At the Barg-e Sabz restaurant, a band belts out folk and pop tunes from Iran, Afghanistan, and India, as Afghan men take turns dancing.
Chest thrust out, a 6-foot tall Hazara on tiptoe struts across the floor, his arms stretched out like wings and forefingers pointed skyward. His expression is pure bliss.
That such an act can be committed — dancing on the three-day Islamic festival of Eid-ul Adha — speaks volumes about how much Afghanistan has changed over the past 14 months since the hard-line Islamist Taliban government fell from power. Strict rules, which the Taliban claimed were rooted in the Koran, forbade all music that wasn't strictly religious because it tended to distract one's thoughts from God.
Nothing in the Koran specifically encourages lavish feasts or dancing during Eid, a festival that marks the height of the hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. And in his personal life, the prophet Muhammad seemed to frown on music and dance.
Yet across the country, all the old banned traditions are returning. In Mazar-e Sharif this week, thousands of Afghans filled the streets for celebrations of Nauroz, which marks the first day of spring and the Afghan new year.
Prayers and Charms
Traveling mystics of the Sufi sect have made a triumphal return to the streets, offering prayers, charms, and esoteric wisdom. Musicians who fled to Pakistan during Taliban times are playing at lavish wedding ceremonies, and dancers — male and female — are booked solid for private parties.
Some Eid traditions are timeless — and reminiscent of the Christian Easter in the theme of renewal and in sartorial show. Children walk along the streets, the girls in brand-new velvet dresses lined with gold lace, the boys in flashy suits or baggy tunics and trousers. Adults, too, wear newly tailored clothes, although most women in Kabul still hide themselves under sky-blue veils covering them from head to toe.
Eid is a holiday for soldiers too, sometimes with worrying consequences.
Along the 40-mile road from Kabul to Bagram Air Base, where the U.S. military has its headquarters, five of the six Afghan Army checkposts were vacant. One might assume that members of al Qaeda, also being Muslims, would take the day off as well. But an ambush of U.S. special forces in northern Urozgan province, on the night before Eid, makes it plain that al Qaeda considers this a working holiday. (No U.S. injuries were reported in the attack. The five heavily armed assailants apparently got away, even after a massive bombing of their cave hideouts.)
Giddy, Subversive Behavior
There is something about Eid that encourages giddy, irreverent — even subversive — behavior. At the Barg-e Sabz, for instance, a comedian named Nasiruddin Shah takes the stage to mimic top Afghan politicians, including President Hamid Karzai. Then he proceeds to tell an assortment of political jokes that would make U.S. comedian Chris Rock blush.
"There are five brothers, a Hazara, a Charikari, a Panshiri, a Shiberghani, and a Kandahari," he starts, and over the next two or three minutes, skewers each of the major ethnic groups in Afghanistan — and in the audience — to riotous laughter. (Repeated attempts by this reporter to get an English interpretation of this joke were stymied, because the Monitor's interpreter kept laughing. In the end, it proved not printable in a family newspaper.)
Yet it is the dancing that has brought the crowds to the Barg-e Sabz. Soldiers who spent their teenage years fighting the Taliban mainly rely on traditional dance steps handed down by their elders. Refugees who have just returned from Pakistan or Europe, however, dust off the floor with a bit of breakdancing. And the comic, Nasruddin Shah, does a remarkable impression of a belly dancer. Men in the audience shower him with money.
Such gaiety may come as a surprise in a country just beginning to pull itself out of the devastation of 23 years of invasion and civil war. Indeed, at this Eid, too much of Afghanistan remains frustratingly unchanged.
Migrants still live under plastic sheets at the edges of Kabul, begging in the streets for food; unemployed gunmen of the Northern Alliance still walk the capital heavily armed; school children study in bombed-out school rooms, sharing pencils and notebooks; and hospitals still lack adequate equipment for the most common injuries, particularly from land mines.
But at the Barg-e Sabz, customers can forget these troubles and seem determined to focus on things that make life worth living.
Attracted by the music, being pumped out into the street by a loudspeaker, families come to take their seats. And one by one, the male audience members step up to dance.