The second-hand clothes sellers who bask in the cold when Kabul tries to stay warm

The brutal Afghan winter is an ordeal for most - but an opportunity for some

People browse second-hand market stalls in central Kabul. Photo: Ali M Latifi
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This winter in Afghanistan has been the coldest in a decade ― temperatures have dropped as low as -35°C, forcing people already struggling with an economic downturn to find the cheapest ways possible to stay warm.

For many in the capital, this meant turning to the sellers of second-hand clothing and blankets near the Pamir Cinema in central Kabul. While the temperatures routinely dropped to negative double digits, sellers like Najibullah recorded noticeable increases in sales.

The 18-year-old says the cold months were a much-needed boon to him and others who sell second-hand wares from street-side wooden carts and aluminium and steel stands, which the municipality has distributed over the past year.

As temperatures increase, tradesmen say people are less inclined to shop. Photo: Ali M Latifi

“When it was cold, people would come and buy warm clothes, I used to make a couple thousand Afghanis a day,” he says, adding that since the weather has started to improve, his sales have dropped.

Najibullah and other sellers in the market told The National that over the past two weeks they’ve gone from making up to $15 a day down to one or two dollars a day. Although he has been selling at this market since he was 10, Najibullah is quick to point out that he hasn’t put all his hopes into a single venture.

“The warmer it gets, the more our sales drop and then I know it’s time for me to move on.”

He says he will return to school and look for other ways to make money as the spring approaches. But other sellers in the market are much more reliant on the profits from their carts, stands and shops and cannot switch things so easily.

Sayed, 50, has been selling second-hand goods, for three years, but with the overall economy having taken a hit as a result of of sanctions, banking restrictions, and large-scale cutbacks of foreign aid since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, he says there is little hope for a new venture.

Sanctions, banking restrictions and large-scale cutbacks of foreign aid have affected the markets. Photo: Ali M Latifi

“I’ve been sitting here all day and I haven’t had a single sale,” he says on a mid-February morning, when the temperature has already reached 10°C.

Looking around the market, the lack of business at each individual shop is not due to a lack of foot traffic. Groups of men and women — some in the all-encompassing blue chadari, or burqa, others in hijabs and loose-fitting robes and coats — mill about going from stall to stall.

“Look, there are people here, but they just go from stand to stand browsing, looking for the best deal,” Sayed says of the hundreds of people, walking through the muddy roads.

That style of shopping is especially disconcerting to Sayed. The children’s and baby-sized sweatpants and puffer onesies he stocks all sell for a flat 50 Afghanis (about $0.56), but a young couple want to bargain the price down further, as is the custom in most markets throughout the country.

Like most of the sellers here, he bought his goods on consignment from wholesalers in the south-eastern province of Paktika, who themselves buy their products in bulk from neighbouring Pakistan.

“One hundred and fifty for every 1,000, that’s the rule we all live by,” he says referring to the 150 Afghani ($1.67) commission the wholesalers take from every 1,000 Afghanis they sell.

But it’s not just seasonal shifts that drive down business.

Samir, 23, has one of the few concrete shops on the street. In it he sells mainly women’s clothes. Like the other sellers in the market, he says that the winter was good for business, but he also blames the Taliban's restrictions for the overall drop in business.

“Most of our customers are women, and right now women have much fewer places to go than they used to,” he says. Since the Taliban returned to power, they forbade women from working in the majority of government ministries and directorates. They also shut down girls’ secondary schools in 32 of 34 provinces and, last December, banned women from universities across the country.

Samir says all of these limitations have had an effect on the economy.

“Women aren’t going to offices or universities like they used to, so they’re not in constant need of new clothes. Where is a woman going to wear all these clothes now,” Samir says.

He says, in general, women are the ones who drive the second-hand market. “Men don’t have patience to browse and browse,” he says, adding that men too are also dealing with an economic downturn and increasing unemployment.

It is estimated that at least 700,000 people have lost their jobs due to capital flight, sanctions and banking restrictions since the Taliban returned to power in 2021, and this has forced people to cut back.

“It used to be people wore something once and then immediately went out and got something new, now they keep the same garments for as long as they can,” Samir says.

Updated: February 24, 2023, 6:02 PM