Like many Kabulis, Agha Gul—an old friend of mine from the 1980s, when I was covering and he was fighting the Soviet occupation—had lost his home several times during the various conflicts that ravaged Afghanistan over the past 24 years. From a bloody coup in 1978, to the Soviet war, to bitter factional fighting in the early 1990s, through stifling Taliban rule, the nation has known only hardship, with many of its towns and cities turned to ruins. Now, for the first time, I felt a genuine sense of optimism for the future. Kabul is finally beginning to live again.
The bazaars throng with merchants, returned refugees, former fighters, and farmers. Music blares from packed chaikhane, or teahouses, many of which sprout satellite dishes for television sets perpetually tuned, it seems, to the highly popular Indian movie or music channels previously banned under the Taliban. Shop stalls brim with imported goods ranging from Russian refrigerators and tires to Chinese teapots, as well as the latest CDs and DVDs at black market rates of barely a dollar each. On the outskirts of town, food markets overflow with produce, while nomads bring in their camels, sheep, and goats for sale.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign of the city's rebirth is the recent reopening of its schools, particularly the girls' schools, closed under the Taliban. Throughout the city, students, who attend class in shifts because of their overwhelming numbers, troop from class to home, many clutching plastic "Back to School" UNICEF bags. In backstreets and empty lots Afghans indulge in soccer and even cricket, imported by refugees from Pakistan. Many men have shaved their beards or keep them fashionably trimmed, while office workers increasingly wear suits and ties, expressing a form of modernity not seen in decades. In public most women still wear a full-length blue or gray chadri, or burka, either by choice or for fear of a fundamentalist backlash. Yet a determined and growing group of women, mainly educated professionals, now dare to be seen in long dresses with shawls carefully wrapped around their heads and shoulders—and with their faces free.
Freedom quickly translates to chaos on Kabul's streets, now clogged with yellow-and-white taxis, UN four by fours, and the military vehicles of international security forces. Uniformed policemen struggle to direct heedless drivers, often leaping into traffic to slap miscreants amid a slew of invectives, much to the amusement of jeering bystanders.
The onslaught of new cars, hotels, businesses, and investment is part of a recovery fueled by the enormous international presence, which is flooding Kabul with money, jobs, and a sense of security. Yet this presence is also creating an artificial environment of inflated salaries, rents, and expectations that cannot last—and that may obscure the city's very real challenges.