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They're Having Some Fun Now

Recreation: The end of the Taliban has brought a wave of leisure activities, junk food and a new Afghan film.


MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — There wasn't a shred of red carpet or kernel of popcorn at the first movie premiere in the new Afghanistan.

But that didn't stop the buzz.

On Sunday, hundreds of amped-up kids, gun-toting soldiers, wizened old men, and women hidden beneath burkas streamed into an auditorium here to watch a screening of the first movie made in Afghanistan since anyone can remember.

Some dabbed tears from the corners of their eyes.

Others, like Shojaudin Zaka, blurted out: "Get the goat! Get the goat!"

The 14-year-old boy had never seen a movie before, let alone a wild buzkashi player thundering across the screen. He couldn't help but offer some advice.

"Chapandaz" is a bona fide Afghan production, the first film since before the Taliban came to power in 1996 to be shot, edited and released in this land of mountains and war. It also is a celebration of the distinctive Afghan pastime of buzkashi, or goat polo.

"A country without its own movies," lead actor Seqiq Habidi said as he scribbled autographs after the show, "is a country without soul."

The Taliban forces weren't exactly amusement specialists. And now that they're gone, a new craze for leisure activities is sweeping this northern city and the rest of the country.

Besides the reinvigorated film industry, there's dog fighting, camel fighting, motorcycle stunts, cotton candy stands (here it's called "sweet wool"), new junk-food products like Soft & Fresh bubble gum--even porn.

Karaoke? It's coming. At night, as the sun sinks below the edge of the steppe, boisterous young men pack Mazar-i-Sharif's cassette kiosks, crank up the music to Indian movies and sing along.

"Chal mere bhai!"--"Let's go, my brother!"--one man belted out the other night.

The Taliban banned all such diversions, even kite flying.

"They used to tell us, 'That which entertains does evil,' " recalled Dost Mohammed Raghab, a 43-year-old Mazar secretary.

The regime's suggested form of recreation: zeker, or sitting in a room alone and reciting holy words.

Few places in the world have had a curtain of oppression fall so fast--and lift so suddenly. The combination has left many Afghans delighting in the simplest of pleasures.

Like packaging with faces on it, prohibited by the Taliban, which declared two-dimensional images of man unholy. These days, the hottest purse in Mazar is a bag sewn from smiling shampoo packets.

Even the nightly curfew has a charm to it. In Mazar and other cities, each night is given a name, usually a flower or animal, and this is used as a password for those authorized to be out past the deadline. When passersby approach, the soldiers at the checkpoints yell out, in Dari: "What is the name of the night?"

Saturday night it was tawooz, or peacock.

"There's an energy to being here," said Peter Bussian of the International Rescue Committee, "to being in the exact right spot, at the exact right time."

The defeat of the Taliban in November didn't mark just the end of a hard-line regime. It meant the end of isolation. Many countries that had refused to trade with Afghanistan are now rushing products back in.

Every day, there's a new brand of soda or cookie or gum in the market: Ashi Mashi cola from Iran; Magic Kiwi soda from Uzbekistan; cookies from China, Russia, Egypt and India; Turkish Combat-5 bubble gum, a favorite.

"Six months ago," said merchant Esmat Sakhi, holding up a shriveled orange, "this is what you'd see."

Juice shops are lined with "Titanic" posters, and the 5-year-old movie is so beloved here, the word has entered the popular lexicon.

"I don't want good kebabs," driver Mohammed Hussein said as he sat down at a cafe the other day. "Bring me titanic kebabs."

In pursuit of a different kind of entertainment, at the Firhat Hotel, men watch Italian sex films--in the same lobby where they drop to their knees and pray facing Mecca. The pornography is beamed in via a new satellite dish.

"Yes, it is seriously forbidden," said bellboy Mohammed Hakim. "But we are curious."

Since the Taliban left, there also has been a return to dog fighting, a traditional Friday pastime, and the occasional camel fight.

Then there's NASCAR, Afghan style.

A team of entrepreneurs recently built a 30-foot-high, 30-foot-wide barrel near the center of Mazar and dubbed it the "Wall of Death."

Twenty times a day, a solo motorcycle driver on an aged 125cc Suzuki races around the barrel, climbing higher and higher up the walls, defying gravity and sticking to the sides.

Each show is jammed with dozens of marveling men and boys clinging to a rickety scaffolding built around the mouth of the barrel.

The driver zoomed around 10 times, maybe 12. Centrifugal force kept him up. The crowd loved it, especially when the flimsy scaffolding nearly folded as the motorcycle flew past.

Yes, it's a very basic form of entertainment. But after all this country has been through, maybe there's nothing mysterious about why people are so happy watching something go round and round, without falling down.

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