There’s a glimmer of the old Kabul hiding in the new one — if you know where to look.
It’s there in the crowded snooker halls where young men in jeans hover around velvet tables and yell “nice shot” in English. It lives on in the dark rooms of video game dens where teenage boys lounge on couches playing “Call of Duty” and “FIFA,” posters of famous footballers plastered on the walls. It’s in coffee shops where women sip on cappuccinos, their robe-like abayas concealing skinny jeans, as a Taylor Swift tune softly radiates from the speakers.
Since the Taliban toppled the Western-backed government nearly two years ago, the group has erased most obvious vestiges of the American nation-building project in Afghanistan. High school and university classrooms have been emptied of women. Religious scholars and strict interpretations of Shariah law replaced judges and state penal codes. Parliament was dissolved, any semblance of representative politics gone with it.
But harder to stamp out has been the cultural legacy left after two decades of U.S. occupation, those far subtler ways in which Western and Afghan cultures collided in major cities and came to shape urban life along with the generation of young people who came of age within it.
The enduring Western influence is most striking in the capital. Before the U.S.-led war began in 2001, Kabul was a city in shambles, littered with rubble after years of fighting during the civil war and later between resistance forces and the Taliban’s first government. But after the American invasion, it became a hub of international attention.
Thousands of foreign aid workers, soldiers and contractors flooded in, and high-rise buildings and cell towers sprouted up. New restaurants and malls catering to nouveau riche Afghans riding the economic boom appeared. Since 2001, the city’s population has nearly doubled, reaching around five million people today — or about half of the country’s entire urban population.
There are pizza shops, burger joints and bodybuilding gyms in every neighborhood. Outdoor vendors sell secondhand T-shirts adorned with “I <3 NY” in large block letters. Tattoos — considered forbidden in Islam — of stars and moons and mothers’ names are etched on young men’s arms. Street children yell English expletives with gusto.
For members of the young, urban generation, the restaurants and bookstores have become cherished corners of the city. There, they can step through a door and escape the sometimes-dismal reality of a country now being remade by a government that often feels more foreign to them than the Western-backed administration did.
One recent afternoon in western Kabul, a popular cafe buzzed with the screeches of an espresso machine. Acoustic tunes echoed across the room while men and women mingled among potted plants and a bookshelf of English and Persian language literature — ignoring verbal edicts barring music and gender-segregation requirements.
One man in his 20s in a white T-shirt stared at a laptop screen, his fingers tapping along with the music playing in his headphones. Nearby, two teenage girls in crimson lipstick and thick eyeliner took selfies on their iPhones.
At another table, Taiba, 19, beckoned for the waiter to bring tea while her friend Farhat, 19, flipped through the pages of “The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak, her white head scarf pushed back so it only covered her shoulders. The girls usually meet up for coffee here once or twice a month — as often as they can afford. It’s a world unto itself, one of the few public spaces left where they are permitted entry and where their very existence does not feel threatened, they explained.
It can be a jarring juxtaposition: a city where girls are barred from school above the sixth grade but are allowed to read English-language books in cafes; where male public servants are required to grow out their beards while teenage boys rock stylish fade hairstyles and sweatshirts featuring American sports franchises.
That dissonance is partly explained by Taliban officials’ competing visions for the country. The government’s top leadership — who rarely leave their southern heartland in Kandahar — believe in a strict interpretation of Islam and have enacted laws reflecting that. More moderate officials in Kabul — who have interacted more frequently with foreign diplomats and traveled outside the region — have pushed less restrictive policies and let certain norms slide in the city that would not likely survive in Kandahar.
Still, top officials across the board approach foreigners in the country with suspicion. The few foreign journalists permitted visas are closely monitored by intelligence officials. The government has accused some Western travelers of espionage. Officials, skeptical of what is being taught in schools supported by nonprofits, are currently debating banning foreign aid groups from working in education.
For businesses trying to navigate Afghanistan’s new reality, the red line of what is and is not permitted is often murky. One popular burger joint in downtown Kabul still plays Iranian music and American pop because, while music has been banned in other public places, officials have not explicitly barred it in restaurants, the waiters say. Still, the staff carefully monitor the security camera feeds and slam off the stereo whenever they see a Talib about to enter the restaurant.
In a video game center across the city, dozens of boys sprawled out on faux leather couches while maneuvering PlayStation consoles and staring at 50-inch television screens. As customers arrived, the owner, Mohsin Ahmadi, 35, pointed them to a table in the center of the dark room with a notebook illuminated by a neon green light. The boys scribbled their names and the time — they were charged 50 cents each hour they played — before scoping out an empty couch and controller.
“These zombies keep trying to kill me,” muttered Qasim Karimi, 18, who was perched on the arm of a couch next to three friends. On the television in front of him, a virtual squad of soldiers sprinted through smoldering buildings, the “pah-pah-pah” of gunfire howling through the speakers.
“We’ve experienced so much war it became our culture,” Mr. Karimi explained, eyes glued to the screen. “I love fighting,” he joked.
The boys came here every afternoon — it was one of the few outlets they had left, they said. With the nation’s economic decline, many of the cafes they once frequented closed. The government banned their favorite hookah bars. Even the future of the game zone was unclear: Police officials recently barred boys under 10 from entering — prompting concerns that the authorities might eventually outlaw the gaming centers entirely.
“I fear that could happen,” said Mr. Ahmadi, the owner. “But we need these places, they are the only places where people feel at ease now.”
Safiullah Padshah contributed reporting.