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Once Unthinkable, Now Unsinkable

The Taliban banned movies, but that didn't stop Afghanistan's love affair with 'Titanic'

June 02, 2002|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KABUL, Afghanistan — It towered, a fantastical construction of orange-scented cake and butter cream icing created by a team of four men, including an engineer: a 132-pound dessert in the shape of a ship, dedicated to Afghanistan's favorite film, "Titanic."

Although the Taliban had banned films and shut down cinemas when the movie was released in 1997, most people here in the capital watched pirated copies at home on their illegal VCRs.

Here, the movie is still the greatest romantic adventure of all, so the unhappy ending notwithstanding, the Titanic makes the perfect wedding cake.

Baker Ghulam Rasul, 63, nearly stumbled under the weight of the cake as he loaded it into a van on its way to be cut up, served and eaten--four days' work demolished in one hectic hour.

The madness for things "Titanic" in Kabul dwarfs even the fuss made over the film in the West.

Kabul sign-writers are practiced exponents of the "Titanic" theme, with pictures of the ship decorating cake shops, taxis, buses, trucks, market carts and cafes all over the city.

In the windows of the city's many poster and video shops hang posters of the movie's stars, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, locked in a loving embrace, gazing deeply into each other's eyes.

DiCaprio-style hairstyles featuring long bangs and known as Titanics--which were banned in the Taliban era because they interfered with praying--are still popular with Kabul's youth.

The bazaars are full of Titanic shampoo, Titanic perfumes, Titanic vests, belts, shoes, pants and chewing gum.

Souvenir shops sell Titanic mosaics with the ship laid out in lapis lazuli.

Cabdriver Abdul Hadi Charkhi, 30, adorned his taxi with a picture of the ship to attract customers.

"I did it out of love for the film," he said. "There are many, many taxis with the Titanic."

Young women buy cheap postcards of the "Titanic" stars, printed in Pakistan.

"Everyone likes the name. Everyone says Titanic, Titanic, Titanic," said Haji Faiz Mohammed, one of Kabul's largest cinema owners. "Those who have watched it say Titanic, Titanic, Titanic. Those who have not watched it say Titanic, Titanic, Titanic. It has a huge name."

The film is popular in video stores, although nearly everyone, it seems, has seen it, often several times. Yet "Titanic" has never been shown on the big screen in Kabul.

Even Afghans have difficulty explaining why, in a landlocked country, the film so captured the popular imagination.

Siddiq Barmak, the director of state-owned Afghan Film, puts it best: "'Titanic' is a great human interest story. People here compare their fate to the story of the Titanic.

"There's a ship which sails out and the passengers have a common grief which embraces all their lives. And the people on the ship want to save themselves from their misfortune.

"I think there is a lot in common with the fate of Afghanistan and the Titanic. We're looking for a way to rescue ourselves," he said.

A year ago, under the Taliban, the "Titanic" cult was even more crazed than it is today, locals say--a source of frustration for the Taliban's Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Images of the ship were allowed, but pictures of the stars were banned because human portraits were forbidden.

But the Taliban's efforts to rein in the "Titanic" cult only illustrated how difficult it was to enforce the regime's rigid social controls. Many of those who did not have video players saw the film at the homes of friends who did.

Kabul sign-writer Afizallah, 45, said the Taliban mullahs preached that people shouldn't watch the film, which features some scenes that are highly controversial in Afghanistan because of nudity.

"You'd tell people not to do it, and they would do it anyway," said Afizallah, who has seen the movie many times.

Although the population secretly flouted the law against videos, it was risky to openly defy the Virtue and Vice police.

Twenty-two Afghan barbers were jailed in January last year for styling young men with Titanic haircuts.

Rasul, the baker, had a Titanic cake model in pride of place in his window until the Taliban banned the cake last summer. Members of the religious police ordered him to remove the model and stop baking the cake.

Since the Taliban fell here in November, Rasul has resurrected his proudest creation.

"The Titanic is the most popular cake," Rasul said. "I get a lot of orders. When the film came to Afghanistan, everyone was interested in Titanic cakes. It's the best film."

The biggest Titanic cakes he has made weighed 220 pounds. He had two such orders last year. A 220-pound cake, 2 yards long and 18 inches high, will feed 2,500 hungry wedding guests when sliced by Rasul's experienced cake cutters.

Rasul's son, Ghulam Reza, 38, works as an engineer in the Ministry of Planning but put his skills to work in structuring the cake design.

"No one else is able to make this cake. I'm the only one who can do it," Rasul boasted, although other Kabul bakers claim that they could do it if they tried.

Kabul had 40 cinemas before the Soviet invasion in 1979, and 17 under the Soviet-backed Communist leader Najibullah, who ruled from 1986 to 1992.

No new film has been imported to Afghanistan for a decade, and the cinemas show old, familiar ones.

"'Titanic' would have a big audience because it's new in the cinema," said Mohammed, the cinema owner, estimating that half of Kabul's population has yet to see the film.

"They've heard of it and are filled with anticipation. If Afghan Film gives me permission to import the film, I'll do it," he said, adding that the film would also have to be approved by the Afghanistan Censorship Commission.

Barmak, the head of Afghan Film, said the real problem is money: The film would cost an importer $150,000. But he said Afghan Film would approve its import, and he is optimistic that the film will be on the big screen in Kabul soon.

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