Kabul enjoys an entertainment bonanza as cinema and television return

War on Terrorism: Culture
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The Independent Online

After the Taliban's five-year ban on films and television, residents of Kabul enjoyed an entertainment bonanza on Monday: a war film packed a cinema, and a petite young woman introduced the evening's television programmes.

In a land where women have not been permitted to show their faces in public since 1996, Mariam Shekeba was live on the air, reading from handwritten scripts before and after taped programmes on state-run television.

She spoke for barely two minutes, mostly to promote various events, and Kabul residents were delighted – though hardly shocked. Women were a common sight on Afghan television before the Taliban imposed their rigid interpretation of Islamic law.

"I was an announcer for children's programs before the Taliban," said Ms Shekeba, her black hair partially covered with a forest green scarf. "For the past five years I've been sitting at home, doing nothing."

Television, which returned on Sunday night, is on the air only from 6pm to 8pm, and it is mostly a collection of children's programmes and tedious shows about public health that television employees ferreted away in their homes during Taliban rule. The main transmitter was destroyed in a US bombing raid and the one in use only reaches the greater Kabul area.

The station's director, Shamsuddin Hamad, nevertheless promises four hours of television a night, including fresh productions, in coming weeks.

Mr Hamad, with several days of stubble on his chin, a tan suede jacket and sunglasses that stay on even in the low light of the control room, looks as if he'd be more at home with a gang of Hollywood producers than the Taliban. "The Taliban left on Tuesday and we came to work the same day," he says. "It took us several days to get all the equipment in order, but we're extremely happy to be broadcasting again."

A few blocks away, at the Bakhtar Theatre, young men lined up well before the 9am showing of Ascension, a popular Afghan film about the guerrilla war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The screen was a canvas cloth painted white, the wooden chairs were splintered and the ceiling tiles had fallen out. There was no popcorn, and a musty smell filled the air. Still, all 750 seats were filled, and 250 more people stood in the aisles.

When the film broke down at one point, howls of frustration filled the theatre. When it was fixed minutes later, the crowd roared with approval.

"I've seen this film before, but that's not important," said Jawidullah, 17. "I just wanted to see the first film that was playing after all these years."

When the Taliban fled last week, the theatre's manager, Sultan Mahmood, scrambled to clean away five years of accumulated dust, get the sound system working and lay his hands on movies the Taliban had locked away in the Ministry of Information.

The Taliban banned virtually everything that smacked of fun – even kite-flying – on the grounds that the activities were either un-Islamic or frivolous distractions from the serious pursuit of religion. Taliban clerics regarded all portrayals of the human form as un-Islamic.

"Films are not prohibited by Islam. They can teach people many good values," said Mr Mahmood. "The Taliban banned movies just to pursue their own political objectives."

Yesterday's audience was exclusively male simply because the scene at the front gate was so chaotic, said Mr Mahmood's deputy, Mohammed Rafia. Women used to sit in the balcony with their husbands and children and will be welcome again as soon as things calm down, he said.

"I'm a very happy man today," said Mr Rafia, who sold fruit on the street while the cinema was closed. "But it's not just me – everyone is excited because once again there are movies, television and music." (AP)