Sez here in Newsweek International that Kabul is a "Post-Taliban Paris." No, really. "Film companies, theater troupes and art galleries are springing up across the capital," according to the story. Even Kabul's satire magazine—the Taliban didn't think it was very funny—has now resumed publication, one of over a hundred new periodicals that have been registered with the U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai. The targeted new leadership isn't particularly happy to play the role of punch line, but at least it's not threatening to amputate the limbs of the writers and editors.
What's all this about? Turns out that well over a million Afghans have returned from extended exile, and have brought back with them the cultural influences of their scattered diaspora homes. The returning Afghans are adding these influences to the nation's own varied cultural traditions, including those budding modernizations—such as the rise of a pop music industry—that were interrupted by a communist regime, a long and terrible civil war, and the afflictions of the psychotic Taliban. In brief, Kabul has become a post-Taliban Paris (relatively speaking) because it has become a post-Taliban fertile verge.
A fertile verge, according to prolific historian Daniel Boorstin, who originated the concept two decades ago, "is a place of encounter between something and something else." In cultural terms, those "somethings" can be varied expressive traditions that, in encountering one another in a free and tolerant atmosphere, mix and morph into new and often exciting forms. The ultimate example is not really Paris. Though that celebrated city did indeed attract many kinds of creative people, the best example of the creative verge is the United States. America's extraordinarily successful culture is largely the product of such encounters. The thinker who has done the most to advance and develop the concept of the verge is former reason editor Virginia Postrel, who deals with it at length in her 1998 book, The Future and Its Enemies.
Kabul is hardly going to make a transition from utter cultural constraint to the dynamism of the fertile verge without problems. And in fact, there has already been a well-publicized incident of backlash. At the end of August, Mohammad Ishaq, the head of Kabul TV and Radio, banned the playing of songs sung by women, as well as the broadcast of relatively racy Indian films and TV shows, both on conservative religious grounds. The bans echoed Taliban prohibitions, and led to some international hand wringing over the perceived renewal of fundamentalist power and the prospect of culture war.
Ishaq, however, appears to be a bureaucratic anomaly. Women singers and Bollywood movies remain available in Kandahar, which is a far more conservative place than is Kabul. Anyway, Ishaq's own Radio Kabul is otherwise continuing to broadcast notably liberal programming.
The New York Times, for example, has offered readers a glimpse of the radio service's immensely popular morning show, "Good Morning, Afghanistan." The show, influenced by returning Afghans who have worked in foreign media, is co-anchored by male and female announcers. A recent interview with a Kabul bodybuilder named Sultani featured a remarkable exchange with the female interviewer, Jameela Rishteen. According to the Times, Rishteen wondered if women might try bodybuilding, to which Sultani replied, "Why not?" "Very well, then," replied the interviewer, "I'd like to have a go myself."
If that's how Kabul's media women talk on the radio these days, then banning Indian pop music seems rather futile. Besides, it doesn't matter what the head of Radio Kabul bans, because it hardly mattered what the Taliban banned. All movies, all secular TV programs, and all secular music were forbidden under the harsh Taliban regime. But Kabul's citizens found ways to watch movies and to hear music anyway. When the Taliban ran off, the people just turned up the volume. It's likely to be difficult to make them turn it back down.