Kabul residents rush to spend secret savings

War on terrorism
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Mohammed Soli is one of the first to have profited from the fall of the Taliban. He sits in his dingy little office in the Bakhtar cinema in central Kabul before a table piled high with banknotes. Outside, Kabulis who have not seen a movie in five years fight to get into the cinema he has owned for 28 years.

The price of a ticket is 5,000 afghanis (7p). The press of people trying to force themselves inside is so fierce Mr Soli employs half-a-dozen heavies to keep them in order, one menacing with a length of rubber tubing, another with a log which has a sharp spike at the end.

Punters burst through the narrow chink in the door through to the hall, pouring with sweat and gasping for breath, often missing one or both shoes, but beaming with joy.

Mr Soli's picture house was one of the first targets of the Taliban when they took the city in 1996. "I was put in jail for 22 days and they forced me to pay a 50m afghani fine [£880]," he said. When he came out of prison he grew his beard, kept his head down and sold crockery. But happy days are here again. The cinema is packed to capacity (650) and far beyond, young men piling in to feast themselves on garish and antiquated Hindi melodramas.

Kabul is full of cash. As Northern Alliance tanks rolled in on 13 November troops were tossing out wads of it like rose petals, and Afghanistan's liquidity is refuelled every couple of months by shipments of afghanis from Russia, where they are printed.

The Taliban had emptied Sarai Shahzadar, the capital's teeming money market, before they left. The Northern Alliance promptly refilled it. The stairways and yards of the scruffy bazaar are again packed with men in tight knots, buying and selling afghanis, Pakistani rupees and greenbacks. The poor old afghani, trading at 40,000 to the dollar a week ago, has even rallied slightly, thanks to the nearly two weeks of peace, reaching 39,000 yesterday.

And suddenly all the people who hoarded money through the Taliban years, when luxuries and pastimes were banned, are bringing it out of the boxes and chests where it lay hidden and throwing it around.

Television was banned by the Taliban, though the wealthy watched in secret. Suddenly, the electronic stalls in Pushtunistan market, whose most expensive items until now were the 500-watt amplifiers used in mosques to amplify the call to prayer, are shifting as many television sets as they can bring down the road from Pakistan. "I've sold out," said one trader, grumpily. "I sold 10 this week and that's my whole stock.''

The only terrestrial channel you can watch in Kabul is the newly restarted Afghan TV. But when you tire of the female newscaster (face exposed), the beardless male singers and the old Rambo films, you can go back to Pushtunistan market with more sacks of money and spend 18m afghanis (£316) on a receiver and a locally made satellite dish that will pick up 140 channels.

On the outskirts of town, in Khala Tatulla Khan, the metal-bashing workshops whose staples are chairs and water pumps are turning out as many dishes as they can make. The metal arrives in scraps imported from China, which seem to come out of the back door of a canning factory, because they are printed with the logos of "Reddi-Whip Original Light Cream'' and "Hot Shot Flea Killer''. The patches of metal are riveted into the dish shape.

''We sold 25 this week,'' says Naseer Ahmadi, who claims to have been the first Afghan into the trade, 10 years ago. "In the Taliban time, we made them secretly and people bought and installed them secretly. We sold five a week.''