Saturday, November 24, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan — Shahgholam Hairat and two of his friends were channel surfing between Al Jazeera, the Arab news channel, and Iranian soap operas. Suddenly, the Taliban cultural police burst into their apartment last year.

Arrested for “immoral” acts by the Taliban Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the students spent three months in jail.

Thursday, Mr. Hariat was unrepentantly shopping. “We want to see the world’s television,” he said, flashing a Cheshire cat smile, as he bought a new satellite dish from a street vendor. It will replace one he has kept hidden on his balcony, behind a stack of cartons.

Afghans such as Mr. Hairat are at the cutting edge of a pop-culture renaissance here, as the Taliban-built walls of isolation come tumbling down.

From the reopening of cinemas to a boom in videos and satellite TV, Afghans are racing to catch up from a five-year time warp. The radical Islamic rulers banned everything from kite-flying to women walking too loudly. Listening to nonreligious music was forbidden as well. Taliban roadblocks across the country were festooned with tangled strands of shiny black magnetic tape, ripped from confiscated video and music cassettes.

Those who are providing the new window on the world can barely keep up with the public appetite for once-forbidden fruit.

Take Gholam Farouk, a TV and stereo salesman who has the smile of a born conspirator. In his shop today, there is standing room only as customers jostle to buy TVs, VCRs and satellite dishes. Before Northern Alliance rebels took control of the city Nov. 13, his entire stock was hidden in a secret warehouse. Only simple radios lined the shelves.

Even those were enough to bring an agent of the Taliban’s vice ministry to his narrow doorway earlier this year.

“You should burn everything in your shop,” Mr. Farouk says he was told. “Then you should burn me with it,” he retorted, initially denying the existence of his warehouse. The Taliban eventually forced him to divulge his stash: Inside they found 18 televisions, 22 video players, a video camera and eight satellite dishes.

Mr. Farouk was held in jail for 15 days. After he got out, he replenished his stock. And the moment he learned that the Taliban had fled last week, he emptied the warehouse into the shop. The crush of people asking for prices all day, he says, made his head hurt.

“There were many Pakistanis and Arabs [with the Taliban], who wanted to keep us in the dark. They didn’t want to show their faces,” says Ismatollah Hairan, a customer in the shop. “TV is good for children and for everybody, because we can see what is happening in the world.”

The cultural restrictions imposed by the Taliban and the quiet opposition to it were not limited to the airwaves. Mahboub Sharifi secretly collected 500 videocassettes that he rented to friends.

“We had shelves at home with secret places carved out behind, where we kept the tapes,” Mr. Sharifi says. “It was a miracle that I was never caught.”

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