Seeing America's Longest War Through Afghan Eyes
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The following is an excerpt from Anand Gopal's new book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, The Taliban and the War Through Afghan Eyes (Metropolitan Books, 2014).
The old man sat legs folded on the asphalt, facing a bullet-ridden building. Spread out before him were Colgate toothbrushes and colored plastic combs and glossy cigarette packs promising “American flavor.” The building was like a crumbling cave, with its collapsed roof, buckling support beams, and a yawning hole for a front door. He pointed to the structure. “There,” he said, “was once something glorious.”
He had lived in this sweltering city of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, selling trinkets and toiletries for as long as he could remember—“before the Americans, before the Taliban, before the Russians,” he explained. In the 1970s, the building had served as the Helmand Cinema House, the only movie theater in all of southern Afghanistan. On a Friday afternoon, you could catch double features imported from around the world. One of the most popular was Laila Majnu, a Bollywood take on a classic Arab story of unrealized love. Qays, a farmer, falls hard for a girl named Laila, but her father forbids the marriage and she is given to another man. Despondent, Qays roams the desert for years, earning the sobriquet majnun, madman. Eventually, his body is found next to the grave of his beloved, his final ode to her written in the sand nearby.
The old man had gone back repeatedly, even though he didn’t understand most of the Hindi spoken, until he had the film memorized. He had grown up in a world segregated by gender, where marriages were arranged, and this was his first love story. “It gave us all hope,” he told me, “that we would find something special in our lives.”
But one afternoon in 1992, the mujahedeen arrived in town and shut down the theater forever. Later, they rocketed it for good measure. When the Taliban seized power, the building was converted into a state-run radio station. After 2001, under the American-backed regime, the place became an opium den. A whole generation grew up never having seen a film. But the old man still remembered, and he told anyone who would listen about the time when, for two hours a week, a madman and his lover were all that mattered.
The first years after 2001 were like a dream. Society had effectively been on hold for two decades, and now, with the war over, it was as if the very notion of public life had been unearthed from a time capsule. It was a new beginning, a Year Zero. Barbers were among the first to reemerge, unrolling their mats onto busy sidewalks; for a few pennies and a cup of tea you could shave your Taliban-mandated beard, shearing away the weight of the past. Music once again rang out through the streets, and Hollywood and Bollywood DVDs, once traded like samizdat, were selling openly in Kabul.
Millions of refugees returned after years away. Investment dollars poured in, as television stations and cell phone towers sprouted seemingly overnight. An influx of aid organizations formed part of the broadest international humanitarian initiative in history, and abandoned homes were repurposed into offices for gender experts and development specialists. One result of all the outside attention was the 2004 constitution, drafted with heavy Western input and hailed as one of the world’s most progressive. In addition to protecting basic civil liberties and minority rights, the document guaranteed women 25 percent of parliamentary seats (surpassing the proportion in the US Congress).