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Saturday, 6 October, 2001, 21:22 GMT 22:22 UK
Kabul's faded vibrancy
Afghanistan's largest city, Kabul
Kabul was once a thriving multicultural city
Daniel Lak

Kabul has been sidelined as Afghanistan's leading city during Taleban rule.

Almost every important official of the Taleban lives in Kandahar, near the southwestern border with Pakistan.


For generations, Kabul was a much more modern and outward looking place than the rest of Afghanistan.

In fact, some Taleban ministers who run the Kabul government are often viewed with suspicion or perceived as soft on key issues of religion or foreign policy.

The leader of the Islamic students' militia, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has only visited Kabul once since his group took control of the city.

He prefers to stay in increasing seclusion in Kandahar, occasionally speaking on local radio or making his views known through envoys in Pakistan.

Yet the symbolic importance of Kabul has not diminished. It was not until the Taleban made a final, successful push on the capital five years ago that the world began to take them seriously as a force in Afghanistan.

The current efforts to dislodge the Taleban will have to place much effort on regaining control of the country's largest city.

A tolerant city

When the Taleban came to Kabul in September of 1996, they found a city in ruins but not without some remnant of its former cosmopolitan and tolerant spirit.

Market in Kabul
Many people have made preparations to flee the city
Religions other than Islam were represented - a vibrant Sikh community traded and sold garments, and a single man claiming to be a Jew maintains Kabul's only synagogue.

For generations, Kabul was a much more modern and outward looking place than the rest of Afghanistan.

It had a vigorous French-influenced education system, a respected university and an international airport.

Women worked in all aspects of public life, and even a small number of hardy tourists passed through.

At one point, a winery produced what was reportedly a drinkable white. Afghan culture, music, poetry and literature flourished, in public venues and on Radio Kabul.


The Taleban found Kabul's cosmopolitan ways a challenge to their back-country Puritanism

Hardly a trace remains of any of that. First the internecine wars between former rebel groups damaged Kabul's infrastructure and economy far more than the fight against occupying Soviet forces in the 1980s.

There was relatively little interference in culture or the affairs of Kabul's famously forthright and educated female population in the name of Islam.

But constant fighting and incoming rockets robbed the city of its liveliness, and sent an urban elite into exile.

Enter the Taleban

Then came that Taleban. Early edicts of the students' militia, after a bloodless take-over of Kabul, made beards and daily prayers mandatory.

Women at market in Kabul
Women were permitted in all aspects of society
Men with car aerials in hand whipped worshippers into mosques. Television sets and VCRs were banned, depriving Kabulis of one of their few pleasures - watching Indian movies on satellite television.

Taleban fighters also ripped up audio and video cassettes, stringing the tape on lamp posts as a kind of grim puritanical flag.

A highly publicised ceremony in 1997 destroyed the last stocks of alcohol at the British-built Intercontinental Hotel. The Taleban drove a tank over crates of beer and bottles of whiskey.

Women were forced out of almost every job, and discouraged from going out.

Little provision was made for Kabul's widows. Contact between men and women was made exceedingly dangerous as two Frenchmen found out to their cost in 1998, narrowly avoiding a jail sentence when the Taleban raided an aid agency party.

The women at the gathering have not been seen since.

Local staff of charities and United Nations agencies were harassed and international journalists forced to take minders on trips around the city.

The BBC was expelled this year because of Taleban anger over coverage of their destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamian.

The lone benefit of Taleban rule was a restoration of some semblance of law and order, ending banditry and occasional bouts of violence that flared up during mujahideen rule.

An uncertain future

The Taleban may have done their damage in the name of Islam, but they were clearly ignorant of the long record of vibrant urban life in the annals of their faith, from Cairo to Tehran, Damascus to Jakarta.

The group, with their bleak experience of life in refugee camps or Muslim religious schools in Pakistan, found Kabul's cosmopolitan ways a challenge to their back-country Puritanism.

Restoration of a more moderate rule in Kabul will be just one benefit of a push against the Taleban in the capital.

A broad-based group controlling the city would also hold the symbolic seat of government in Afghanistan, and perhaps encourage the return of some of the city's lost elite.

More war and uncertainty would probably sound the death knell for what was once one of Asia's most fascinating cities.

See also:

01 Oct 01 | South Asia
Food reaches hungry Kabul
27 Sep 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Afghanistan's future
27 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Blair calls for aid alliance
27 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghans brace for US strike
11 Jan 01 | South Asia
Afghan refugees' unending plight
26 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghans place hopes in UN
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