`Getting better, day by day'


Economy: Owners of small businesses are encouraged by their success since the fall of the Taliban.

October 23, 2002|By Robyn Dixon | Robyn Dixon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KABUL, Afghanistan - At dawn, Sharif, 58, Kabul's most famous kebab man, goes to buy the best cut of meat without haggling about the price. By 12:30 p.m. his kebabs will be sold out, and waiters in his tiny smoked-filled restaurant will have to turn away hungry and disappointed people.

Mohammad Hasan, 55, who has been a tailor for kings and government officials for decades, is doing so well that he had to hang a sign in his shop to warn off new customers.

On colorful Flower Street, shopkeepers who used to spend their days joking and singing for lack of customers are happily besieged by patrons and traffic jams.

From the poorest carpet weaver to the fat car dealers in Charai Ansari Square, everyone in Kabul says small-scale commerce is rolling along.

"Now finally I am making money," Sharif says. "It's really the first time I have made a lot of money."

Afghanistan's economy, shattered by 23 years of war, is gloomy and depressed - so primitive that no one in the government knows the unemployment rate or the balance of trade. They can only guess at the figures, but they know they are bad.

The striking thing in the post-Taliban era, however, is the thriving entrepreneurial spirit of the small businessmen.

Businesses that were restricted or banned under the Taliban - tailors, beauticians, music shops, photographers - are doing well. But even those that faced no restrictions, such as restaurants and car traders, are much busier and more profitable.

Lunchtime kebab and rice houses are packed. Ice cream parlors are thriving, buying ice from factories or trucking grimy ice from the Salang Gorge to freeze their confections by hand.

Florists and bakers are deluged with wedding orders, a far cry from the Taliban days when the middle classes would go to Pakistan for the more important, festive parties.

Mir Gulab, 70, whose turban business has been in the family for 100 years, is making the same kind of money he did in the era of the Taliban, when every bureaucrat wore a turban. He is seeing more rural clients who could not afford new turbans in the Taliban era.

"Actually, business is good," he says. "Everyone is richer now."

When Nazar Mohammad, 45, saw four turban sellers go broke after the Taliban's fall, he nearly gave up his turban business. But instead he diversified into vests and waistcoats and pulled the business out of a hole.

"It's getting better, day by day," he says.

Sharif, the kebab seller who has no second name but is known by everyone as Sharif Kebabi, began making kebabs as an apprentice at 13 and opened his business at 19.

When the Russians invaded in 1979, he hung a portrait of the Soviet space hero Yuri Gagarin on the wall and welcomed Russian customers. His grimmest era was under the Taliban, when the religious police stormed through the neighborhood every lunchtime, chasing people away to say their prayers.

"Before, I could just work to support my family, not make money. I worked for years and could never buy a decent piece of furniture," says Sharif, who sits in the front of his restaurant each day counting the take. "Everyone wants to progress. Everyone wants to move forward."

The scrawled sign hanging in the shop belonging to tailor Mohammad Hasan tells the story of the roaring demand for his Western-style suits since the fall of the Taliban:

"Dear customers, Because of a shortage of apprentices we cannot accept sewing orders."

He began as an apprentice 48 years ago as a 7-year-old. Now Hasan sews suits only for top government officials, foreigners and loyal customers. He is making 60 suits a month now, compared with six in the Taliban era. He makes 3 million Afghanis a month - or $60. "This work does not make you rich but it does bring satisfaction, honor, fame," he says.

Even at the lowest and toughest level, among the children who weave carpets, life is better now.

Ahmad Faisal, 14, and his four sisters begin the intricate and dull work of weaving at dawn. At night, when it's too dark to work, the electric light shining out of a neighbor's window provides enough illumination so they can do their schoolwork.

Children in weaving families attend school three or four hours a day, unlike during the Taliban era when boys and girls from such families did not go to school. With Ahmad and his four sisters at school, the family's potential income drops to $100 a month, but it is enough to survive.

Going to school is a big improvement, says Ahmad, who became the family breadwinner at 6 when his father was killed by a rocket in Afghanistan's civil war eight years ago.

The return of refugees to Kabul has made for a housing shortage, so Ahmad's family has been living in one room the past three months. It has no doors or windows, no bathroom, no kitchen, no power.

Though unemployment is high in Kabul, there are ways to scrape out a living - sometimes literally. On the outskirts of the city, dirt is free.

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