The first rays of the day’s sun cast their golden glow on the high peaks of the mountains around Kabul. It is still early in the morning and I step out of my family’s house. In front of me, a father crosses the street with his children, probably taking them to school. A girl is also among them. She is still small, maybe attending the second or third grade.
Before 15 August 2021, the streets in my neighbourhood were always busy at this time of day. Cars crowded the streets, honking loudly. Groups of young people hurried to school or university, laughing and chatting. But since the Taliban regained power, the picture on Kabul’s pavements has changed. It has become quieter, and more masculine.
“All the billboards have disappeared. What was the point of them anyway?”
As I walk slowly down the street, my eyes fall on the walls of the houses. The walls were once lined with large billboards advertising private educational institutions. Now they have disappeared. What was the point of them? Girls are now forbidden to continue their education beyond the sixth grade, and now hardly anyone could afford the fees anyway.
Taxis wait at the side of the road for customers - but no one gets in. That doesn’t surprise me either: in the past few months, the fares have doubled. My morning commute takes me along a four-lane road that runs through the middle of Kabul.
The air is clear and clean, above me the bright blue sky. Just a few months ago, cars were jammed here too, but now there are hardly any on the road. The Taliban may have taken over the cars from the previous government, but you need fuel to drive them. And fuel is scarce.
As I walk from the Abdul Haq intersection to the Massoud intersection, I see that the road, the pavement and the adjacent house walls are damaged. They are the traces of explosions that have torn deep holes in the asphalt. The visible remnants of suicide bombings that took place on this stretch of road and took many innocent people with them to their deaths. The bombers probably chose this spot because there are many shops on both sides of the street.
“Girls with bags on their backs dig in a pile of rubbish with their bare hands”
I keep to the right. At the side of the road, I notice a woman and a skinny girl. Both look as if they have not eaten a full meal for a long time. Their long dresses and shawls are worn out. I wonder if they are mother and daughter. They have large plastic bags on their shoulders. They look around searchingly.
When the girl spots the empty, dented can of a popular energy drink by the roadside, she hurriedly picks it up and lets it disappear into her bag. I continue walking and at the next corner I see several girls with bags on their backs, digging in a pile of rubbish with their bare hands. The foul smell of rotten fruit hits my nose – I hurriedly cover my face with my black shawl and move to the other side of the street.
Again and again, I have to adjust my veil. I don’t want it to slip off my head and possibly be sighted by an official of the Ministry of Virtue. I would be sure of a reprimand. My veil reaches down to the floor. Sometimes I get my shoes caught in it. By now I have got into the habit of walking more slowly and taking my steps with caution. Oh! A loud rattle whistles past my ear like a rifle bullet. The suction of air from the motorbike rushing past disarranges my veil. I stumble and glance after it. Two Taliban are sitting on it, with old rifles slung over their shoulders.
“These days all men look like Taliban”
At the end of the street, I see a concrete wall topped by another, even higher wall. I know that behind it is the Citadel, the former presidential palace. For the last twenty years it was open to senior staff of the head of state and the staff of the American embassy. Now the gates are closed. Near the wall, more Taliban are milling about.
Some stand, others sit at small tables, but they all carry weapons. Although - with their long shirts and traditional Afghan turban - the men look like Taliban but I can’t be sure. These days all men look like Taliban. They have beards, some shorter, some longer. Even those who in the past would only have gone out clean-shaven. Small and large flags are piled up on the tables, they are all white. It is the new, old flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan: the Shahada is printed on it, black on a white background. Once again, Kabul has changed its colour.
“The green, black and red of the old national flag is hardly visible any more”
This is nothing new for the inhabitants. With the frequent changes of power over the past decades, the respective rulers have left their mark on the city. Just as their ideas and plans differed, Kabul also had to change its colour. The green, black and red of the old national flag is hardly visible any more. On both sides of the road leading from Ahmad Shah Massoud Square to the airport, only the white of the Emirate now blows in the wind.
As I continue walking towards the city centre, I pass a wall with murals depicting former Afghan rulers. At one point, several passers-by raise their heads: there is a picture of the fighter and poet Nazo Ana, unveiled at that. She lived in the early 18th century and is considered the “mother of all Afghans”.
I am very surprised that the picture has not been painted over yet, because the Taliban despise pictures – and especially those that show women. I would like to take a picture of the street, but I am afraid that the Taliban will see me and take my phone away. As I walk along, I memorise the picture. It may be the last time I see it.
The new building blocks in the Mikrorayon district stand there as they always did, yet they are different from before. Traces of violence can be seen on the paths between the buildings: Bullet holes, craters from missile strikes and the full extent of destruction that comes from suicide bombings. These houses were built by the Soviets in the 1960s.
“No one can afford one of these apartments today”
During the occupation, Russian advisors and government employees lived here with their families. There were no poor people here. Since then, the residents of these apartment blocks have been completely replaced three times: the first time with the invasion of the Mujahideen after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops. The second time with the first seizure of power by the Taliban. And now for the third time after the renewed seizure of power.
The owners of these flats have gone abroad, and each apartment has been sold several times in the meantime. A two-bedroom flat used to rent for 200 US dollars or sold for $ 120,000. Now the price has dropped to $ 30,000 to 40,000 dollars. But still no one can afford them.
Between the blocks of flats I see several men begging at the roadside. They used to earn their money by driving people’s shopping home with their trucks. Now they sit there on their empty carts until evening, hoping someone will give them money for a flatbread.
I have a shopping bag in my hand. Again and again one of them calls out, “Dear woman! I’ll bring your shopping home!” But I don’t have any money left either.
When I walk through the streets, I always watch out for thieves and carry my mobile phone and money hidden under my shawl. But now there are not so many thieves. The Taliban’s punishments are so brutal that many no longer want to risk it.
I keep to the left of the blocks of flats and continue towards the market. There was always a lot of activity here: women and girls flocked here every day to buy clothes, toys, food and other things.
“Here, in the Mikrorayon neighbourhood, very few women wear a burqa”
There is nothing of that today. The carts standing on both sides of the road are brimming with all kinds of fruit. With powerful voices, the sellers praise their goods: “Sweet cherries! Sweet cherries! Forty Afghani a kilo!”, “Watermelons! One hundred and fifty Afghani!”,“Honeydew melons! One hundred Afghani!”, “Apricots! Only forty Afghani a kilo!”
The fruit supply is abundant and the prices are low, but hardly anyone buys anything. Many people are so poor that they don’t even know where they can get a crust of bread. How can they afford fruit?
The Taliban say that a burqa is the best way to disguise oneself. But here, in the Mikrorayon neighbourhood, very few women wear one. Some do not even have the required black wrap over their heads. In the provinces, it is the other way round: there, almost all women have a burqa on and are surprised when they see a woman who has only a black or even a coloured cloth on.
Actually, there is even an obligation for all Afghan women to hide their faces. But here in the area, many young women and girls walk around without fear, they do not veil themselves. In the market, I see a Taliban approaching a girl who is maybe seven years old, telling her to cover her head. And I watch a young woman who wears neither veil nor headscarf. A Taliban asks her to cover her head. But she looks him in the eye and continues walking as if nothing had happened.
My morning walk ends at Kiev Park. It is next to the Ministry of Urban Development and is full of people, as usual. The men are on one side of the park and the women on the other. After the Taliban seized power, women were initially forbidden to enter the park. But it only took two or three days for them to come back.
The Taliban do not have the power to keep all the women at home. They stand together in groups, chatting and pouring their hearts out to each other. There are children everywhere. There is also a slide in the playground, but it is broken. The murmuring of the women, the jeering and shrieking of the children blur in my ears and become a single soundscape. I take a deep breath. This is Kabul, despite everything.
Translated from Paschto to German by Lutz Rzehak, English translation by Jess Smee
Read more: One of Nargis’ short stories was published anonymously in the collection “My Pen Is the Wing of a Bird: New Fiction by Afghan Women” (2022, MacLehose Press). The anthology assembled 18 stories by female Afghan writers about topics such as family, work, childhood, friendship, war, gender identity and cultural traditions. It was published by “Untold – Afghanistan.”