'I saw armed men dragging away a musician. Strange, because the Taliban have been beaten'

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The Independent Online

It was a harangue the people of Herat had heard so often in the Masjid Jameh, the main mosque of the city, during the dark days of the Taliban. Women should not throw off the burqa and ape Western ways; the men should not cut their beards. But the sermon was last Friday, and the speaker was Ismail Khan, their liberator from the intolerant followers of Mullah Omar.

The day before they fled Herat, the Taliban hanged two men from lampposts in the city centre opposite the Mawaffaq, the main hotel used by foreigners. On Friday evening I saw a man playing the flute at a café next to the hotel. Then he was dragged out by armed men and bundled away. The scale of repression may be less, but the fear remains.

One may assume that any woman who leaves off her burqa will no longer be whipped with cables in front of her family, but no one is in any hurry to find out. Those who thought this historic city would resume its cultured, liberal ways after the Taliban interregnum would be disappointed. The psychological scars are still fresh, and the censorious tone of Mr Khan, their warlord ruler before the Taliban, is an unexpected obstacle.

Almost everything about Herat inflamed the puritanical Pashtuns. The beautiful city in north-western Afghan- istan has a rich religious heritage, embracing Zoroastrianism and Buddhism as well as Shia Islam, which found expression in the building of grand mosques and minarets rather than austerity. One of the leading historical figures was Queen Gawhar Shad, the daughter-in-law of Tamerlane, who was a valued adviser to her husband and whose tomb used to be one of the main tourist attractions.

The women of Herat were accustomed to a prominent role in the life of the city, and it was common to see them not only without burqas, but without any covering on their heads. The Taliban, however, adherents of the most extreme version of Sunni Islam, drove women indoors here, as they had done throughout their domain.

Girls' schools were shut down, women were banned from certain streets in the bazaar, hospitals were segregated and bath-houses closed. In October 1996, more than 100 women took the extremely brave step of protesting outside the Taliban governor's residence. They were beaten and arrested by the religious police.

There is a certain amount of puzzlement about why Commander Khan, now the governor, should echo the Taliban. The more charitable say that he must keep in with the conservative Shia mullahs; others believe he is simply showing his true colours. Mr Khan, who enjoys strong backing from Shia Iran, has also been making critical remarks about the new government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul. But while another resurrected warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostam, has been rewarded with the post of deputy defence minister, there has been no offer to Herat's ruler. Some see this as the reason for his resistance to the liberal policies advocated by modernists in the government.

Niaz Salim, who works for an international relief organisation, and who shaved his beard off the day the Taliban left, said that Mr Khan's views were so far only "something said in a mosque". But, he added, "if he makes an official announcement about these things, then I will have to notice. I only hope he does not do so. We should be looking forward."

Perhaps one of the saddest things about Herat is the despair the Taliban and the years of war have brought. Nasruddin Hamid, a 21-year-old who works for the UN, said: "I stopped my studies. What is the point of learning when the only people who got what they wanted were people with guns? But maybe things will change and people with guns will not interfere."

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