we play music in the café,” Ahmad said. “If the Taliban come back with their old ideas then they will stop us.”
Shisha smokers agree.
“It will not be possible to go for a picnic or smoke shisha by the side of a river like now,” Saleem said.
Business is brisk at Mohammad Ghaderi’s salon in the western city of Herat, with young men lining up for a shave or fancy haircut that matches their favourite Bollywood or Hollywood actor.
“Afghanistan has entered a new world,” said Ghaderi, a men’s hairstylist for nearly 10 years.
“There are more hairdressers now, more young people taking to fashion … the government is not against it like the way the Taliban were.”
While men in rural areas tend to stick to Islamic styles – a shaved top lip, a beard longer than a man’s fist – city slickers are a parade of the latest fashion.
But Ghaderi and his customers fear their individualism will end if the Taliban returns.
“We are afraid that if the Taliban enter the city and the bazaar, they might be the same as they were 20 years ago,” he said.
“Again women will be in burqa and young men would not be free to do what they want,” added Sanaullah Amin, a regular customer.