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Adam Brookes
"In this Kandahar gym, an unlikely glimpse of reform."
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Thursday, 13 January, 2000, 15:27 GMT
Taleban's keep-fit regime

Afghan men develop fitness routine in a Kandahar gym Afghan men tone up in a Kandahar gym

By Adam Brookes in Kandahar, Afghanistan

In the city of Kandahar, time has been turned back.

Kandahar is the home of the Taleban, the Islamic movement that now has nearly all of Afghanistan in its grip.

The mullahs of the Taleban tell their people that the modern is not pious, that the new is corrupt.

Confiscated cassette tapes decorate Taleban checkpoint Confiscated tapes decorate checkpoint
A rare visit by a foreign film crew prompts curiosity and suspicion.

The Taleban condemn photography. The dictates of the Taleban are enforced by men from the department of vice and virtue.

They decorate their checkpoint with cassette tapes torn from passers-by.

The frivolous songs of Bombay and the decadent West must not distract the faithful.

Working out: An Afghan man does chin-ups Working out: An Afghan man does chin-ups
But in a Kandahar gym, I glimpsed reforms underway.

The Taleban have lifted their prohibition on exercise and sport in public.

This change of heart applies to men only, of course - men who do not miss prescribed prayer times or trim their beards.

Soft touch?

It is one sign that the mullahs of Kandahar are softening - slightly.

When I see some of the positive changes or some of the opportunities for the people, I am really optimistic
Abdul Baqui Popal, teacher
Abdul Baqui Popal is a teacher. He senses that the Taleban are inching towards change.

"I am really very much optimistic. When I see some of the positive changes or some of the opportunities for the people, I am really optimistic," he says.

"I know that the situation will change for the better."

He has been allowed to open a small private school where he teaches English.

Building bridges

Fitness fanatic: Abdul Baqui Popal, a teacher Fitness fanatic: Abdul Baqui Popal, a teacher
Some among the Taleban, he says, understand that the people need bridges to the outside world.

In response to what the West describes as medieval, the Taleban is scathing.

Abdul Hai Mutmain speaks on behalf of the Taleban.

"The Taleban are not against their own people, or against the world," he says.

"In the West, you think everyone with a beard and a turban is a terrorist. But if you keep us down, you will radicalise us, and that's not in our interest or yours." However, one man - his face covered to conceal his identity - has a different view.

He is not a militant - just one of the frightened remains of Kandahar's educated middle class.


"There is no freedom here. If I tell you my ideas, they'll take me to the jail." he says.

" At night, only Allah knows what they will do with me."

Though the Taleban now control most of Afghanistan, internationally it is still unrecognised and isolated.

In the West, it is equated with terrorism, with drug running, and, of course, with religious fanaticism.

Voice of dissent: Voice of dissent: "There is no freedom here."
In Kandahar, some inside the Taleban seem to be coming to realise that, if they are ever to rebuild their country, they have to break out of this isolation.

Afghanistan in the year 2000 - wretched, and uncertain if the Taleban will be the ones to drag it from the abyss of poverty and war.

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See also:
03 Aug 98 |  South Asia
Analysis: Who are the Taleban?
03 Aug 98 |  Analysis
Afghanistan: 20 years of bloodshed
11 Jan 00 |  South Asia
Afghanistan's daughters face illiterate future
08 Mar 99 |  South Asia
Women and the Taleban

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