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Daily Life in Kabul: Emerging Islam and a Fight for Flour

May 9, 1992

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Laiya Khan isn’t fond of wearing scarves. She likes the feel of the wind through her hair. So when she came to work Friday morning bundled in baggy clothes, her head shrouded in red cloth, colleagues giggled.

Khan laughed back. There across from her in the international news division of the Bakhtar news agency was M. Katawazi, her boss. Just two weeks ago, he sported a suit. Now he wore a cream-colored shalwar kameez, a pajama-like outfit favored in Islamic countries.

″Look at this,″ said Katawazi. ″Are we really becoming a Muslim nation?″

Ten days into the establishment of the Islamic republic of Afghanistan, daily life has become confusing. Everyone is guessing what is right and what is wrong.

The government has issued a few orders to guide its people. Effective Friday, it banned the consumption and sale of alcohol and ordered women to wear ″Islamic dress,″ which means only the hands and face may be shown in public. Failure to obey is punishable by flogging.

Still, in this society not prone to fundamentalism, anomalies remain.

At the Khyber playhouse, the city’s biggest movie theater, ″Rambo III″ is the current blockbuster. Every show is sold out, says Besmullah Khan, the 47- year-old director of the theater.

″It’s an Islamic movie,″ Khan says with a straight face. ″Rambo kills Russians. And he fights with the muhajedeen.″ The Cold War-era film shows Rambo with the ″freedom fighters″ who now dominate Kabul. Next in line, however, is ″Robocop II.″

″Oh, that one’s OK,″ Khan said, fingering large stacks of local currency after an early-morning show. ″It’s a technical movie. It has lots of science.″

The only thing the Ministry of Culture has banned, he said, is sex. That means no more Indian movies, which - with their inevitable scenes of smooching under waterfalls - have been a favorite among Afghans.

Interpretation of the new rules is made slightly hair-raising by the fact that many of Afghanistan’s self-appointed rules-makers, the muhajedeen, have guns.

Every group has a pet peeve. Every man has his own law. At Baburr’s garden, cock fighting was in full swing Friday. Mohamed Amir’s chicken had just poked the eye out of a competing bird, winning the farmer $500 - more than three times an average yearly salary.

″Soon we will end all this,″ said Mohammed Agar,a 28-year-old muhajedeen who looked out on the crowd of spectators, an AK-47 automatic rifle between his legs. ″Gambling is un-Islamic. We will make Afghanistan like Iran.″

But daily life in today’s Kabul is more than a struggle with the vagaries of Islamic law. Food is another problem. And then there’s the prospect of continued fighting between rival guerrilla groups. A cease-fire expires Saturday.

Also Saturday, schools, which have been closed since March 20 when winter vacation ended, are scheduled to reopen.

″Only God knows what will happen to Afghanistan,″ said Mohamed Araf, whose family has run a prayer beads dealership near Kabul’s Blue Mosque for three generations. At the Mandawee Kabul flour market Friday, merchants were refusing to sell to several hundred angry customers because they said government-controlled prices would hit them with heavy losses.

Grain merchant Abdul Rhani said he was facing a $30 loss on every 216-pound bag of flour if he sold at the government price of about $2 for every 15 pounds of flour.

″I have hundreds of bags back there,″ he said, pointing to a makeshift warehouse. ″That could put me out of business.″

But electrical engineer Jaber Ali demanded Rhani make a sale. ″My house is empty of wheat,″ he said. ″We have five people to feed. We have no bread.″

Amid the struggle between the spirit and the stomach, Kabul residents have somehow found time to feed the senses. Near the center of town, a florist selling potted roses was doing a fast business. ″They are sweet to the nose and good for the heart,″ said a bearded man who was loading one onto the back of his bicycle.

″Roses are especially important during these difficult days.″

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