Quiet subversion by Afghans

SUN JOURNAL

Evolution: War-torn Afghanistan is witnessing small-scale but widespread disobedience to the Taliban.

June 23, 2000|By Karen Mazurkewich | Karen Mazurkewich,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KABUL, Afghanistan - The road to Kabul is littered with abandoned tanks and populated by hungry waifs shoveling dirt into potholes for a few tattered bills. At dusty checkpoints guarded by heavily armed Taliban sentries, thin ropes are strung across the bumpy, gravel highway.

Today, the Taliban soldiers are less vigilant about the banned audiotapes stashed in the driver's car. The journalists' camera equipment attracts attention.

The young guards don't confiscate the film. Instead, they radio their comrades in the hills to come down for a picture-taking session, a little pose for posterity as the sun settles behind the snow-capped mountains.

When the Taliban took control of most of Afghanistan four years ago, the mullahs decreed it sacrilege to portray any living thing. Film, television and photography were banned. Posters and photos were torn down from all public places. But now, young militiamen such as 25-year-old Abdul Wali ignore the edict and request a memento.

Hospitably, he thrusts a rifle at his guests so that they, too, can pose with a little hardware. A female journalist politely declines to hold his AK-47, and Wali reflects on the irony of the situation.

"Look, she doesn't even want to touch it," he muses. "We are born with our guns and use them as pillows." It is difficult for Wali to imagine a different life. He was a child of 5 when the Soviet army invaded. "We have been fighting these wars as long as we can remember," he says.

Over tea, he shares his hopes for the future. Islamic purity is a distant second to family concerns. Wali and his companions talk of their wives and children who are left alone for months on end.

They fret about the lack of schools, which are nonexistent for girls and scarce for boys. With the warlords holed up in northern Afghanistan, the Taliban foot soldiers dare to dream. "Did you get a high school education?" they ask a visitor. The topic weighs heavily on Wail's mind. He has growing daughters.

Subversion in this war-torn country comes in small packages: illicit photography, a visit to the barber, the occasional woman who lifts the heavy veil of the bursa off her face and strides purposefully down the street.

At midafternoon in the Faze M. Barber shop, a young traffic officer, sits in Ghulam Nabi's high-backed chair for a little trim of his hair and beard. When the Taliban banned men from cutting any facial growth, Nabi's business dropped by 70 percent. Now business is slowly picking up. The traffic officer, who doesn't want his name published, hates the look of an unkempt beard.

A hotel clerk describes how he traveled to Peshawar, Pakistan, to shave his beard for his wedding photo. After the ceremony, he lingered in Pakistan for four months to grow it back. He, too, occasionally visits the barber on the sly.

Wedding days bring out the hidden saboteur in Afghans. Mohommad Zahir, the 53-year-old owner of a photo shop in central Kabul, says a handful of desperate bridegrooms secretly hire wedding photographers.

Zahir has owned his studio for 38 years and ekes out a living selling old photographs of the city of Kabul. On occasion, he will repair to his back darkroom to process images of "living souls," shot by the brave souls who dare to flout the rules. It is sacrilege, but it brings in cash.

For the men sitting in the offices of the Ministry of Telecommunications, the return of normality means the resumption of telephone service in Afghanistan and long-distance links abroad. Reconstructing Afghanistan's crumbling phone system has become a top priority for the government.

"When it comes to business, there's no politics," says Al Haj Mullah Allahded Tabib, deputy minister of telecommunications. The government has formed a joint venture with Telephone Systems International Corp. of New Jersey to restore links between Kabul and Kandahar, and to allow international callers to dial direct.

For women, the road back is more difficult. Siddiq Siddiq sat at home for four years. Then the former dean of architecture and construction at Kabul's Polytechnical Institute defied Taliban edicts by going back to work. Not to the university: The Taliban still do not permit women to study or teach. Siddiq found work at the military hospital designing prosthetic limbs for land-mine victims.

The former professor is applying her design knowledge to foam and plastic. It is a few rungs down the professional ladder, but for now she takes comfort from her contribution.

The Taliban opened the door a crack when they allowed a handful of female doctors and nurses to work in segregated hospitals. Now activists such as Siddiq push a bit further. As the hospital's only female nonmedical employee, she is setting a precedent.

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