Buyers inspect a vehicle at matoon Car market. (Photo: Zarwali Khoshnood)
Once a week, car owners from various parts of Khost province drive their sedans, minivans, tank trucks and tractors to Matoon Auto Market, some 1.5 kilometers north of Khost city.
While most automobile sales in Afghanistan take place at street markets and dealerships, some transpire under the guise of a traditional mela, or picnic. Held on a large field, the Matoon open-air used car market contributes to the province’s informal economy. Though the local government finds them difficult to regulate, the markets provide business opportunities for a variety of tradespeople from Khost and other Afghan provinces.
Nazmeen, 24, is from the village of Patiyaar in Matoon. Until recently, he worked at the Salerno Forward Operating Base in Khost, which the United States military shut down last year. Struggling to make ends meet, Nazmeen sold his car for 600,000 Pakistani Rupees, and used the money to buy a new car that he resold at a higher price. Now, he visits the market regularly to buy and resell vehicles. “Since I came here, I make 10,000-20,000 Rupees in profit every week,” he says.
“I see lots of young people who used to be jobless like me,” he adds, “but ever since they started to work at the mela, their economic situation has improved.”
The vehicles on offer include pickup trucks, land cruisers, old taxi cabs, rickshaws and motorcycles. Economy-class Toyotas are particularly popular because of their durability and the wide availability of spare parts. Unlike official car dealerships which charge a flat tax rate of 1.5 percent, transactions at Matoon are untaxed and prices are more flexible, Nazmeen says.
While a group of self-proclaimed tax collectors was initially present at Matoon, they turned out to be racketeers who had no official connection to the municipal government. “They forged municipality documents and illegally collected taxes,” Nazmeen says. “They don’t show up here anymore. They are afraid of getting arrested.”
The market has also come under scrutiny for allowing transactions in Pakistani Rupees, thus undermining the purchasing power of the Afghan national currency.
Matoon’s growing popularity also attracts car sellers from other Afghan cities and provinces. Ameen Kabulai, a first-time visitor from Kabul, says Matoon offers better cars at lower prices than similar exchange centers in the Afghan capital.
Police have established checkpoints to search the increasing number of visitors travelling to Matoon.
Mainstream auto dealers have also taken notice. While some now use Matoon as a supplementary outlet for their own sales, others warn of the pitfalls of an unregulated market.
“People sell cars with serious engine defects, faulty documentation and expired number plates,” says Rahim Jan, the owner of a car dealership in Khost city. “Many cars break down in a matter of days.”
On the sidelines of the auto trading, yet another group of small-time merchants have been able to develop businesses selling refreshments. Baryalai, 25, who sells samosas at the market, says he sells twice as much food at Matoon than at his usual post in central Khost.
For many visitors, the business transactions transpire against a backdrop of friendly social interactions. “Because of the war, we have lost the chance to see each other, socialize and eat, so it is very good that such traditional melas have once again started,” says Mir Nawaz Gull, 27, from the region of Lakhno in Khost province. “These melas are not only business hubs, they are also good places for getting together.”