Everywhere, people - like books - are often judged by their covers. But here in Afghanistan, the daily decision about what to wear can be a political and theological statement, too.
For a recent trip to Khost, a city five hours southeast of Kabul and deep in the conservative Pashtun belt, a fellow Monitor reporter and I opted for traditional Afghan clothes: a beige salwar chemise (long tunic with baggy pants), a vest, and a hat. But which hat?
I decided on a pukhol, a round beret of sorts that once symbolized opposition to the Taliban. These days it's a more universal head covering. My colleague wore a topi, a mini white cap donned by pious men. A turban would have given us instant back-country credibility, but that seemed like too much work to put on.
I had let my facial hair grow, but far more important for our safety if we encountered Taliban fighters or sympathizers was the four-inch beard worn by our driver Zalmay. Our interpreter referred to his magnificent barb as our "passport" to travel outside Kabul. Most conservative Muslims follow the teaching that says trim the mustache but allow the beard to grow.
After conducting our interviews in Khost, the governor graciously offered to let us stay in a former house of the king, now being looked after by a man named Amir Shah Karger.
I noticed that Mr. Karger wore a blue salwar chemise and had the short, well-tended beard of an intellectual. On a patio overlooking the garden, Karger told us how he has "worn" a number of different ideologies in his lifetime. He has been a communist, an anticommunist, an Islamic writer, and a prisoner of the Taliban.
The sun set and the power went out, so we ate dinner by candlelight. In the flickering shadows, we made an unlikely group: two Western journalists; our interpreter, who was trained in the communist army; our driver, who was a former mujahideen; and Karger, who declared that for him all "ideology is dead."
"I am a realist," Karger says. Like many Afghans, he views the central government as corrupt and nongovernmental organizations as self-serving. He plans to run for the new parliament to fight these problems. "I see the Parliament as a bridge," he says. "The Parliament can tell the government when they are doing wrong. And it can tell the people that development takes time and to be patient."
He's not alone. The three-week registration period for candidates planning to run in September's local and parliamentary elections opened last week. Some 10,000 Afghans from more than 60 political parties are expected to throw their turbans, pukhols, and topis in the ring. There are 80 hopefuls already in Khost alone, where there are only three seats for men and two for women.
A week after we saw him in Khost, Karger visited us in Kabul. He was making the rounds among politically connected friends. We complimented him on his custom-fitted brown suit.
He said that he had arrived in Kabul wearing traditional clothes. After dropping off his suit at a tailor, he had called on an old acquaintance, an official by the name of Nooristani. But the official's secretary brushed him off, giving Karger an appointment three days later. He left, picked up his suit, and went back to Nooristani's office. Wearing the suit and tie, he was immediately ushered in.
Karger laughed, telling us that rather than shaking the official's hand he said: "Mr. Nooristani, please shake my tie."
When we asked him about his prospects for election, he admitted that he was finding it hard to get rid of his old communist label, though that was years in his past. Apparently, even a new suit can't completely erase old antagonisms and cultural divides.
Because Western clothes have more cachet these days among the political elite in Kabul, I, too, tend to wear my regular clothes in the city. The other day, however, I brought out the salwar chemise again for an interview with a conservative mullah who had condemned the showing of dance videos and Western films on television. Youth, he lamented from behind an enormous white beard, were now imitating American and Indian mannerisms, hairstyles, and clothing.
As I shook his hand goodbye, he held my hand and said, "You come to Afghanistan and you wear Afghan clothes and adopt Afghan culture. This is good. So why do some Afghans try to adopt Western culture in Afghanistan?"