KABUL, Afghanistan -- The men at the Cinema Park theater easily name their favorite Hollywood stars -- Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Rambo. They prefer action movies, both from India and the United States, and even say they like one called Mission of Justice, starring "Rambo's wife."
But the men also have a major soft spot for the theater's next film: Titanic, to be shown on the big screen in Kabul for only the second time since the fall of the Taliban.
"I can't tell you how I got it," says Abdul Bashir Jamili, who buys most Cinema Park movies from India and Pakistan. "I didn't get it from the United States. I got it from another country. But I can't tell you where."
Most of the pop culture bubbling up in Afghanistan in the post-Taliban era is centered on neighbor India. Postcards of Indian stars and their bare bellies decorate everything from taxis to books. Hindi music blares from Internet cafes and car stereos. Bollywood action films are the hottest movies playing.
The American exceptions are odd: Michael Jackson; any Holly-wood action film, particularly those that went straight to the Third World before they officially hit the video market; and, of course, Titanic.
Almost six years after it had its premiere, Titanic is still one of the most important American imports, right up there with Rambo III, which features Syl-vester Stallone in Afghanistan. But Titanic is not just a movie. It is also a way of life, allowed to flourish after the fall of the Taliban, which prohibited not only the movie, but disliked all things Titanic.
A DiCaprio 'do
Boys now freely get their hair cut floppy like the movie's star, Leonardo DiCaprio -- a style known here simply as Titanic or Titanic hair. Girls hum the movie's theme song, My Heart Will Go On.
In the city's central market, vendors now sell Titanic Mosquito Killer, Havoc on Titanic Perfume Body Spray, Titanic Making Love Ecstasy Perfume Body Spray and Just Call Me Maxi Titanic Perfume. It's possible to buy Titanic-brand toothpaste, facial powder, shampoo and henna. Baseball caps, bags and T-shirts feature Titanic, with DiCaprio and love interest Kate Winslet hugging or the ship sinking.
Whatever is big is Titanic. Large cucumbers and potatoes are sold as Titanic vegetables. Popular thick-soled sandals are called Titanic shoes. Ahmad Massood, who sells these shoes and Titanic Creme Powder in a shop in central Kabul, calls a particularly persistent woman asking for money a "Titanic beggar."
Bakeries sell celebration cakes that weigh 75 pounds. One features a Titanic cake hitting an iceberg cake. It strikes no one as strange that many of these sinking-ship cakes are centerpieces for engagement parties.
More than 800 vendors hawk fabrics and shoes in the Titanic Bazaar, so named because it's in the Kabul River bed and occasionally floods.
A heavy rain recently just washed almost the entire market away, leaving fashion jewelry wrappers, tarps and sandbags behind, but vendors say they plan to set up again in the riverbed next week.
Liking 'the love parts'
"Still everyone plays Titanic," says Ali Ahmad, who sells fabric in the bazaar when it isn't flooded. "Because the story is good. It's a real story. That's why people still like it. And the love parts -- that's what we like."
Everyone remembers where they were when they first saw the movie -- most often, during the regime of the Taliban, which banned films and especially hated the cult of Titanic. Most people watched pirated versions on illegal VCRs and TVs.
Jamili saw it on a trip to Pakistan. A barber smuggled the film over the Pakistani border to Kabul in his underwear so he could watch it with his friends. Mohammad Hussein, who helps Massood in their shop, saw it as a refugee in Iran, and promptly got the Titanic haircut he still sports.
"That's a pity, that's a very sad time, when the boy is sunk under the water and dies," Hussein says.
Barber Aminullah Nazif still remembers his early Titanic cuts. The first customer came in with a postcard of DiCaprio. The second carefully showed a deck of cards with DiCaprio's picture on the back.
"It was very difficult for us, because we had not seen it before," Nazif says. "We had to look at something."
His three brothers and his father, all barbers, admit that Nazif gives the best Titanic of all of them.
Back then, the newly sheared men had to hide their haircuts -- under turbans or hats -- and usually wore long beards, so the Taliban would not get upset. They came to Nazif early in the morning or late at night. If they were caught, both the barber and the customer would be beaten or arrested.
Now, Titanic posters may hang in front of movie theaters, and Celine Dion's heart might go on right down the street, but teen-age boys still have a difficult time with their hair.
A teacher forced Nawid Mirkhail to leave school and get his Titanic hair cut short, as required by the school. Mirkhail, 16, came directly to see Nazif's brother, and he pulled his Nike baseball cap down tight over his head after facing the barber.
He did not like his new buzz cut. He did not like Titanic all that much. He really did not like Celine Dion.
"I like the hairstyle of the film star," Mirkhail says. "He was a handsome boy. And he looked very handsome with that haircut."
Kim Barker is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing company.