Exit the Taliban, enter James Bond and Iranian soaps
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Shahgholam Hairat and two of his friends were channel surfing between Al Jazeera (the Arab news channel) and Iranian soap operas. Suddenly the Taliban cultural police burst into their apartment last year.
Arrested for "immoral" acts by the Taliban Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the students spent three months in jail.
Yesterday, Mr. Hariat was unrepentantly shopping. "We want to see the world's television," he said, flashing a Cheshire cat smile, as he bought a new satellite dish from a street vendor. It will replace one he has kept hidden on his balcony, behind a stack of cartons.
Afghans such as Hairat are at the cutting edge of a pop-culture renaissance here, as the Taliban-built walls of isolation come tumbling down.
From the reopening of cinemas to a boom in videos and satellite TV, Afghans are racing to catch up from a five-year time warp. The radical Islamic rulers banned everything from kite-flying to women walking too loudly. Listening to nonreligious music was forbidden as well. Taliban roadblocks across the country were festooned with tangled strands of shiny black magnetic tape, ripped from confiscated video and music cassettes.
Those who are providing the new window on the world can barely keep up with the public appetite for once-forbidden fruit.
Take Gholam Farouk, a TV and stereo salesman who has the smile of a born conspirator. In his shop today, there is standing room only as customers jostle to buy TVs, VCRs, and satellite dishes. Before Northern Alliance rebels took control of the city Nov. 13, his entire stock was hidden in a secret warehouse. Only simple radios lined the shelves.
Even those were enough to bring an agent of the Taliban's vice ministry to his narrow doorway earlier this year.
"You should burn everything in your shop," Mr. Farouk says he was told. "Then you should burn me with it," he retorted, initially denying the existence of his warehouse. The Taliban eventually forced him to divulge his stash: Inside they found 18 televisions, 22 video players, a video camera, and eight satellite dishes.
Farouk was held in jail for 15 days. After he got out, he replenished his stock. And the moment he learned that the Taliban had fled last week, he emptied the warehouse into the shop. The crush of people asking for prices all day, he says, made his head hurt.
"There were many Pakistanis and Arabs [with the Taliban], who wanted to keep us in the dark. They didn't want to show their faces," says Ismatollah Hairan, a customer in the shop. "TV is good for children and for everybody, because we can see what is happening in the world."
The cultural restrictions imposed by the Taliban - and the quiet opposition to it - were not limited to the airwaves. Mahboub Sharifi secretly collected 500 videocassettes which he rented to friends.
"We had shelves at home with secret places carved out behind, where we kept the tapes," Mr. Sharifi says. "It was a miracle that I was never caught."
Today, his inventory lines one wall of his shop. The latest James Bond film, "The World is Not Enough," and other Hollywood releases, are outnumbered by Indian titles with alluring women on the covers. They share space with sugary fruit-juice boxes, detergent, and cans of Pepsi Cola. His co-conspirators were a number of Pakistani travel agents who ferried videos, and even the Taliban themselves, whom he says he bribed at checkpoints.
Business is booming. Sharifi rents 40 to 50 tapes per night, he says, at about 50 cents each. But cash wasn't the only reason he began this line of work. "I was so bored, and there were so many like me - we couldn't do anything we wanted," Sharifi says, as customers outside his shop eyeball film posters. "I needed money, but it was against the Taliban. That's why we did it."
Change is evident almost everywhere in Kabul. Afghan TV began broadcasting again on Monday, with women newsreaders returning to the airwaves (the Taliban had banned women from work outside the home) wearing only headscarves, not the previously required head-to-toe burqas.
Not even a Harry Potter première in New York or London could match the enthusiasm of crowds outside the Bakhtar Cinema in downtown Kabul this week. Rioting broke out Monday when the theater opened. In the first three days, some 3,000 people have crammed the dusty hallways and big auditorium of the cinema - lending an odorous air of suffocation as Afghan and Indian films played scratchily on the big screen.
"People love the cinema very much, and we were very sad and depressed during these five years," says Hossein Ahmadi, the ticket taker who hid five of the movie "pie tins" in his own home. His eyes twinkle at the thought of the return of his celluloid heroes.
The building was one of 17 cinemas in the city that have been locked for half a decade. Now, a long string of bikes owned by moviegoers are lined up outside. Guards at the entrance frisk every ticketholder. Numbers are issued, and patrons must handover brass knuckles, switchblades, radios - even Kalashnikov assault rifles - at the door.
Upstairs, the projector clatters with the sound of the silver screen era; projectionist Mohamed Yassin - until days ago, selling trousers and shirts on the street - is back at his old job.
"Many people love to watch films; we don't have any other amusements," he says, rewinding the movies manually, "dusting" the film as it pulls through his fingers. "This is the place people come to have fun."
But as Afghans crowd into the dark cavern of the theater - eager to escape the harsh realities of their nation after two decades of war - what is it they choose to watch?
An Afghan-made film called "Horouj" ("Offensive") - about mujahideen fighters on the battlefront.