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.