KABUL – Scenes of absolute mayhem are taking place right in front of the Bakhtar cinema in Kabul. It’s Tuesday morning, November 20, and the crowd is going mad, getting ready for the midday show of El An (The Announcement), an Indian Bollywood movie.
The Bakthar had finally reopened the day before – more than five years after the Taliban took over Kabul – and instantly became the greatest show in town. The capacity crowd is 650 – but there may be at least 5,000 trying to catch this performance.
One ticket costs only 5,000 Afghanis (a little more than 10 US cents). Lost in the crowd, Naseem can barely contain his excitement. The last film he saw in his life was Rambo 4: “There wasn’t any life here. For us, it’s like being born. We feel like we died.”
The Bakthar lobby is filled with ragged posters of dodgy Indian movies such as Aatish (directed by Sanjay Gupta), Sadak (directed by Makesh Bhatt) and Kaali Ganga (directed by Raj Sippy). Some 40-odd prints miraculously survived the Taliban cultural holocaust, according to cinema owner and “businessman” (he used to sell pottery), Saleh Muhamad. This is his cinema, and has been for 28 years now. When the Taliban rode into town in 1996, he was arrested and jailed for 22 days. The cinema was closed and he had to pay a fine of 500,000 Afghanis (almost US$20 at the time). “Because for the Taliban, I was a criminal,” he says.
An extraordinary cast of characters manages to get past the human and iron barriers on the way to the screening room. There are soldiers, heavily injured people, kids; there are Tajiks and Hazaras; they are enveloped in robes and blankets or in ghastly “Made in China” leather jackets. But in this sweating sea of humanity there’s not a single woman or girl in sight. And if there were any, they would not be able to survive the mayhem.
A guard intervenes, “Please don’t take a picture when we are beating people.” People are indeed being mercilessly beaten with sticks and leather whips. Everybody is frisked. The improvised security team manages to confiscate two machine guns, one revolver, four knuckle dusters, 14 knifes, eight radios (“there could be a bomb inside”) and a menacing collection of butcher’s knives. Northern Alliance soldiers leave their magazines at the security check, but they keep their rifles. Local police, dressed in gray uniforms, do the same. Even in the middle of this crazy mess, everybody is deliriously happy, like the punter exclaiming, “All of six years I wanted to see a movie! Very good! Good night!”
The Bakhtar will now be in business with three or four shows a day – fascinating thousands with Rambo 4, old Jackie Chan epics and even an Afghan movie, Uroj, whose poster features a “bad” communist smashing a bottle of vodka on some poor soul’s head. Flush with literally mountains of cash, the manager hopes to start importing films from India pretty soon – “American films are very expensive.”
Life is a movie in liberated Kabul – so many dramatic, extraordinary stories that would have driven Federico Fellini crazy. Gogochor – a ravishing Iranian singer – is the ultimate music smash in all cassette mini-booths. A satellite dish factory is making 25 units a week – and selling them all. The Kabul branch of the City Bank of Afghanistan is very well protected – the security includes a guy with a rocket launcher – but there’s absolutely no money inside the bank: people saved their money at home during Taliban time, and they never spent it. Now they are having fun buying radios, cassettes – and satellite dishes.
Speaking perfect French, Abdul Aziz Bakhshi – an electronics engineer who received his degree in Uzbekistan – can be found in a stall in an open-air bazaar selling tacky second-hand Chinese clothes. Bakhshi studied in Kabul’s famous Lycee Istliqal, just as legendary commander Ahmad Shah Masoud, the slain army head of the Northern Alliance, who was one year his senior. He used to work for French NGO Acted – which is still conducting many projects in Northern Afghanistan (but not in Kabul, because of the Taliban). He makes roughly 400,000 Afghanis a day (about $10) in the bazaar, he keeps educating all the family in French, and most of all he is happy with the return of his female customers, shopping by themselves, with no harassment, and many not bothering to wear even a scarf. Bakhshi’s dream: to get his job back with the NGO.
Hajatullah’s bakery used to be supported by the World Food Program (WFP) until five months ago. Hajatullah, a Panjshiri, has been the proud owner of this bakery for the past eight years. He used to get flour from the WFP, but under the Taliban he had to start buying the flour himself: 950,000 Afghanis (about $24) for 100 kilos. He employs 11 people and sells around 2,000 nans – the Afghan flat bread – a day. He says, “If the WFP starts helping us again, we can even help the poor.”
All over town, the Taliban’s psychotic hatred of women’s education has left deep scars, but still they could not beat the Kabulis’ resourcefulness. Samira, 15, from an upper middle class, secular Kabuli family, recalls how she was beaten up by a young Taliban from the religious police in the bazaar because she was not wearing her burqa properly. But her “revenge” was sweet. She managed to fool the Taliban, along with other 17 girls, for a whole year, one hour a day, from 4 pm to 5 pm. They were involved in a highly anti-Shariat and subversive activity: learning English. Every day they sneaked into the teacher’s house – a 27-year-old woman – clad in their burqas. Inside the house, when the Taliban came – which could be almost every week – they would instantly switch their English textbooks to portable versions of the Koran.
Samira says, “Our teachers were very intelligent. We were happy. But the Taliban closed the school three months ago. One of our neighbors informed them. They were jealous people.” The English teacher is now gone, probably to Logar province, and there are no more classes. But Samira is hopeful her English lessons will resume, this time in an officially-recognized school.
Kamila Yaltali also was an extremely dangerous element – a sort of Brechtian Mother Courage. She is the headmaster of what until a while ago was an underground school for boys and girls, the Urfan Course, in a small three-bedroom rented house in the Kabul neighborhood of Khairkhana, run by herself and three other teachers – Zahira, Saleha and Aziza. Classes 1, 2 and 3 run from 7 am to 9 am, and classes 4, 5, 6 and 7 run from 9 am to 11:30 am. Kamila set up the school herself five years ago, immediately after the Taliban took power in Kabul. She had only four students then, including her son Anil. By the time the Taliban left Kabul she had 180 students – 120 of them girls, aged five to 17.
It’s always been a very risky job. Kamila is from Badakhshan province in the northeast, and for the Taliban that meant an inevitable connection with the Northern Alliance. In the beginning her own house was sealed and everything inside was taken by the Taliban. But she persisted. She says that the children always came to the school “one by one,” very discreetly. “But even then the Taliban kept coming here many times. We told them repeatedly that we were like a madrassa [school] – teaching the Koran but also sowing.”
Kamila says that “women working as Taliban intelligence” would also drop in to ask her about the school’s program. “I always sent them away.” Taliban tactics also included surrounding the school and firing in the air to intimidate her.
In the beginning she had some books provided by Save the Children – but basically the teachers bought everything themselves, and they handmade a lot of their teaching materials. “It was like a campaign against the Taliban,” says Kamila.
The Urfan Course teaches a variety of subjects: Dari, Pashto, English, geography, science, mathematics, religion, history, geometry, art and sewing. There are gym classes too, performed in a very small central garden in the backyard. During a Dari class, a group of 30 students are extraordinarily quiet. Kamila, smiling, attributes it to the fact that “I’m a dictator.”
The big change from now on is that the Urfan Course “will not be secret anymore.” They still need pretty much everything: teachers, books, carpets, blankets. Kamila will be very happy if she eventually gets the first computer for the school: her son Anil, 16, is studying computing in a nearby school with eight other teenagers.
In another part of town, we cross a group of 10 women in the middle of a street – burqa-less, showing their smiling faces, and “feeling very good.” They prefer to walk in a group because “the situation is not completely safe.” All around them young, wary Panjshiri soldiers can be seen in combat fatigues carrying their Kalashnikovs. The women are doctors, lawyers, faculty teachers. They have just visited the offices of the WFP – the UN agency promised them there could have some job openings in an unspecified future. This happened just a day after a group of a thousand women – most of them burqa-less and totally unveiled – staged a kind of demonstration, filmed by newly-reopened Afghan TV, and broadcast in the nightly news by a woman wearing just a pale blue scarf. The aim of the demonstration: we want our rights, most of all the right to work and the right of education.
There is a mind-boggling social abyss in Kabul. Families like Sayed Nabi Hashimi’s are hard to find. Hashimi is the chief pilot of Ariana Airlines – the beleaguered Afghan national carrier, now under sanctions from the UN and with practically all of its planes bombed by the US. Hashimi lives in a spacious two-storey house with a fine garden – in front of a former Al-Qaeda guesthouse with tinted windows, not bombed by the US – with his young wife and three children, including a four-month-old boy. The older boy, 7, is studying computing at home with a private teacher. Hashimi drives the only Chevy in Kabul, which he brought during one of his trips in Dubai.
Back to what can only be described as a slum, Nouria’s eyes are incredibly sad. Nouria, 35, a Kabuli, was a beautiful woman when she was younger – as we can attest by the photos hanging on a wall of the family rental house Now Nouria is a beggar, supporting five children, including a nine-month-old baby. Every day, Nouria goes out from door to door, asking for a little help. But her neighbors are as poor as she is. On an average day, she gets something like 15,000 Afghanis – less than 50 cents. She has already sold most of her precious belongings and house appliances. She also collects old clothes and sells them in street bazaars.
Nouria’s husband, Atta Muhamad, a bus driver from Mazar-e-Sharif, got a bullet in his left leg 20 years ago. Later, he became very ill, stayed in a hospital for two years and his leg was cut off. He could have a plastic leg for next to nothing – like the ones made by landmine victims in Cambodia.
The immediate consequence of the family drama was that Nouria was forced into begging – something she always does carrying two of her children. The husband stays home sewing. If they have any serious health problems, they have to borrow money from her relatives.
The Taliban and the Arabs did not help the family at all. Under their system, says Nouria, “if you have a house, they would take your house number, and then you would get daily bread rations.” But “connections” were needed to receive the precious card for access to either a WFP or an Al-Rashid Trust (charity organization) bakery. The Red Crescent didn’t help her either. Now she has to buy the daily bread: there are no working bakeries at the moment supported by either WFP or the Al-Rashid Trust.
Nouria and Atta have been married for 12 years. They both come from rural families. She is his second wife: the first one died. The last two years “the situation is very hard.” They need 1,200,000 Afghanis ($30) a month to pay the rent and feed the family (the average Afghan annual income per capita is $24).
The owner of their house lives in Peshawar – and soon will raise the rent. The kids get no schooling. Nouria teaches them the Koran. They couldn’t afford to flee anywhere during the American bombing: “It was like an earthquake. The rooms were filled with dust. The children were crying.” Now at least they are “very happy” because the Taliban are gone. Nouria hopes to find a job, but no amount of hope can disguise the brutal sadness reflected in her eyes.