Tap, tap, tap: clients play soccer on a PlayStation at a games hall in Mazar-e Sharif. (Photo: Orya. Main and other photos: Asghar Noor Mohammed)
The muffled sound of gunfire rivets my gaze on the basement of a nearby building, and I am drawn down the steps into the hum of excitement in the dark room below.
The only light here emits from a pair of solitary TV screens; the only noise the breathless tension of those holding joysticks, all eyes on the screen.
“Every day, many young people come here to play animation games or Play Station 3," says Samad, 25, owner of a living room arcade in Mazar-e Sharif. Some spend an hour or more playing video games, adds Samad, while dozens more come just to admire the slick foreign graphics.
Samad invested around 18,000 US dollars in his business. He bought three PlayStation 3s, which cost him 300 dollars each, but renovations, refurbishments and rent stacked up the costs for he and his business partner.
"I've created an opportuity for Afghan youth to have fun and I'm satisfied with my investment," says Samad, who offers glimpses of the gaming world for one afghani ($0.02) per game
One million Afghans use social media
Sex and Facebook: A list of top searched terms in 2012 in Afghanistan from Google (Google screenshot)
The way Afghan youth spend their leisure time these days is very different when compared with the way our elders relaxed when they were young. Due to the relative stability in northern Afghanistan in the last two years, popular 'western' distractions like skating, Facebook, 3D movies and even paintball have a strong lure for Balkh's younger generation.
Video game culture has risen in tandem with increased Internet penetration and social media usage. According to a recent study by NAI, a media civil society initiative, more than one million Afghans now use social media.
"People mainly use social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. Most users are Afghan teens who use these social media outlets to find friends, and social, cultural, art and even political purposes," says Noor Asghar Sharifi, NAI director in northern Afghanistan.
Smart phones start at 60 dollars at the local market. For 1.20 dollars per month extra, users can purchase unlimited access to Facebook through certain networks.
Videogames killed the carousel star
So it is no surprise that Afghans are forming their own gaming communities and joining others online. Amidst the clattering of fingers and loud exclamations at Samad's as I walk around, people mainly play football games, competing as famous European teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United. Others play action games, like God of War and Race Ring.
Najmuddin, a young customer sat in a corner, invites me to play a soccer game against him. He does everything according to a plan, with great strategy, and beats me 4-0.
Humiliated and broken, I am only consoled by Najmuddin's confession. "I play soccer games for several hours a day," says the well-to-do geek. "I do not do much other fun stuff. I just love soccer.”
As I mull things over, I'm caught in a round of loud gunfire again and to avoid getting shot, I and my camera hide in a special glass booth amidst the spray of bullets. .
Eight young men, wearing protective gear and carrying metal weapons, are shooting and shouting at one another in a 1,400sq. metre facility replete with special obstacles near Samed's. Paintball is pure gaming, but until I speak to the man who brought it to Afghanistan, it feels like I am stuck in the heat of a real battle.
Swapping real bullets for rubber pellets
Practice for war or harmless fun? Paintball has arrived in Balkh.
Ajmal Halimi, who identifies himself as the founder of Paintball in Afghanistan, say he imported it from Iran.
“In Dubai, this game starts at 70 dollars and no bullets, but here we start with five dollars and 50 bullets," says the paintball pioneer. "It is very cheap here.”
With real war raging only miles away from his facility, Halimi understands that his combat game, even if harmless, opens itself to criticism of warmongering among impressiobale young minds. But he quickly rebuffs that argument.
"[The players] do not intend to learn how to use weaponry to steal, rob or kidnap, they simply play for the excitement," says Halimi. "All protective gear is provided to make sure nothing goes wrong."
Paintball bridge to battlefield?
Kabir, who has followed the game since its arrival in Balkh, doesn't necessarily agree. “In this game, there are mostly children of commanders and famous individuals. In addition to having fun, they also intend to use this game as a means to learn to protect themselves should something happen. Their fathers have made a lot of enemies during many years of wars in Afghanistan,” says the bystander, who adds that at five bucks a session, only middle-class Afghans can afford such luxuries.
Besides the glitz of new hobbies like paintball, console games and skating, many Afghan youth still prefer traditional activities. When Playstations are turned off and paintballs restocked, the older generation have their own luxury hobbies In the early morning sun. They fight dogs, birds, roosters, and sometimes camels and rams.
In a circle of men preparing to fight dogs near the stadium on Shadian Street, owners are settling the terms of bets. As I squeeze into the melee, I hear bets range from 200 to 6,000 dollars. In the circle, dog owners inspect one another’s fighting beasts.
Dog eat dog world
Big specimen, but it's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the fight in the dog, owners will tell you.
I join the circle to talk to the owner of one of the fighting dogs. "I have been training animals to fight in such settings for over 20 years," says 54-year trainer Hamidullah, a baker who fights dogs in his spare time.
Everyone here came to see whose dog is stronger. "Dog fighting has been common in Afghanistan for many many years. Mostly commanders and those who are financially doing good train dogs for fighting," says the baker, emphasizing the cost of such animal gladiatorialism: "Feeding a fighting dog costs as much as taking care of a five-member family in Afghanistan."
A little away from the ground where the dogs fight, still on Shadian Street, Reza is in his house feeding his rooster. He exchanges money for a living and is doing pretty well financially, but his passion is cock fighting, which tends to take place in open areas on Fridays.
“In one fights I made a lot of money, and there was even a person who wanted to buy my rooster off me for 600," claims Reza, who says he has raised seven fighting roosters so far.
Riders and a goat's carcass
Find the goat: A Buzkashi match in 2013 in Mazar-e Sharif.
For those who can't afford to fight dogs, roosters or - as Reza suggests - even camels, then there is buzkashi, Afghanistan's national sport. Played in winter, Buzkashi involves horsemen competing to drag a headless goat's carcass into a centre circle on a large field.
Despite the generational divide, buzkashi remains very popular, specially with older audiences and when winter sets in, the neighing of horses can be heard across town.
“Fans of Buzkashi are mostly older people but they are growing in number every year," said Haji Qayoom By, a rider at a packed stadium in Mazar.
Others prefer wrestling, which also takes place in purpose-built facilities during the winter months.
Undoubtedly the biggest distraction for Afghan youth is the Internet and social media, as confirmed by recent statistics.
"Weblogs is another tool the Afghan youth use," says Noor Sharifi from NAI. "The Afghan youth use weblogs to publish their opinions, articles, stories, and poems freely."
But the same man who contributed to the NAI survey warns that while activism and dissemination of information have increased through social media usage, so too has peer-to-peer abuse, according to Sharifi: "Social media should be used for good purposes, not for violating others’ privacy or insulting others."