Life under the Taliban

Kabul seen through a burqa, November 1996. (Seamus Murphy VII Network/GlobalPost)</p>

Kabul seen through a burqa, November 1996. (Seamus Murphy VII Network/GlobalPost)

KABUL — “It was a golden time,” said Nasimi, recalling his teenage years under the Taliban. “There was nothing to distract you — no cinema, no snooker parlors, not too many people on the streets. You could catch your breath.”

This may be an unorthodox view of the oppressive and intermittently brutal regime of Afghanistan’s fundamentalists, but it's not unique. While hindsight has bestowed upon the black-turbaned rulers the ominous aura of global jihadists, at the time that they took over Kabul — in September 1996 — the majority of the capital’s residents hailed them as saviors.

What preceded the Taliban was far worse than the loss of music and kite-flying privileges: Kabul dwellers had spent four years in the grip of a vicious civil war that had destroyed the city, killed thousands of people and sent even more into exile.

“We used to get up every morning and call around to friends and relatives, see who was still alive,” recalled Nasimi.

Kabul was being shelled by various warlords — many of them members of the post-Soviet government. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was prime minister when he rained rockets down on his own capital; Ahmad Shah Massoud was defense minister when he unleashed similar destruction.

Abdul Rashid Dostum held the north of the country, going so far as to issue his own currency. Ismail Khan had an iron grip on the west. The Taliban had been in control in the south since 1994, when they chased out the gunmen who had terrorized the population with a direct and vicious violence.

“We wanted an end to the warlords, and we wanted national unity,” recalled Nasimi. “The Taliban gave us that.”

Of course, the Taliban also imposed a set of rules and restrictions that soon set the population’s teeth on edge: no music, no kite-flying, no shaving of beards. Women were largely restricted to the home, and most girls were barred from school. Universities continued to function, although girls were absent from all faculties except medicine.

But the study of Islamic theology was de rigueur in all classes, even if the subject under discussion was English language or chemistry. Still, a professor of Darwinism was able to keep teaching throughout the period, although he admits his topic was not popular with the Taliban.

The Amr bel Maaruf, or the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, patrolled the streets looking for those who strayed outside the narrow confines of their laws.

“It was like being in prison,” said Abdul Qadir, 28, a shopkeeper. “We lost the feeling of being young.”

Abdul was 15 when the Taliban took over his native Herat, a beautiful, cultured city in western Afghanistan. He recalls with anger and regret the day of his wedding.

“It is one of the bitterest memories of my life,” he said. “Weddings at that time were like funerals, since no one was allowed to play music. I had just picked my fiancee up at the beauty salon, along with my brother. We ran into the Amr bel Maaruf. They did not care that I was about to get married. They took me out of the car, they beat me, and they cut my hair.”

For women, a burqa — an all-enveloping nylon shroud that covers everything, including the face, was all but obligatory. But other items of a woman’s wardrobe were left alone, despite the widespread misapprehension in the West that white shoes were banned because white was the color of the Taliban flag.

“Nonsense,” said Rahmani, who owned a shop in Kabul during Taliban rule. “Women could wear whatever they wanted, as long as they had a burqa on over it. For that matter, women could even wear white burqas, so how could they ban white shoes?”

While women did live under severe restrictions, female doctors continued to work, and women street vendors were allowed to peddle their wares — to other women.

“I was very comfortable under the Taliban,” said Dr. Malalai, a doctor in Mazar-e-Sharif, capital of Balkh province. “I worked part-time, but made enough money for my needs. I could go anywhere, security was not a problem. We did not fear robbery, rape, murder. But now, I work full time and do not make enough money. And if someone offered me a job in one of the outlying districts, I would never go, because of poor security.”

Mazar was a special case in Afghanistan — the only city that actually defeated the Taliban, in 1997. An indeterminate number of Taliban fighters were killed by members of the resistance, largely from the Hazara ethnic group. When the Taliban finally took control of Mazar in 1998, they perpetrated a massacre of Hazara that still haunts the nation.

“In 1998, when Mullah Manon Niazi was governor, he said on the radio that it was OK for anyone to kill a Hazara,” said Shoib, a young reporter who happens to be Hazara. “Our family was hiding for months. It was a very tough time. But they soon replaced him. The new guy — Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, was okay. Things weren’t too bad after that.”

In many areas of the north, armed gangs associated with "warlords" are once again on the rise, and incidents of robbery, rape and intimidation are becoming more frequent. The excesses of these groups may well make people long for the stifling but safe days of the Taliban.

“The Taliban did not let us work or go to school, but they did not rape us and they did not kill us,” said Soraya Parlika, a feminist and activist, whose family was prominent in the Communist government.

Of course, many women recall the Taliban days with extreme bitterness.

“I still remember those seven years, when I was locked up at home,” said Shukria, who is now a literature student at Herat University. “I fell so far behind in terms of development. I was in prison — I could not even go to the market without a mahram.”

A mahram was a male, usually a family member, who accompanied women when they had to go out.

“One day I was shopping, and I had on a long chador (veil) instead of a burqa,” said Shukria. “We came upon a group of Taliban. One of them took off his shoe and hit me a couple of times, asking ‘why are you not wearing a burqa?’ Then they turned on my mahram and kicked him.”

If the Taliban came back, said Shukria, she would kill herself.

“Nobody had anything then,” she sighed. “No mobile phones, no cars, nobody even had a decent house. These days everybody is trying to get those things.”

The Taliban, as fierce as they were, also had a hapless side that put them at a disadvantage in the cities, where many of the residents were better educated and more sophisticated than they were.

“You would go into a ministry, and you could not tell who was the minister and who was the secretary,” laughed Aziz, a young translator now living in the West. “There were no desks or chairs, they were all sitting on mattresses on the floor. I went to one office to get a document signed, and they were all shooting watermelon seeds at each other.”

The population lived in fear of the Amr bel Maaruf, who could administer a beating if crossed; but they were not so much in awe of the rank-and-file fundamentalists.

“The Taliban would not let us climb the hill outside our house,” said Rahmani. “But it was a favorite picnic spot during Nauroz.” Nauroz is the New Year’s celebration that marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar, on March 21.

“They would station a tank on the hill, but we would just storm them, in groups of 300 or so,” he laughed. “The children would throw stones at them, and while the Taliban were running after the kids, the rest of us would get to the top of the hill.”

Many Afghans, particularly those who were young boys during the Taliban years, recall the time with a mischievous grin.

“Once we were listening to music at home,” said Nasimi, who lives in a multi-story apartment building on the outskirts of town. “It was very loud, and the Taliban were passing by. They yelled up at us to throw down the cassettes and the player. My mother was afraid, so she did it. They took the cassettes, but they returned the player.”

But his smile dims as he recalls the day he was driving to work and got stuck in back of a moving crane.

“There was a man hanging from it,” said Nasimi. “They were driving him around town to show people, to scare them.”

Scaring Afghans is a difficult proposition, however.

Rahmani recalls going to the Ghazi stadium, in the center of Kabul, to watch executions and amputations as a young teenager. He had to sneak in, since his father forbade him to attend.

“We watched some thieves having their hands cut off,” he recalled. “But when we came out, several people had had their bicycles stolen.”

Stealing was not the only vice that persisted under the Taliban.

“The system was still in place,” said Nasimi. “Drinking, gambling, affairs — it was all still going on.”

According to numerous reports from all over the country, a lively society existed just under the surface, carrying on the more secular traditions of Afghan society.

“My father-in-law drinks a lot,” said Rahmani. “His friend would make moonshine in his house, and then they would have parties. They would invite all of their other friends over.”

But no matter how well they may have accommodated themselves to the regime, for the overwhelming majority of Afghans, a return of the Taliban would be unthinkable.

“We know more about life now,” said Massoud Ahmadi, 32, a civil servant in Herat. “We do not want to experience that radical regime again.”

Rahmani was even more categorical.

“I was not afraid of the Taliban then,” he said. “They were in power, and as long as you obeyed them, they left you alone. But now they are fighting this government and the international community. I work for an international organization — from their point of view, I am the enemy.”

No matter how bad things seem at present, with a stalled economy, deteriorating security, an unpopular government and an increasingly burdensome foreign presence, people are not willing to go back.

“We were dead under the Taliban,” said a radio manager from Helmand. “All we thought of was our next meal. When the new government came, people had hope, they began to live again.”

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