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In Kabul, Big Changes Among Small Business

Shops that lacked customers under the Taliban are filling with patrons. Some Afghans, however, worry about the social ramifications.

October 13, 2002|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — At dawn, Sharif, 58, Kabul's most famous kebab man, goes to buy the best cut of meat and never even haggles about the price. By 12:30 p.m. his kebabs will be sold out, and waiters in his tiny smoked-filled restaurant will have to turn hungry and disappointed people away.

Mohammed Hasan, 55, who has been tailor to kings and government officials for decades, is doing so well, he had to hang a sign in his shop, warning off new customers.

On colorful Flower Street, shopkeepers who used to spend their days joking and singing for lack of customers, now are happily besieged by patrons and traffic jams.

From the poorest carpet weaver to the fat car dealers in Charai Ansari Square, everyone in Kabul says small-scale commerce is humming.

"Now finally I am making money," Sharif said. "It's really the first time I have made a lot of money."

Afghanistan's economy, shattered by 23 years of war, is gloomy and depressed, so primitive that no one in the government knows the unemployment rate or the balance of trade. They can only guess at the figures, but they know the numbers are bad.

In the post-Taliban era, the striking thing here in the Afghan capital, however, is the thriving entrepreneurial spirit of the small-business men.

Street life in Kabul is dazzling. Gaudy wedding cars race by and elaborately painted trucks lumber about with people perched on top. One recent hot autumn day a foolhardy roller-blader weaved through the crazy traffic.

But beneath the surface, Kabul seems poised between a giant leap into the future, full of optimism and risk, and an abrupt retreat from social change.

Businesses restricted or banned under the Taliban -- tailors, beauticians, music shops, photographers -- are swinging along. Even those that faced no direct restrictions, like restaurants and car traders, are much busier and more profitable.

The Taliban managed to shut out the world. Now, satellite TV is here, an Internet cafe has opened. Crowds of men in restaurants and cafes stare at television screens where scantily clad Indian dancers gyrate hypnotically. But not everyone has adapted to the changes. Religious authorities fear the impact on Afghanistan's Islamic values. As Kabul whirls through a carnival of change and choice, some are confused, bemused, shocked.

Sher Mohammed, 36, from Ghorband is too afraid and uncertain to venture far from his hotel in central Kabul. He came to the capital to find medical treatment for his ailing 5-year-old son.

At a restaurant Mohammed visited, football and dancing blared on TV. "I don't like it, why should I tell a lie? And I don't like the nude pictures I saw at a video seller's," he complained.

Still, others are enjoying, and profiting from, a small-business boom.

Lunchtime kebab and rice houses are packed. Ice-cream parlors are thriving, trucking grimy ice from the Salang Gorge to freeze their confections by hand, or buying ice from factories. Florists and bakers are deluged with wedding orders, a far cry from the Taliban days when the middle classes would go to Pakistan for important, festive parties.

Mir Gulab, 70, whose turban business has been in the family for 100 years, is making the same kind of money he did in the era of the Taliban, when every bureaucrat wore a turban. Now, however, he sells more turbans to rural buyers who had not been able to afford new turbans in the Taliban era.

"Actually, business is good. Everyone is richer now," he said.

When Nazar Mohammed, 45, saw four turban sellers go broke after the Taliban's fall, he nearly gave up his own turban business. But instead he diversified into vests and waistcoats and pulled his business out of a hole.

"It's getting better, day by day," he said.

Sharif, the kebab shop man who has no second name but is known by everyone as Sharif Kebabi, began as an apprentice making kebabs at 13, and opened his own business at 19.

After the Russians invaded in 1979, he hung a portrait of the Soviet space hero Yuri Gagarin on the wall and welcomed lots of Russian customers. His grimmest era was under the Taliban, when the religious police stormed through the neighborhood every lunchtime, forcing people away to pray.

"Before, I could just work to support my family, not make money. I worked for years and could never buy a decent piece of furniture," said Sharif, who sits cross-legged in the front of this restaurant each day counting the take. "Everyone wants to progress. Everyone wants to move forward."

The scrawled sign hanging in tailor Mohammed Hasan's shop tells the story of the roaring demand for his Western-style suits since the fall of the Taliban: "Dear customers," it reads, "Because of a shortage of apprentices we cannot accept sewing orders."

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