Taliban slowly relax their religious grip on Kabul, after a fashion

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The Independent Online
"WELCOME TO CITY, good your journey, forget-me-not," says the sign on the side of the Kabul city bus.

Afghanistan's once sophisticated and charming capital has been at peace for more than two years now. It is a city of spectacular ruins, where vindictive giants appear to have been romping. Whole sections of town to the south-west have been flattened. Elsewhere the damage looks painstakingly inflicted: a corrugated iron roof peeled back, a missile shoved in, windows and doors gouged out.

Bankrupted and prostrate after four years of bombardment by rival factions of mujahedin, the city has done little yet in the way of rehabilitation. The evils of wartime are everywhere: child beggars swarm the streets; porters heft huge sacks of banknotes on their backs, paper which due to hyperinflation is worth only $500 or $1,000. (Today's exchange rate is 40,000 Afghanis to the dollar.)

And even after two years, the peace is still tenuous. The crump of heavy artillery was audible in the city last week: the Taliban's front line with the forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud is only 12 miles up the road.

Pax Talibana has been an improvement on war, but it remains a peculiar imposition in what used to be a secular, modern-minded metropolis. For more than 30 years the city's women went to school or work, very much as they do anywhere else, with their faces exposed. Now the few women on the street are shrouded in the burqa. They are not supposed to leave their homes except in the company of a close male relative, and few do. Even the beggar women wear burqas.

Men (as all the world knows) must grow their beards long but keep their hair short. Long hair and short beards are seized on, literally, by the religious police, who carry scissors to administer justice on the spot.

What war had not already destroyed in the way of pleasure and diversion, the Taliban have done their best to suppress, though not always successfully. Homing pigeons and fighting partridges have been banned, yet are still on sale. But kite-flying has gone, chess too. All visual representations of living things are taboo: no cameras, televisions, cinemas, portraits, nothing. My interpreter pointed out a ruined cinema. "Did you go often?" I asked. "Ten times a week," he replied wistfully. Not even music has been spared: the Taliban have banned all musical instruments except the tambourine. In the face of these wholesale suppressions, it's not surprising that Kabul is on the dull side. Throw in a 9pm curfew and you have one of the world's most joyless places.

But within the narrow confines which the Taliban permit, life, even cultural life, is slowly returning to Kabul. The Taliban may be fundamentalist country bumpkins - they certainly viewed Kabul as Sodom and Gomorrah when they took it over - but unlike the mujahedin, whose internecine butchery tore the city apart between 1992 and 1996, they are not rapists or looters. They are young, zealous, unlettered, a bit simple-minded, with little capacity for administration. But they are not perceived as cruel or venal. And now a tentative, wary rapport is developing between the city and its new masters.

The tone is set by the Taliban themselves. The paradox is that the people who have imposed such austerity on Kabul are themselves inordinately romantic. With the tails of their turbans streaming, their loose shirts and flapping trousers of white cotton, their full beards, their eyes (some of them) rimmed with kohl, they leap straight out of some Victorian mezzotint. But they carry the style with modern imagery. They storm around in their vehicles of choice, garishly coloured Toyota Hi-lux pick-ups, the windows emblazoned with Islamic homilies or the names of favourite martyrs, six or eight turbanned heads crammed into a cab made for four.

The time to look out for them during the month of Ramadan is just before Iftar, "breakfast", as the sun goes down around 5pm. All Afghans are rushing at this time to be in a place where they can eat, drink and pray after the long abstemious day, but the Taliban are going faster, hurtling along to the Herat Restaurant, the coolest place in town. It is advertised by vertical fluorescent tubes in pink, green and blue; inside there is a tank of goldfish and beautiful monochrome photographs of historic Afghan monuments. Here they first pray on a raised platform, then stay to wolf down qabuli, rice with lamb and raisins, and kebabs.

Although preoccupied with the continuing civil war, expected to resume after Ramadan, the Taliban have shown themselves not oblivious to the cultural hunger of their country. In the wreckage of what used to be Radio Afghanistan, now Radio Sharia, the head of broadcasting, Mullah Mohammed Eshaq Nizami, is proud to boast that 10 hours of programming are broadcast daily now, compared with only two before the Taliban's arrival.

Today, the brutalised population of Kabul are learning to count their blessings. Forget about cinema and the like: the cassettes of the top Taliban singers sell briskly in the market. Colours are not banned: psychedelically coloured signboards proliferate on shopfronts. The Taliban's wide trousers have become a hot fashion item among urban teenagers.

Why, even the women's compulsory burqa has a certain elegance if you look at it long enough: generally a delicious powder blue in colour, with dozens of fine pleated folds streaming down from a sort of crown on the head. When a breeze is blowing, they billow like spinnakers.

But perhaps that is to take blessing-counting too far.