Sounds of life, songs of love

With Taliban gone, a joyous Afghan city blooms once more

November 19, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TALOQAN, Afghanistan - Morning in the market and, with jars of pickled vegetables as a backdrop, a street singer was holding forth, strutting up and down before an entranced crowd, singing the sweet, sad story of Layla and Mejnoon.

The old songs are the best, and for a moment all the distractions of the marketplace were forgotten. But how could this be happening? A week ago this man would have been hustled off by the police, probably beaten, because under the Taliban, music was forbidden.

But the Taliban are gone from Taloqan now, and yesterday the city could make room for love stories and gentle melodies.

This is a city suddenly blooming with life, as refugees flood back and people seem to be trying to make up for lost time.

In the woodworkers' lane in the marketplace, Usto Hakim was delighted to report that someone had just placed an order for 100 chairs.

"I don't know of a single order for a chair while the Taliban were here," he said, because chairs were considered Western and un-Islamic.

But now, residents are ready to indulge. Tables are another big item that the Taliban frowned upon and that people are now starting to ask for. And as refugees returned to Taloqan to assess the damage to houses wrecked by Taliban occupiers, orders were pouring in to Hakim and his colleagues, who were busily planing and sawing wood for new doors and windows.

Around the corner, Mohammed Fais and Mohammed Rasool had just opened Taloqan's first music store, in a stall that used to sell motor oil. In their first three hours of business, they sold about 100 cassettes, at about $2 each, to eager customers. They sold tapes of songs in Farsi, in Pushtu, in Tajik, and even sold some Western tapes, but it was the old Afghan lyrical songs that were the best sellers, they said, among a population starved for music.

The two had been refugees in Kishim, 30 miles away. Four days ago, they packed up their inventory of tapes and moved home to Taloqan. Yesterday, they couldn't have been happier.

Eimal Mohammed Daoud drives a one-horse buggy around Taloqan, and like all the buggy drivers here, he decorates his horse with a fabulous array of pompoms and harness bells. The buggies are lovingly painted, and most feature old-fashioned wooden-spoked wheels. Daoud said his business has more than tripled since the Taliban left. Where people once were fearful, now they are glad to be out and about.

Daoud took a fare for a tour around the central part of this city of 500,000 in northern Afghanistan. He went past the girls school that the Taliban had burned down, past the Taliban military headquarters and the administrative building, all empty now. The commercial streets, once practically empty, now were teeming.

There were men cradling chickens in their arms, absent-mindedly stroking them. Chinese-made Phoenix bicycles were everywhere, but there were more donkeys than bikes. Smoke filtered the autumn light, golden leaves clung to the trees for another day at least, and there was the constant noise of hammering and chopping, of car horns beeping, hooves clopping, bicycle bells ringing, gears grinding, harness bells jingling, people laughing.

A girl pumped water at a well, the pump handle almost pulling her off the ground on the upswing.

One-legged men were all too common. So were men with guns. Women were out alone, something else the Taliban had forbidden. They all wear burqas still, but a few pairs of high heels could be glimpsed beneath the flowing gowns.

Daoud, who said he is 25 and has just trimmed his beard way back, is happy that his wife no longer needs him to escort her anywhere she might go.

"If the security situation gets better," he said, he just might be willing to have her go out in public without the burqa.

"People feel free now," Daoud said, "but there isn't a sense of complete security. There's much more chaos now."

Shots can still be heard at night, but people in the city were saying that things are getting better every day.

Several pointed out that the order imposed by the Taliban was capricious and violent.

Usto Mohammed Rakhim said that, in July, he joined a donkey caravan taking trade goods to Farkhor, a village held by the Northern Alliance. The Taliban caught wind of it.

"They took my donkey and my salt and rice, and they beat me with sticks," Rakhim said. He said the Taliban burned the donkeys alive, though this was impossible to verify yesterday, and put some of the donkey owners into a shipping container for five days.

"But because I had a long beard, and a gray one, they were content just to beat me," he said.

Ghulom Sakhi, who runs an auto parts stall, said he was thrilled that the Taliban had left; business is booming because of the return of so many cars. But beyond that, it is the feeling of being free.

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