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Kabul is sold on K-soaps

The latest SUVs, swanky malls and expats make the melting pot that is Kabul today, writes Shreevatsa Nevatia.

india Updated: Nov 25, 2006 15:41 IST

In this first winter month, the first thing that you unavoidably notice about Kabul is an incessant drone, which is collectively produced by the countless generators that are simultaneously turned on across the Capital. Afghanistan’s largest city depends on dams for its electricity. With the water fast freezing, wires only come alive once every 72 hours. Black rooms thus signal the onset of a white winter. That said, it must also be stressed that the film is not all black-and-white.

Newly built air-conditioned mall-like shopping centres, the recently renovated and highly plush Kabul Serena Hotel and an ever increasing array of cars, all help counter the white of the snow and the red of suicide bombings. There were eight such attacks recorded here in August and September alone and large parts of the capital have reacted to these attacks much like any other global metropolis — life, fortunately or not, goes on.

But unlike Mumbai, London or Madrid, Kabul has no nightlife. Streets that are choked by the day are relatively deserted by dusk. While the evening broadcast of a dubbed Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi has something to do with this eerie public silence, many Kabulis openly admit to feeling scared. A father of seven lamented: “If it’s not the Taliban, it could just be another cop abusing his uniform to loot your house.” After having lived through two decades of endless conflict, the now-shaven but rapidly greying fruit-seller still feels that he and his family is surviving on the frontline.

‘We don’t live here anymore’

Until very recently, the inhabitants of Kabul were primarily Tajiks (givers of a tribal identity to the Northern Alliance). Images of their deceased military leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, can be found plastered on every second building and hung from the rear-view mirror of every other yellow cab. But with the insurgency getting bloodier by the day in the south, many Pashtuns are now adding to Kabul’s already three million strong population. For them, posters of Massoud only serve as a reminder of pillage, rape and murder. A newly arrived Pashtun said while spitting on a torn Massoud postcard: “He destroyed my family; his men kidnapped my second wife and killed my son. They now want me to believe that he is a hero?” It turned out that the part-widower was also a sympathiser of the Taliban; fellow Pashtuns whom he looked at as ‘brothers’.

The tribal division apart, Kabul is divided along a more apparent ‘us and them’ line. Kharjis (foreigners) who are not welcome in many Afghan households for fear of neighbourly retribution, now pack almost every Kabuli street. In capacities that vary from consultants, health workers and journalists to that of peacekeepers and ‘occupiers’, Americans and Europeans now seem part and parcel of Kabul’s evidently fraught multicultural idiom. And if being consumers of alcohol was not enough, these ‘infidels’ also agree to pay large sums of money for the houses they rent; making the property market lucrative and leaving the indigenous Kabuli without his home of choice. An Afghan businessman urgently shouted — “Whose city is this? We don’t live here anymore. They do. We just try and survive.”

Cinderellas take cover

If one takes out his cell-phone in a public place, chances of the conversation concluding naturally are rather slim. Before you can even convey the intended point, you are usually swamped by women wearing the what-should-have-been-extinct-by-now blue burqa, insisting that you give them at least a dollar. “The conservative seem to have been shunned by development,” remarked an analyst but the enthusiastic translator insisted that more relevance could be attributed to the chosen attire — “Some wear it out of fear, some out of habit and some because they want to remain hidden. They are the dirty sort.”

Until six months ago, prostitutes in Kabul were mainly of Chinese origin and would operate out of innocuous Chinese restaurants. The responsibility to serve has now apparently fallen on local Afghan shoulders that are never bared. Common knowledge dictates that the only way you can identify the ‘dirty sort’ is by glancing at the choice of shoe. Pencil heels are said to imply availability and willingness. And Kabul is believed to have many princes who are on the lookout for a Cinderella.

In some dingy corners of Kabul, brawls are now commonplace. Thought to be owned by drug lords, black, dark-tinted and non-number-plated SUVs menacingly roam the city’s streets. Police officials here rub their thumbs with fingers when you want your car parked and apart from bag-swaying girls going to school, there are very few Kabulis who manage a smile.

The Capital of one of the world’s newest democracies is hardly advertisement enough for American neo-conservatives and their exportation plans.


Email Shreevatsa Nevatia: shreevatsa @hindustantimes.com