Love Under The Taliban

Some Afghans had special reason to celebrate the fall of the Taliban. Even before U.S. airstrikes began last October, hundreds of families in Kabul began to flee to Iran and Pakistan. One fifth-year medical student named Najeeb found himself with the keys to three empty apartments that had belonged to neighbors and relatives. "Even though it was horrible for the Americans, it was a good time for me," he says, eyes twinkling. A dapper young man with traces of Oxford in his English and a picture of his girlfriend in his jacket pocket, Najeeb is in love. "I had the keys to three empty apartments--I could do anything I wanted, any time. I hosted my friends and their girlfriends, too. I squeezed the last drop of advantage from that time."

The collapse of the Taliban hasn't exactly spawned a libertine revolution in Afghanistan. Nearly all marriages are still arranged, and in some tribal areas women can be killed if they do not bleed on their wedding night. But especially in cities like Kabul, Afghans are finding a new romantic license--and grappling with the aftereffects of years of repression. Under the Taliban, the edict against mingling of the sexes was enforced so brutally that many people simply broke. Doctors and psychologists at Kabul Mental Hospital estimate that some 40 percent of the patients treated under the Taliban came for depression related to heartbreak. "Love is a necessity," says Dr. Ahad Awara, deputy head of Kabul Mental Hospital. "It's not just oxygen and water that keep people alive."

The Taliban had many ways of squelching any flickerings of romance. Black-turbaned storm troopers from the infamous Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue cruised the streets looking for couples; anyone deemed suspicious was interrogated and, if they were not related, carted off to jail. Intelligence officials at one of Kabul's primitive, 70-year-old telephone exchanges eavesdropped on conversations. "They were trying to find accusations to create trouble for people," says phone operator Saeed Nacir. If the Taliban found a couple having an "illegal" romantic conversation, they noted the numbers, found the addresses in a logbook in the main office and made arrests. Some convicted of adultery or prostitution were subject to gruesome public maimings or even executions in which they were crushed by a crumbling stone wall.

But Afghans, no strangers to obstacles and edicts, are famously inventive. Some used simple phone codes--three long beeps, for instance--to identify themselves to their lovers. Others wrote love letters and used small children as couriers. Jawid, 25, a student at Kabul Medical University, met his girlfriend, Nuria, three years ago by stepping on her foot in front of a grocery store. When, much later, they ventured together out of the neighborhood they shared into the streets, they concocted new, matching life stories. "I was afraid, but I proved to the Taliban that [Nuria] was my sister," says Jawid.

The surreal atmosphere produced some unions that were even more unlikely. A 22-year-old Kabul student named Latif says he cold-called numbers around Kabul for weeks trying to meet women. Once, Latif jokingly asked a woman he had called where she lived, even though he knew from the telephone prefix that the number corresponded to a house in the capital's chic Wazir Akbar Khan district. "This is no time for making fun," the woman answered. "Well," Latif asked after a pause, "when is the time for making fun?" After a long silence, the woman's voice came back in a whisper: tomorrow. After weeks of talking on the phone, he eventually organized a meeting when her taxi-driver husband was away. "It was very difficult, but you could do it," he says. "You just pick up the phone and start dialing numbers. If it's a girl, you just start talking and try to be funny. If she keeps talking, you know she's interested in having a boyfriend."

That may be an overstatement, but women did have ways of making their feelings known. When patients came to Sima Usmani, a psychologist in the women's ward of Kabul Mental Hospital, with their stories of heartbreak, she worked behind the scenes to encourage marriages of love rather than convenience. Usmani helped arrange "secret" meetings of elders to plead the lovers' case with both sets of parents. For more illicit pairings, women would often meet their lovers in the bazaar when they went shopping. And even under the all-enveloping burqa, fashion could be used to send signals. "The men look at the style of walking, or the perfume," says Usmani. "The shoes say a lot." Some women said a lot more than one would expect. At the height of the Taliban, thousands of women--many of them war widows--turned to prostitution in Kabul. Oma, 42, a doe-eyed prostitute turned madam with silver fingernails and tightly braided hair, began pimping girls after her husband was killed by the mujahedin during the 1990s. She later remarried and briefly abandoned prostitution just before the Taliban seized power. But when they kidnapped her second husband, she had little choice but to return to the streets and become a "singer"-- often a euphemism in Afghanistan for a sex worker. "I had nothing," she says. "I just had to find girls to sell to boys."

Oma claims that at one point 100 women, ranging from 15 to 50, roamed the city for her; they gave her a percentage of the $30 they might earn in a night. "There were a lot of girls and a lot of demand," Oma says, playing with the fringes of a black shawl and speaking in a whisper. "Most of the girls worked because they didn't have any money." That's still true, and the fall of the Taliban has done little more than lift some of the secrecy surrounding the profession. Streetwalkers are less inclined to arrange secret meetings via messages and passwords. "When a prostitute sees a man, she just goes up and shakes hands with him and they go wherever they want to," Oma says.

Regular lovers should now be able to emerge from the shadows, too. For some Afghans the new liberty comes too late. Last month, as thousands of happy students flocked to Kabul University to take the entrance exams for the term that begins this week, 27-year-old Nazia sat alone in the middle of a field. She was a sophomore with a boyfriend here when the Taliban banned school for girls. Once she had been barred from classes, she was never able to find her friend Imad again, and she suspects he may have fled into exile. "The Taliban separated us," she says bitterly. "There was no one as beautiful as him. I just want to see him one more time and tell him that I love him." Last week thousands of Kabulis--including more than a few burqa-less women--took to the streets for Naw Ruz, the New Year's celebration. It seemed, at least for a few days, as if love was in the air.