The bursting ‘Ka-bubble’: Taliban extremism is remaking a once-cosmopolitan Kabul

KABUL —

What was the “Ka-bubble”? Did Kabul’s party cause the blast walls? Fuelled by a mixture of military contractors, journalists, diplomats and war tourists, it was. Or was it Kabul’s madcap real-estate market with ridiculously high rents in a country that most Afghans earn less than $2 per day?

Some would argue it was more of a feeling than a place. The sense that this city, which was fueled by billions of dollars in Western aid, was somehow protected from the daily struggles outside its gates. This was not true. Over the years, the capital was the scene of numerous bombings and assassinations. This chaotic city of markets and mosques, surrounded by green Ford Ranger pickup trucks, felt safe in an otherwise devastated nation.

Whatever Kabul had become in America’s two-decade-long nation-building experiment in Afghanistan died when the Taliban swept into town. The speed at which the occupation ended, and the disintegration of the government Washington had created with it, spurred the question of whether the U.S. had built anything of permanence in the 20 years since 2001.

People walk in a street market.

People walk through a street market in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 20, 2021.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

That notion takes on greater urgency these days in Kabul, where girls face new restrictions on schooling, journalists are beaten, the economy is crashing and life is peppered with Islamic fundamentalist warnings. As they contend with their new Taliban overlords, restless and scared residents ponder what is lost and what will endure in a capital transformed since 2001 from a ghost town struggling with the aftereffects of civil war into a chaotic, perpetually smoggy and gridlocked morass of more than 4.4 million people. The Taliban effect already shows. Real estate prices have plummeted by as much as 50%, as desperate Afghans still search for ways to escape. All Western embassies are closed, including the American one. This was despite being a reassuring email last week, and it stated that the American military flight had just taken off from Kabul’s international airport. The same is true in the Wazir Akbar Khan area, where former officials, many of whom escaped to safety hundreds of thousands of their compatriots, have left their homes or are viewed only occasionally from the street.

The diplomatic exodus led to the creation of a network of clandestine restaurants, hotels, and houses that allowed Afghan expats and a small group of Afghans to enjoy alcohol in a country with strict alcohol prohibitions. Fearing Taliban raids the owner of one establishment dumped all of his Heineken beer cans as well as Johnny Walker whiskey bottles in the sewer. It only partially worked. The bottles fell to the bottom. But beer cans float in the sewage water. )

A person with a gun watches a line of people.

Guarded by Taliban militants, hundreds of Afghans are made to line up to withdraw money from the banks that are slowly reopening after Taliban took control of the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 5, 2021.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

But if the Ka-bubble was only a haven for foreigners creating and feeding off the war economy, there wouldn’t be much for the Taliban to undo. Left behind, though, is a community of Afghans, most of them poor or middle class and unprotected by blast walls, who constructed a cosmopolitan vision of a country very much at odds with the rural existence of the Taliban and most of Afghanistan’s 38 million people.

“The leadership of the Taliban, most are of the age that — without mentioning to them — they feel the change in Kabul every day, because they were here when it was inhabited by less than 500,000 people,” said Daoud Sultanzoy, Kabul’s 66-year-old mayor and one of the few top officials from the bygone state to remain in his post. He referred to the Taliban’s first foray as rulers in 1996, when they entered a capital so destroyed by civil war that “dogs eating corpses were roaming the streets.”

“Now they came to a Kabul that was intact. With all of its flaws, it was a city that had life, that was functioning, it had services, markets, an economy — so they inherited a better Kabul than they had 25 years ago.”

People on bikes and on foot at a street marker.

Afghans sell their personal belongings to raise money, citing unemployment, starvation and needing money to leave the country, on a main thoroughfare in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 20, 2021.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Taj Begum, a cafe in the Pul-e-Surkh neighborhood, is a casualty of the new order. Once you knocked on a steel door with a metal grate, and a guard searched, you were granted entry to an elegant sliver Bohemia. Young people sat around a table with pots of green tea and saffron tea, near a gazebo. Bright colors were used in the rooms, and shelves were stacked with small items or the frames of local artists. Taj Begum was seen as a central figure in Kabul’s cultural life.

But Laila Haidari (the owner of Taj Begum) shut it down, fearing the wrath of the Taliban.

One afternoon in August, workers opened the vestibule door to begin to remove any furniture that could be salvaged. Rahmatullah (Taj Begum’s manager) and two other women from the staff organized items into piles on top of the ground. These included prints of photos depicting scenes in Afghanistan, Taj Begum bags, and various pieces of equipment. These items looked like artifacts from a past era.

It’s finished. He said, “We can’t believe that it is possible.”

” We don’t know where to start. We’re confused.”

“We’re sad,” added one of the women.

A woman weeps in front of a window.

Laila Haideri weeps as she visits Taj Begum for the first time since it closed after the Taliban took control of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 20, 2021.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

A few weeks later, Haidari visited too. As she witnessed the destruction of her “sacred space”, Haidari cried.

It was a place where women could come with all of their wounds and talk with us and each other. Haidari said, her voice breaking down in sobs, “It gave people their lives back; they touched so many people.” To me, Taj Begum was more than a restaurant or business. It was like a cinema, a theater, a place where men and women could sing together.”

The Taliban, meanwhile, has been vigorously erasing vestiges of the old government. Crews from the Ministry of Information and Culture are covering the blast walls, which have grown in the past two decades like a crust around Ka-bubble. They were once a canvas for Art Lords (an artist collective that created elaborate murals of children and other international figures) but now they are a painting crew from the Ministry of Information and Culture. Today, they bear stern slogans, including, “Our unity is the key to success,” “The end of occupation is the beginning of freedom” and “Our nation defeated America with Allah’s assistance.”

A person stands on an unfinished lot overlooking a city.

Azim Rahimi, 20, stands on the site of his family home, which has been under construction for more than 20 years because of constant unemployment and high costs of building a home, on TV Hill in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 16, 2021.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

For Omaid Sharifi, Art Lords’ co-founder, now in exile in the United Arab Emirates, the redecorating by Taliban officials is proof they “will do everything in their power to silence people and kill our imagination.”

“Our work wasn’t just murals, but to change people’s behavior and attitudes. This was an indigenous solution for our blast wall problem, and we wanted it to be done together. He said that we asked everyone to paint with us. They destroyed a lot more than a mural. It was also the social transformation behind what we did.”

The switch in signage is everywhere. From the patches on soldiers’ uniforms to the walls of the U.S. Embassy, from little flags sold by street peddlers on intersections to the pickup trucks commandeered from the defunct Afghan army that are always patrolling Kabul’s neighborhoods, the Taliban’s black-and-white banner is omnipresent.

Since the group entered on Aug. 15, a more somber tempo has taken hold of the capital, with the cacophony of the traffic jams and crowded markets making way at night for a subdued silence broken only by the call to prayer. Kabul’s gaudily decorated wedding halls where grooms could spend thousands of afghanis to throw parties that lasted well into the morning, have moved celebrations to the daytime.

But what about music, which was proscribed by the Taliban when it first ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001?

A person lies on a bed in a room in a building.

Sheer Agha Mumen Khan, a musician, gazes out at the empty Ghos al Din building in the Shor Bazaar area, after its resident musicians and instrument makers have either fled or closed their businesses, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 2, 2021.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“The Taliban have no problem with it. Hamid Qazikhil (a manager) stood at the Shahr-e-Naw’s entrance. Two Taliban fighters stood nearby, as children played soccer in the courtyard.

The ban on live music was a disaster for wedding performers like those who teach at Ghos al Din. This building, a four-story dilapidated structure sardined among other structures in Kabul’s Shor Bazaar neighbourhood, used to be home to many music studios. Many have been demolished. Waheedullah Barna, a 45-year-old musician and harmonium restorer, was the exception.

“Everyone left. Some musicians are hiding like thieves. He said that they don’t want them to come out here, and he clutched the pale-white keys on the harmonium he was using. He blinked and his lower lip trembled, then his eyes filled with tears.

Three people outside.

Taliban soldiers guard the Shahr-e-Naw wedding hall, closed since the Taliban took over, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 2, 2021.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Barna has formed a small band with some of the other remaining musicians; they meet and record music together inside the soundproof room in his studio.

” I need to stay. He said, “I won’t go.” He said, “I don’t care what happens.”

Not all entertainment forms are off limits. Even the Taliban indulges in it. It’s difficult to imagine two more mutually exclusive terms than “Taliban” and “amusement parks.” But there it was on a September evening. Taliban gunmen were eating soft-serve ice-cream towers, riding in bumper cars, laughing as they sat down on the City Park merry-go round, strapping their M4s carbines to their sides.

“People see the Talibs with the guns, and of course they’re scared,” said an ice cream stand attendant, nodding toward a group of women shepherding children to the side while giving worried looks to the fighters.

People in swings.

Taliban fighters enjoy themselves on a merry-go-round swings at City Park, an amusement park, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 11, 2021.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Still, the attendant said, people seemed to be getting used to the sight of gunmen on the rides. Fridays, the first day in Afghanistan, were bustling in City Park. Since the August airlift, the sense that the Taliban are now a fact is increasing. It’s also becoming more common to try and find a way to reconcile with them.

Some have tried to help as best as they can. Sultanzoy, the mayor of the city, did not join other high-ranking officials, including Ashraf Ghani (now in the United Arab Emirates), in fleeing. Ghani’s departure had left Sultanzoy feeling “very betrayed, and I didn’t want to play a similar part in betraying those I was supposed to serve in this city.”

People look at bumper cars.

Taliban fighters watch Afghans ride bumper cars at City Park.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“And I thought right now is the time to mention to the Taliban by actions that, ‘We’re here, that this is also our country, and we have nothing to hide or hide from,'” Sultanzoy said.

” You came with a military win. We’re here to serve this nation if you’re willing to allow us.”

Others believe that the Taliban should be the one to change.

” The Taliban will need to learn how to handle this. Barna stated that the Taliban must be helped and noted that one of the Taliban gunmen who patrolled Shor Bazaar expressed an interest in music.

Former Kabul mayor Mohammad Daoud Sultanzoy, and new interim Kabul mayor Hamdullah Namony

Former Kabul mayor Mohammad Daoud Sultanzoy, left, and new interim Kabul mayor Hamdullah Namony at the Kabul municipality office in Kabul.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

If that effort didn’t succeed, Barna had other plans: Sitting in his cramped studio among the carcasses of harmoniums and other instruments, he took out a knife.

“I made that yesterday,” he stated.

” I don’t have any problem with anyone. But if someone wants to harm me….”

His eyes were reddened and glassy as he looked down at the curve of the blade.

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