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Last Updated: Friday, 13 June, 2003, 12:09 GMT 13:09 UK
Kabul's cyber cafe culture
By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News Online in Kabul

When Kabul-based businessman Sabir Latifi opened his internet cafe in the Afghan capital last December, he had little idea what to expect.

Sabir Latifi
The Taleban banned the use of the internet. We have to grasp it
Sabir Latifi

After all, he had only logged on to the internet for the first time ever just a few weeks earlier.

He had heard about the world wide web from friends but did not even know what e-mail was.

"People talked about this being the internet era. I wondered how an era could be named after the internet," Mr Latifi told BBC News Online.

Six months later he has learned a lot more and has grown proportionately more ambitious, hoping to become the country's first privately-owned internet service provider (ISP).

Women in Kabul shelter from sun while waiting for a bus
The Taleban banned the internet, and kept women indoors
For a country that has been brutally scarred by a war that has left little standing, the idea of an information revolution takes some getting used to.

Only two years ago, the Taleban banned the use of the internet by anyone but the government.

But like people in many other developing countries around the world, Afghans are realising that their best chance of catching up is by taking a technological leap of faith.

High-end technology

One person who needs little convincing is Bennet James Bayer, the American managing director of the Afghan Wireless Communication Company (AWCC).

Bennet Bayer
Bennet Bayer says things are changing fast
Started by an Afghan living in New York, Ehsan Bayat, AWCC is the country's only GSM mobile phone network and launched the country's first cyber cafe last year at the Kabul Intercontinental.

Fittingly, for a country where the modern straddles the traditional, it was tested during the loya jirga - a grand assembly of tribal chieftains and clan leaders which chose Hamid Karzai as the country's president.

Mr Bayer points out that to make up for lost ground, Afghanistan was using high-end technology which is still a premium service in the West.

Afghans access the net through a wireless broadband system which actually means high-capacity lines and faster connections.

"Quite a few Afghan children are starting to use the mobile wireless environment and we are looking at that as a very rapidly growing business environment," says Mr Bayer.

"It's a bit similar to Japan where they use PDAs, different kinds of phones and computers to access the internet through Bluetooth [a technology that uses radio to communicate rather than cables]."

Keeping in touch

It is hard to relate this world view with the dusty streets of Kabul, with its kebab stalls, vegetable carts, curio stores and chaotic traffic.

But at the Excelnet Cafe, the enthusiasm is hard to miss.

The eight terminals are all occupied and 10 Afghans wait patiently for their turn, squeezed on to a wooden bench.

One reason for its popularity is that it is the cheapest one in town, charging $1 for an hour's access.

It's so good to be able to use it to hear from my friends and find out about what's happening around the world

That is lower than the $3 charged by most of the others, but still quite expensive in a country where the average income is less than $1 a day.

Zabiullah, an English language instructor, is not put off, however, and has bought himself a $50 card allowing him use of the internet for two hours every day.

He spent some time in India and Pakistan which is where he became familiar with the internet and now uses it to catch up on news, friends and even to prepare for an exam.

"When I came back to Afghanistan, there were no internet facilities," he says, his face breaking into a shy smile.

"It's so good to be able to use it to hear from my friends and find out about what's happening around the world."

Like Zabiullah, law student Aurush Siddiqui learned how the internet worked while living in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

He, too, uses it to keep in touch with the friends he made there and to learn more about legal practices around the world.

Crucial role

Sabir Latifi is banking on people like Zabiullah and Aurush and believes they hold the key to his future.

People are using it to pursue their own interests, such as growing crops
Bennet Bayer

"We want to broaden the use of the internet for the younger generation," he says.

"I hope to then bring the cost of access to below $1, and even open a centre at Kabul University, making it free for college students."

Most of those who use Kabul's four internet cafes are young, men and women, using it mainly to stay in touch, chat and to find out about opportunities abroad or to study.

"But increasingly people are using it to pursue their own interests, such as growing crops," adds Mr Bayer.

Excelnet cafe
The Excelnet cafe: Cheapest in town
Its use in business transactions is not lost on Mr Latifi, who says he is encouraging business owners to use e-mail, open their own website and get in touch with their customers directly.

"At the moment, to send a message from Kabul to Jalalabad [140 kilometres] you have to actually travel there by road since the phone lines don't work.

"If you have an internet facility, it'll take five minutes."

Both AWCC and Mr Latifi are spreading their internet facilities to the provinces.

In a country where ethnic divisions have pitted provincial warlords against each other, Sabir Latifi believes it could play a critical role.

"It will empower the central government and unite our people, bringing us together," he says.

"The Taleban banned the use of the internet because they did not want Afghans to be part of the world and see the freedom that people elsewhere were enjoying.

"It's our chance, we have to grasp it."

Afghans plant flag in cyberspace
10 Mar 03  |  Technology
Expat e-mail: Afghanistan
18 Feb 03  |  UK News
Afghanistan joins mobile age
19 Feb 02  |  Science/Nature
Afghanistan gets connected
17 Jan 00  |  South Asia

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