In the streets and bazaars of Kabul, baggy trousers, pierced ears and dyed-hair have been inching out traditional Afghan attires over a decade of strong new influences. Western and Indian films are importing a new culture and even marketing psychology is changing. But not everybody thinks it’s for the best.
Smoking fruit-flavoured tobacco from a 'shisha' water-pipe is popular, to the objection of many parents. (Photos: Samira Sadat)
Reza is waging his own struggle in Afghanistan. Away from the armed clashes with guns and rockets, the high-school graduate is one of many young men changing uniforms and lifestyles in modern Kabul. With his baggy pants, pierced left ear and dyed-blond hair, Reza’s Western look is part of a larger trend enveloping young people in Afghanistan - but not without consequences.
“A while ago, some of my friends were taken to the police station and their hair was cut short,” says Reza, who works in a mobile phone store, adding that he is often the intended target of offensive remarks from the public.
Does it bother him? “There are some people who like to hassle me, but it means nothing,” he shrugs. And his family? “My brothers dress like me too,” says Reza. “There are many young men who want to look as good as I do,” he adds, pulling back his bracelets and twisting his rings.
Reza is one of many young minds that have embraced the onslaught of new fashion styles in Kabul in the past decade. The presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan has in particular had a collateral impact on young urban lifestyle, generating new social codes, slang and street-wear.
And TVs, mobile phones, internet access and a re-vamped press have flooded the nation with graphics and foreign images, which in turn have given birth to new aesthetic ideals and aspirations. But not everyone welcomes the external influences, of course. There is entrenched opposition to these trends, and not just from mullahs and hard-line conservatives.
Many people, including some of the educated youth, see the import of new fads and fashions as a form of neo-colonialism, an insidious manipulation from outside via the more impressionable members of society.
Young Kabuli Elias tells the camera who is boss.
“Promoting un-Islamic fashion and dressing style is an agenda that Western countries have intentionally pursued. It is a way for them to avoid the development of Islamic countries and keep young Muslim men and women busy with how they dress,” said Maryam Mana, a 26-year-old political science student in the capital. She believes the Ministry of Information and Culture should intervene to promote local values.
Mohammad Qasem, a shopkeeper in Kabul's Shahr-e-Naw district, agrees that the new symbols youth brocade themselves in are harming local culture.
“Our national customs and traditions have been fading away and are by force being replaced by the culture of foreign countries. Every day, one notices negative changes in how people talk and dress. Even on roads, one can see vehicles with the name of movies and serials, like 24,” said Qasem, referring to the US hit-series about counter-terrorism that is easily found in stores selling pirated DVDs.
The new Zeitgeist is even influencing Afghan marketing psychology, believes Qasem. “Some companies market their products in a way that is harmful for the country and nobody notices it. For instance, clothes, shoes and even henna are now named after foreign actors and actresses."
Indeed, Indian and Western movies serve as models for many young Afghan men and women, a factor hard to miss when walking round the capital. On every street corner and in every bazaar, hair salons fiercely compete with each other to entice customers with the latest star cuts.
Just consider the stampede for a floppy "Di Caprio" hairstyle that ensued at barber shops in the early 2000s after the movie Titanic swept the nation.
“Whatever is shown on TV at night is how young men and women dress the next day,” says Mohammed Hosseini, a 21-year-old literature student in Kabul.
Mustafa Mohibi, a 27-year-old who just returned from Australia, regards the new fashions as being in bad taste given the state of human development in the country.
“Fashion is good only if there is food and better living standards, but in Afghanistan, there are many individuals whose families have nothing to eat. Yet they still dress like westerners,” Mustafa said. He thinks people should think more “about developing their country, like in developing countries.”
"If there is life in your head, there are lots of hats" - Afghan proverb (Illustration by Uzra Shamal)
Aneesa also sees fashion as a distraction. “Everybody loves beauty, but beauty is not all about appearance. It is also about behavior,” says the 38-year-old Kabul-based teacher. “Fashion and promoting fashion is a cultural attack by the West. It is a way for colonizers to distract people from development and growth,” she added.
Kazem tries to live a near-Parisian lifestyle in the heart of Kabul, clad in his most 'rad' attire and chatting with friends into the early morning hours at cafes. The 27-year-old freshman at law school in Kabul says his family sometimes interferes and tells him how to dress, but he pays no heed. Could this be the birth of Afghan punk?
And while customs and tradition fight for billboard, bazaar and wardrobe space amid a climate of general insecurity, the new clique of fashion aficionados is not disappearing, but rather hopping from each innovation to the next.
“I want to look good,” says Kazem, who spent his childhood in Iran. “What do we have in our culture? I cannot wear payrahan and tonban (traditional long cotton shirt and pants),” says the student, who is dressed in T-shirt and baggy pants more suited to New York than Kabul, and sports a head of long, gelled hair.
“I do not like to be told what to wear and what not to wear. My dressing style does not harm to others,” is Kazem's final word on the matter.