Page last updated at 13:16 GMT, Saturday, 24 July 2010 14:16 UK

Kabul cinema bears witness to Afghan history

Lobby of Cinema Park, Kabul
Kabul's Cinema Park specialises in action films

Hugh Sykes visits a colourful cinema in Kabul whose fate over the years has been shaped by Afghanistan's troubled history.

I have just been to a place that reminded me of that lovely Italian film Cinema Paradiso, about the little boy Toto befriended by the old projectionist played by Philippe Noiret.

The clatter of the projector, the faint image of the big screen seen through the little window of the projection booth, whistles and catcalls when the sound fails.

But this is Cinema Park, Kabul. It has 544 seats and features Indian films mostly, as well as James Bond and Rambo.

Only the circle is open, with a low concrete wall across the front instead of a guard rail. The plush, upholstered flip-up seats are very dusty.

As the beam from the projector cuts through the dark, it catches strands of cigarette smoke curling up from some of the dozen-or-so young men who have come to see an Indian action film.

Cinema Park in Kabul, Afghanistan

The sound is distorted, and the print so scratched that some images are almost obliterated.

The stalls are locked and unused. But all the old seats are still there - hard flip-up wooden seats, with numbers stencilled on the back.

Halilullah is the manager. He started working at Cinema Park 32 years ago.

He and most of the staff fled when the Taliban came in 1996. They saw them coming, literally - nine turbaned bearded guerrillas with guns over their shoulders walking through the pine trees in the park next to the cinema.

Some of the staff did not get away in time. The Taliban beat them, and said they were pimps for Western decadence, but they let them go. They smashed the old projectors, and camped in one of the offices.

When the Taliban were ousted from Kabul in 2001, Halilullah came back. He does not intend to leave and does not think the Taliban will come back again.

Talking to the Taliban

But many people here are afraid they might.

The pessimists see a menacing future, in which Western countries succumb to pressure from soldiers' families or voters, and send their troops home before the mission is complete.

They are also deeply alarmed that President Hamid Karzai recently went on television and said "Taliban-Jan" ("Dear Taleban").

And deadly enemies of the Taliban, such as the Northern Alliance, are profoundly unsettled by reports that Mr Karzai has already held talks with the leader of the Haqqani network, the best-funded and most ruthless Taliban group based in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

And then there is corruption.

There were pledges at the recent Kabul conference on the future of Afghanistan that the problem would be tackled. But corruption is endemic here, at every level.

A United Nations survey found that half the people questioned admitted to having paid a bribe for a public service - 25% had bribed a policeman, 18% a judge and 13% a lawyer.

But there is also foreign corruption, highlighted by President Karzai and acknowledged by Hillary Clinton this week.

Pampered foreigners

In a shiny new Kabul shopping mall, I was having a very good espresso coffee when the man at the next table invited me to join him.

I've heard the promises of billions of dollars for Afghanistan but when I look around this city I don't see much evidence of it
Afghan journalist

Abdullah is a hard-smoking Afghan reporter who has spent the past 18 years in Moscow. This is his first time back here.

And when I ask him an open question about his impressions after 18 years, the first thing he says is: "I've heard the promises of billions of dollars for Afghanistan but when I look around this city I don't see much evidence of it. A few new buildings, a few new roads since I was last here, but not much else."

He says much of the aid money has gone to "foreign contractors and all the foreigners here on inflated salaries and by the time the money reaches Afghans there's hardly any left".

Abdullah has a point. Foreign civilian advisers can earn $500 or more a day here - about three times the average monthly Afghan wage. On top of that there is the cost of their expensive secure accommodation and fuel-hungry four-by-four vehicles.

The people in the streets around Cinema Park - near those pine trees where the Taliban walked before they smashed the projectors - could do with some of this foreign cash.

For example to fix the roadside gullies full of foul stagnant mosquito-infested black water, or to help buy some clothes for the boys in rags and no shoes begging on the cinema steps.

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In pictures: Kabul's Cinema Park
24 Jul 10 |  South Asia


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