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Region | Who Will Rule the Road?

by NUSHIN ARBABZADAH

18 Oct 2011 10:44Comments

New money, old money, imported values, ubiquitous guns -- the Afghan boulevard.

afghanwomanbegging.jpg[ comment ] Stuck in a traffic jam in Kabul one evening this summer, I took a brief survey of the cars around and noticed that they neatly summed up the contradictions of post-Taliban Afghan society.

To the right was a luxurious black Land Cruiser filled with men sporting long beards and their female family members dressed in Gulf-style niqabs. The niqab was new hejab fashion imported from Dubai, a popular destination for wealthy Afghans, many of whom run businesses, own villas, and send their children to private schools there. The niqab's purpose was to set apart the women of the newly rich, pious jihadi clans, like the occupants of the Land Cruiser, from their poorer, burqa-clad counterparts.

Images of impoverished burqa-wearing women, squatting and begging on the roads of Kabul, had become symbols of female oppression in the international press. The conspicuously wealthy family in the luxury four-wheel drive was clearly loath to be associated with such distasteful images. Ironic, given that such families usually present themselves as fiercely patriotic and culturally proud Afghans, sneering at their compatriots for their supposedly deficient knowledge of "real Islam" or their tendency to become impulsively Westoxicated from watching MTV videos. Yet this clan of aggressively pious Afghans had ditched the burqa, the sartorial symbol of Afghan female modesty, in favor of the niqab, a clothing item as alien to Afghans as the miniskirt.

The fear of being associated with poverty was clearly a driving force behind this fashion choice. After all, wealth, and its consequent social status, was still what truly mattered in Afghanistan. Three decades of armed egalitarian Islamism on the one hand, and a whole decade of socialist struggle spearheaded by the regimes of the 1980s on the other, had done little to change this core aspect of Afghan society. Acute economic inequality was ever present in the post-Taliban Afghanistan I encountered this summer. This was failure at a tragic scale, given that the struggle to establish an egalitarian system waged by both the communist regime and its jihadi enemies had resulted in three decades of mass murder and mass exodus.

The old Westernized Afghan elite against which both parties had defined themselves were either ousted or annihilated, but only to be replaced by a new class of conspicuously rich clans. Exacerbating the insult, the clans owed their wealth and power to the very wars that had killed millions of Afghans, turning the country into a cemetery choked with martyrs both intentional and accidental. Judging by the luxury vehicles stuck in the traffic jam, even more ironic than the egregious inequality was the fact that the old elite seemed rather poor by comparison to the new, flash class who dealt only with dollars. The foot soldiers of jihad and communism had clearly died for nothing. Afghanistan remained a society defined by the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

To the left of us in the traffic jam was a red car, more ordinary, filled to the brim with stylish young men, sporting colorful, tight T-shirts and striking hipster haircuts. The source of their disposable wealth was easy to identify: they obviously belonged to the class of young professionals who worked for international NGOs and were paid in dollars. Living with their extended families with no rent to pay, they had some money to spare, which they spent on expensive Western-style clothing and hairdos. Skin Deep, Kabul's first cutting-edge hair salon, was opened by a Turkish hairstylist in 2004. In 2011, the trendy new middle-class neighborhoods of Kabul all had several of their own Skin Deep and rival salons, responding to the needs of Kabul's economically empowered young professionals.

If these young people represented a new spirit of meritocracy, earning hard currency in return for professional skills, the rich, pious family in the Land Cruiser was testimony to the survival of the informal route of wealth accumulation through economically unproductive, nonprofessional channels. Foreign subsidies -- whether American or Arab -- in return for political favors came to mind as I compared the professionals' everyday vehicle with the brand-new Land Cruiser to my right. The pious men in the latter beamed with a self-righteous confidence that evoked looks of awkwardness and confusion among the young men to my left. Their reaction was natural, given that such "religious" older men were known to regularly attack young Afghan hipsters for "straying from the path of Islam" by sporting non-Afghan, Western looks. The irony that such self-appointed cultural critics themselves often adopted a non-Afghan cultural identity, meticulously following a lifestyle and theology associated with Dubai rather than Kabul, was clearly lost on them.

I felt sorry for the young men in the red car -- their money was hard earned, but they had little chance of competing economically with the Land Cruiser's occupants, likely members of one of the jihadi clans co-opted into the government in 2001 and since then masters of the thriving Afghan business world. Purchasing the loyalty of antistate rebel groups, tribes, and clans had a long history in the country. Both the Afghan state and the foreign powers that had waged wars in the Hindu Kush had at various points concluded that buying the enemy's loyalty was more fiscally prudent than sustaining military action. The current international attempts at negotiating with the Taliban were part of this pattern, which inevitably rewarded a rebel mentality, undermining long-term stability in favor of the short-term illusion of peace.

If the signifiers of the conflicting ideologies of Westernization and Islamization were embodied in the cars to the left and right, the pickup truck ahead of us was even more unsettling. The truck's open back was filled with muscular armed guards who looked nervous, proud, and excited all at once. They both enjoyed and feared the attention they drew posing with their flexed biceps on a congested road. I decided that the truck in all likelihood belonged to one of Kabul's political VIPs, who were known to never leave their homes or offices without an entourage of private guards.

Kabul's ever-present security details added a surplus layer of testosterone to the already male-dominated, edgy city. Exactly how could peace be achieved with so many guns around? The guards' consistent look -- well-defined muscles, solid, reliable boots, often accompanied by combat trousers -- lent them an anonymous air. Their identity was hard to pin down. In Bogot√°, they could easily have passed for members of a drug cartel. Elsewhere in the Middle East, they might well have been taken for mercenaries loyal to some armed opposition group. In the present case, the men's loyalty seemed to be foremost to their guns, given that signs of political association were completely absent from their combat outfits. Little wonder, then, that many recent assassinations of prominent Afghan political figures had been carried out by just such guards, men who wound up as the killers of those they were trusted to protect.

Stuck in this summer night's traffic jam, I encountered an Afghan society full of contradictions. Conflicting global cultural and political models of identity existed uneasily side by side. If the occupants of the red car represented a Western-style, liberal culture of meritocracy supported by the taxpayers of the international community, those in the Land Cruiser symbolized the competing model of global political Islamism, often financed by wealthy, ideological Arab sheikhs, or even the U.S. itself. After all, each had recently sponsored jihadi Afghan clans, albeit for vastly different reasons.

Yet despite their drastically different looks, the occupants in the red and black cars had something in common: their lifestyles were both financed by an artificial economy whose center was not in Kabul but in Washington and Dubai. Perhaps this was why their mutual presence in the traffic jam seemed not only awkward but even surreal. More poignant, perhaps, was the way the nonviolent coexistence of their conflicting ideologies was undermined by the pickup full of armed guards weaving through the traffic before us. The detente was clearly fragile and the guns in front certainly did not help ease my concern about the future of my troubled ancestral homeland.

Nushin Arbabzadah writes the "Islamic Republic Next Door" column on Afghanistan for Tehran Bureau. She is a former BBC journalist and a regular contributor to The Guardian.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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