Ateeq is in his late 30s, but cuts a younger figure. It’s not only because he goes to the gym every day, but he also is one of relatively few Afghan men in Kabul these days who is clean-shaven.
He is generally supportive of the Taliban militant group that has controlled Afghanistan for the past year, even though its worldview often bothers him. The notion that the country is now in the hands of Afghans, rather than foreign soldiers, and governed by men he views as more pious, and honest, rather than the wealthy businessmen and warlords of the republic, feels more appropriate.
When the Taliban came to power in August last year, many feared the group would enforce laws similar to those it passed last time it ruled Afghanistan, in the 1990s. Women were barred from going to school, required to cover their faces in public, and prevented from being outside without a male relative. Men were required to dress modestly and grow their beards. Music and films were banned altogether.
While these rules are officially back in place, police officers in Kabul – most of whom are former militants – have been instructed to “encourage” citizens, rather than punish them.
The capital’s streets are emptier of people, particularly women, these days than they were before. But the sight of young women walking the streets without face coverings is not uncommon.
“Sometimes they tell me off,” said one woman, browsing the window on a popular shopping street, “but I don’t really care what they think. Who are they? They’re not from [Kabul].”
Even so, Ateeq finds the officers’ “encouragements” annoying. Last month, he was walking to the gym in his three-quarter-length gym shorts when he was stopped by a bearded officer on the street, who admonished him for dressing immodestly and declining to grow his beard.
“When they make an official law that requires me to grow my beard, I’ll do it,” Ateeq told the officer. “But that’s not the law yet.”
Ateeq recounted his story in the leafy courtyard of a coffee shop in Kabul’s Qala-e-Fatullah district. The coffee shop, like many casual dining establishments in the city, feels sheltered from the outside world. All these places were built during the last few years of the republic, when parts of Kabul were being gentrified – flat whites found their way onto menus, as did the word “organic”.
But like other institutions in the city imported from a more relaxed, liberal world, they were built with layers of security designed to deter suicide bombers – a guard holding an AK-47 usually stands in front of the entrance, which is a blast door that leads to an interstitial room where another guard searches you before someone inside opens another blast door.
“The day the Taliban actually start physically forcing me to grow a beard is the day I will leave this country for good,” Ateeq says. He feels comfortable saying that aloud because the Taliban almost never enter places like this, as though they don’t even know many of them exist.
That might be for the best; seated at other tables in the courtyard are three young couples who appear to be on dates – the women are wearing makeup, their faces uncovered. On the speakers, music is playing, albeit at a low volume.
“This is a city of millions of people. How are they going to control everybody?”
The National approached one table where women were posing for selfies and trying on some scarves they had pulled from a shopping bag. “Please don’t use our names or photos,” one of them said. “We just come here to have a normal, nice time.”
At another restaurant, in the central neighbourhood of Shahr-e-Now, patrons are enjoying shisha. Sat among them is an Afghan woman smoking with her hair uncovered – these were taboos for women even before the Taliban.
The proprietor of the restaurant seemed unconcerned that such a scene could be discovered in a random inspection by Taliban patrols.
“I have men posted outside on the street corner who call me if they see any inspectors coming. If I get a call, I take the shisha away from the women and make sure their hair is covered. But honestly, a lot of these Taliban guys are young kids from the mountains. They don’t feel comfortable coming inside places like this.”
Some of the police officers said they were, indeed, overwhelmed by their newfound authority in Afghanistan’s largest, most unwieldy city. Najibullah, 28, a commander, spent most of his life in caves, valleys and fields planning attacks against Nato soldiers. Today, he oversees patrols in Police District 8, a large area that includes the city’s cricket stadium.
“The day we took over Kabul was my first time ever seeing the city,” he told The National. “I saw all the people and all the buildings, and I cried the whole day – I didn’t know there were places in Afghanistan like this.”
For NGO worker Abdullah, also 28, and a resident of Kabul, the Taliban’s inexperience creates an atmosphere of unpredictability.
Seated in the garden of Sufi Restaurant, an old building adorned with Mughal architecture in the neighbourhood of Taimani, he stares into a glass of green tea. His thoughts are occasionally interrupted by a honking sound made by the restaurant’s resident peacock.
“They used to play live music here – really nice, soft instrumental music. Now they are too scared, even though the wedding hall across the street still plays much worse stuff on loudspeakers.
“Right now, young people are in survival mode. I lost 90 per cent of my friends – they’re all trying to leave. Those of us who are left here are just trying to have fun. And people are being brave. They’re not letting the Taliban stop them from living life, because they don’t know what things will be like tomorrow.”