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Ruined Cinema Leaves Only Bits of Escapism

Afghanistan: Movies provided relief for a war-weary town. After the Taliban destroyed its theater, all that remains is fragments of film fantasy.


CHARIKAR, Afghanistan — The Taliban soldiers were ruthlessly efficient in their destruction of the Parwan Cinema, except for the fragments of fantasies they left scattered on the projection room floor.

Two years later, the torn bits of movies--the blasphemous idolatry the Taliban thought it had wiped out for eternity--survive as the only reminder of a time when the people of Charikar could sit in rows of metal chairs, stare at a flickering screen and dream.

Today, their only entertainment, outside of some song and dance at family weddings, is a game of soccer or volleyball, usually without a net.

It isn't easy to have a good time in a country so long at war. Those with a little money to spare can rent movie videos smuggled in from neighboring Pakistan, past officers of the Taliban's Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, and across enemy lines.

The radical Islamic regime's forces seized Charikar from the opposition Northern Alliance for three days in July 1999, more than enough time to ransack the only movie theater within miles from top to bottom and fire rocket-propelled grenades to set the building on fire.

They also arrested the man who ran the movie theater, Mohammed Ashan, and locked him in the notorious Pul-i-Charkhi prison in the capital, Kabul, where he still sits behind bars as an enemy of Islam and the Taliban regime.

Baba Khan, a metal worker and movie lover, was a regular at the Parwan, and now he sits on a wooden stool in his tiny workshop across the street from the yellow shell of the theater, remembering how it used to be.

"They showed films every day, twice a day, once before noon and once after noon," said Khan, 50. His eyes lighted up. "It was a good time. I miss it. I liked the old Indian films, and they were good films. The old ones had everything: a good story, good fighting and good robbery."

Khan says he's looking forward to the day when the box office at the Parwan Cinema is open again. Then he'll know that the war is finally over, the Taliban has lost and Afghanistan is part of the world again.

"The Taliban are the enemy of cinema and the people," Khan said. "If the Taliban says Islam doesn't allow movies, what about us? We are Muslims, and we didn't do anything wrong.

"Movies are good entertainment for the jobless and children. They need to see the outside world."

After the Taliban soldiers finished ransacking the theater, they fled as the Northern Alliance battled back from the Panjshir Valley to retake the town.

In the ruin left behind, a beam of sunlight passed through a hole in a high corner of the wall where the screen used to be, falling like a spotlight on a stage with no actors.

A piece of paper lay among the trash and rusted metal seats--most of which were broken but still lined up in rows. Bits of tape were still stuck to the edges, and it was torn in several places and turning slightly brown.

But the blue-script notice in Dari, an Afghan Persian dialect, was still legible.

"A new American film begins at 4 o'clock," it said.

On the third floor, one of the dirt-covered movie remnants was 3 1/2 frames of an extreme close-up: a soldier in a green uniform pulling a pistol from a holster.

A piece of film lying nearby was 2 1/2 frames, in black and white, of a woman wearing what appears to be a wedding dress. She is downcast, looking worried and even afraid.

In the surviving eight frames of another movie, possibly a Hindi song-and-dance extravaganza, a man and woman are lying on a mountainside, just inches away from a blissful kiss. A different bit shows a man and a boy standing in front of a village crowd in India.

The English subtitle says: "Hooligans beat my father."

A young Afghan man who, like Khan, is a fan of Hindi films held a fragment up to the broken window and recognized one of the faces as his favorite actor: Sanjay Dutt, who has appeared in dozens of films and is accused of conspiring with terrorists in a real-life Indian court.

He is one of 124 people charged in connection with the 1993 "Bombay Blasts," a series of bombings that killed 257 people. Dutt, who insists that he is innocent, was arrested for possession of an AK-47 assault rifle and a 9-millimeter pistol, and for storing grenades in his residence. Last month, he was forced to apologize to an Indian judge for failing to appear at a previous court date--he was in Los Angeles shooting a new film.

Dutt is a major star among the entertainment-starved people of Charikar. His name appears on many of the videocassettes that line the walls of Shah Aqha's shop in the town's bazaar, just around the corner from a small mosque.

Hindi musicals and gangster films are the dominant genres, but there also are a few Hollywood titles, such as "Desperado," starring Antonio Banderas, and "The Replacement Killers," featuring Mira Sorvino and Chow Yun-Fat.

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