With the Taliban gone, TV business is booming

Merchants overjoyed as a banned industry comes out of the dark

War On Terrorism

November 21, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - For five years, Mohammad Yaseem worked like a spy, traveling by night on secret missions, the tools of his trade buried deep in his pockets. Once, when an informant betrayed him, he escaped the authorities only by fleeing across a rooftop.

"I was very afraid," he says. "It was six months in jail if they caught me."

Yaseem is a TV repairman, a job officially forbidden by the Taliban. Now he's back on the day shift and breathing easy, and in the week since the Taliban left town he has repaired more televisions and videocassette recorders than during 20 months of the bad old days. Thus have joy and commerce returned to Nader Pashtun Street in Afghanistan's capital city.

In this part of the world, bazaars and markets tend to be ghettoized by product line, and Nader Pashtun Street is Kabul's place to go for TVs, VCRs, satellite dishes and any part that makes a television run. Lately, it is a busy place, with the giddy air of a tavern district after the repeal of prohibition. At the tiniest shops, crowds spill out the door.

Amid the crowd of traffic and pedestrians, a bicycle pedals past with a boxed Panasonic television lashed to a rack above the rear wheel.

"Down at the parts shop, two doors down from mine, it's so busy that you have to take a number," Yaseem says.

And right across the way, at Naeem Ullah's store, you can do no better than a waiting list, because he's already run out of stock.

"I had 20 TVs [hidden, of course], and the day the Taliban left I put them all in the window," Ullah says. He sold all of them within a few days, he says, and has sold 120 satellite dishes and counting.

All three TV shops had their ways of coping with the ban on their business. Yaseem remembers painfully how it all began.

"It was really bad," Yaseem says. "They sent me an official letter telling us we had to close, and that was it. We couldn't even pay the rent."

Ullah was arrested and jailed. He bribed his way out with $100 after three days.

There was an element of hypocrisy in these raids and closures. Yaseem recalls watching officials from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue raid an appliance store just down the street. The authorities zeroed in on the Sonys and Panasonics, he says.

"They took the most expensive ones and kept them for themselves. Then they took the cheap ones, like the Russian black-and-white models, up to the roof and threw them off."

The authorities entered Yaseem's shop and found an older model awaiting repair. One smashed the picture tube with a rifle butt. The model still sits on the concrete floor of his shop as a reminder, parked next to the entrance.

Yaseem made only 20 repairs during the Taliban's five years in power, but they provided him with more intrigue than he ever wanted.

"I would go at night. I was scared," he says. "Some of the people had buried their TVs or hidden them in secret places. I would work on them in a room where no one could see me from the outside."

He charged about $9 just for the visit, a princely sum around here.

Ullah, too, did business on the sly, stashing his stock behind a cosmetics shop across town, where taxis would pick up TVs for customers. Such transactions, with their couriers and middlemen, sound almost like drug deals. And like most pushers of addictive products, Ullah was also a user.

"We have a big yard, so I put a satellite dish in a far corner, behind a screen, so none of the neighbors could see it," he says. "We were afraid they would inform the Taliban."

An informant was the cause of Yaseem's near-capture, he believes. No sooner had he entered a house for work than the raid began.

"I heard them coming in downstairs and knew it was the Taliban," he says. "So, I went up on to the roof and got away."

But for all the relief in being able to again indulge freely in this one-time vice, at times there is an almost a wistfulness to people's accounts, as if the risk was half the pleasure.

Mohammad Zahir, the seventh customer in line at the spare parts shop (and he'd already been waiting a half-hour) speaks of watching Rambo and Terminator movies on the family VCR in the times when you weren't supposed to.

"We would close the door, close the windows and close the curtains," he says. "Then we'd turn the sound down real low. "Those were the days."

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