Afghanistan is widely seen as a country torn between bullets and religious bullies, a no-woman’s land and a country with little or no hope, that could not even be remotely called modern. The image in my mind was no different until I landed in Kabul.
Though many of the imageries conformed to my understanding of Afghanistan, there was more to it, at least in Kabul, which cameras rarely capture. The old and new, traditions and modernity, is struggling with each other. Afghans, slowly and steadily, seem to winning the fight. There is hope, aspiration, warmth and hospitality, especially when Afghans see the blue passport.
“Oh, you are Indian? I love Indian movies,” is a common comment. Posters of Indian film stars are not uncommon. A mall is also named after Delhi’s famous Select City Walk. Alumni of Indian universities from metros as well as small Indian towns can bump into you in market places.
The streets of Kabul break the stereotypical images of a city. Beside the head-to-toe Burqa-clad women, school-going girls stroll; young girls too go to colleges and universities, CDs and DVDs of Bollywood and Hollywood movies could be seen commonly – Taliban had banned watching movies and mannequins show bridal wears – in a land where Talibans brought down the statue of Bamiyan.
Then there are competing telecom advertisements, FM Radio stations, 24-hour TV Channels and crime and talk shows which talk about women’s rights. There are Hukka bars where Hukka and coffee is served. No alcohol, but young men dance over loud music.
Vehicles honk past you and leave a trail of dust. Afghans complain of increasing pollution in Kabul. Security personnel man the streets, helicopters hover over you.
Amid all this exuberance, there is apprehension – what after the US withdrawal its army? But the young Afghans are willing to take on the challenge. Youth of Afghanistan shout a slogan which translates into “One Afghanistan. No Tajik, No Hazara, No Pashtun”.
01- An eyeshot of Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, and country’s largest city with a population of about 3.3 million. Kabul is the only province in the country with a larger urban population than rural.
03- Youngsters surf the internet near the ruined Darul Aman Palace, built in 1930s and known to have braved many political upheavals in Kabul. Only 5.5% of Afghan youth have access to internet, with 20 million reported mobile phone users in the country in 2012. Technology played a good part in connecting youngsters during the recent presidential elections
04- Chadri-wearing women could still be seen frequently but it’s no longer officially required, as it was during the Taliban regime. Defying popular perception, women representatives constitutes roughly 28% of Afghanistan parliament, according to a World Bank report.
05- During Taliban rule, girls’ enrolment in formal schools was zero, and number of boys enrolled was a million. By 2012, as the World Bank estimates, 7.8 million are attending school – including about 2.9 million girls, which brings the literacy rate of women in Afghanistan to 36%.
07- Afghans prefer wheat products over rice. The traditional ‘Naanbai’ — a common food among the Afghans being sold at a shop. Naan-bakers make different kinds of Naanbai, sometimes two to three feet long with different designs.
09- In a country which more or less has always been a battlefield, the means of survival is the still mostly-unorganised trade. An old man with a skull cap sits as a currency exchanger on the left while others sit in the sun; there are many such makeshift shops across Kabul as demand for currency exchange is high due to presence of foreigners working in the country.
10- A girl runs to save herself from the rain in the biggest internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Kabul city. The IDP camp in Charahi Qambar has around 900 families with no school and only one mobile clinic with only four doctors. Most of these families have migrated from the distant provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Orzgan because of the continuous war. There are 40 such camps around Kabul.
12- A young boy looks towards the picture of Ahmed Shah Masood, a national hero for many in Afghanistan, who fought against Soviets and Taliban. Masood was assassinated in 2001 just before 9/11 attacks on the US.
14- Roughly 1.6 million Afghans are addicted to drugs, out of which 7% are children. Drug production has increased in many areas of Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001. The country now produces about 90% of the world’s opium.
16- A young shepherd poses as a security guard with a toy gun on the outskirts of Kabul. United Nations (UN) Special Representative to Afghanistan, Ján Kubiš has warned to stop recruitment of children in war.
17- Free Fight Club, the latest craze among the youngsters in Kabul. Young chaps after school and university come to such clubs to learn the techniques of martial arts. The championship provides a handsome amount of money to the winner.
22- Indian movies and songs are an all-time favourite in Kabul. JLo, Britney Spears are also quite famous among the youth. Old and new songs can be heard in the taxis, shops and in young men’s phones.