Afghan youth bring a new buzz to war-battered Kabul

Spirit of creativity and entrepreneurship evokes Afghan capital's history as a Silk Road melting pot

Street art and murals have popped up around Kabul in the last decade, often painted and sprayed on blast walls that are put up for protection.
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First the hippies in the 1970s, now the hipsters. A generation of hip Afghan entrepreneurs and self-starters with a positive outlook on life is taking over Afghanistan's capital.

Once a melting pot of cultures and a hub of creativity along the Silk Road, Afghanistan’s capital is being transformed and rebranded by the enterprise of its younger generation – from edgy street art, minimalist restaurants and beard-grooming salons to fashion houses.

Although the country is still at war, this does not seem to have stopped many young adults from keeping a positive attitude and investing in their country. They hope for a better future.

“People’s perception of Afghanistan? They think it’s hell,” says Humayun Zadran, 40, sitting on the breezy terrace of his new restaurant, a cup of coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other. It’s a sunny afternoon and the atmosphere is laid back.

Mr Zadran, an innovative entrepreneur, has already started a coffee shop and a music venue in Kabul, although the coffee shop is now run by a new owner. His latest venture, the Burger Shop, offers minimalist decor and a simple menu made from fresh produce sourced locally every day.

The Burger Shop is just one of the new venues that has recently popped up in Kabul. Many young Afghans are willing to invest in their country and hope for a better future.

The concept behind all of his ventures is keeping investment low, using scrap materials for interior design and passion for food, with some Pinterest inspiration.

“There are a lot of places popping up around town. A lower-upper middle class is evolving, so the demand is there. More people now have the money to spend on quality food or custom-designed clothes, so we’re supplying just that,” he explains.

He has seen a lot of positive changes since the US-led invasion in 2001, he says. “Ten years ago, the people who had money were mainly expats, and they stayed in their compounds, mingled little with Afghans and remained largely segregated. But this generation is waking up to something new. Many Afghans have left the country to study abroad and they come back motivated and willing to invest in their country.”

That is exactly what Khalid Wardak did. A London-trained designer, Mr Wardak, 33, returned to Afghanistan in 2014 and, together with a cousin, launched Russand, a fashion line earlier this year, focusing mainly on custom-made suits.

“We’re not making souvenirs that stay in the closet, but functional, productive, high-quality wear with a simple design,” he explains from his small studio, where he employs seven tailors.

Wearing a linen suit and dark shades, he sits in the sun outside his production house, his hair groomed, his fingers and arms tattooed.

“Social media had a huge impact on Afghan clothing and in recent years we’ve seen everything from indie style to New York street wear. Our brand is helping create things that last.”

Entrepreneur Khalid Wardak, and owner of Russand, sits with his business partner and cousin Sabaoon Himmat outside their factory in Kabul.

Mr Wardak has seen rapid change in Kabul and hopes to be a mentor to others embarking on the entrepreneurial journey. “In London, I made the decision to return home in three days," he says. "It was quick. I knew I could be of use in Afghanistan and also wanted to influence the country.”

The responsibility he feels is shared by many others.

Massume Hossaini, who is in her 20s and manages Shar-e-Kitap, a low-key cafe and bookshop that also sells handmade pottery, says everyday life in Kabul means “living by chance”, referring to frequent militant attacks, but a new generation of open-minded, driven people is coming of age and contributing to a freer city.

“Our neighbourhood is changing,” she says of West Kabul, a place where many musicians, writers and artists live. “More people are drawn here and there is little discrimination in terms of ethnicity or background. We’re kind of all in the same boat.”

Shar-e-Kitap, Persian for 'City of Books' is a coffee shop in West Kabul, where young people enjoy a laid-pack atmosphere.

At Shar-e-Kitap, young people meet friends or study for university classes, and the women sit without headscarfs. Upstairs, a cinema is being built to provide a space for local artists and filmmakers.

A short walk from the coffee shop, other businesses have set up: wood-panelled barber shops offering the latest styles in beards, street food restaurants and small boutiques selling local arts and crafts. Soraya Shahidi, Afghanistan’s first woman tattoo artist, lives in a high-rise building just around the corner.

This is the only place she feels comfortable raising her son by herself, says Ms Shahidi, who operates out of the back room of a barber shop.

“I got out of an abusive marriage and now want to focus on my own business,” says the 26-year-old, her hair pulled back tightly, wearing make-up and a piercing under her lip.

Tattoo artist Soraya Shahidi, 26, sits with her son in her house in West Kabul.

Chicken Street, a remainder from hippie times where you can buy colourful tunics, carpets, furniture and silver jewellery, is on the other side of town and has long lost its appeal except for the occasional foreigner in search of antiques and rugs.

It is not that the old arts are being lost; rather they are incorporated into newer, modern designs. “There’s an old tradition of creativity and handmade details. We’re not forgetting this, but we’re redefining it,” says Mr Wardak.

Despite the positive attitude and mushrooming businesses, there is concern about the frequent violence in the capital that cannot be covered over by the colourful murals appearing on its grey blast walls.

“We take risks every day when we leave the house. You never know if you’ll come home in the evening,” Mr Zadran says, then pauses for a moment.

“But if I sit still and think that tomorrow won’t be good, nothing gets done. I want to be ahead of the game. If it’s a disaster, it’s a disaster for all. So we can’t give up hope.”

Politics and violence aside, Afghan society remains largely traditional in its views.

“People are open to changes, but we have to be careful not to offend. Even I come from a traditional family. So we play it safe,” says Mr Wardak.

“But the energy – it’s amazing. No one wants to give up,” he says.

“This is our country. It’s on us to shape it."