“Sami! It’s your turn,” the young woman called out from the bowling lane, her scarf pushed to the back of her head. “Give me a second,” said her friend, turning to me as he jumped up. “I’ll be right back.”
We were inside a cavernous ten-pin bowling lane in the western suburbs of Kabul. Most of the customers were young, single men and women, mixing freely – once an unbreakable taboo in Afghanistan’s conservative and patriarchal culture.
Men with gelled hair and tattooed arms puffed on qailoon, or hookah pipes, glancing hopefully in the direction of two women in tight jeans sitting on a sofa. The tobacco flavours on offer in the smartly-printed menu included ‘double apple’ and bubble gum.
This is the Kabul you don’t see, not in the outside world at least, obscured behind reports of suicide-bombings and photographs of twisted metal. That is even more true now, under the shadow of stalled peace talks with the Taliban, and amid fears that this weekend’s presidential election will lead to a repeat of the divisive standoff that followed the corruption-riddled 2014 vote – which was brought to an end when the Obama administration brokered a power-sharing deal.
Though there were 18 candidates, the same two politicians dominated the race again this time: the incumbent, President Ashraf Ghani, and Abdullah Abdullah, who served as his chief executive under the 2014 deal. But with the initial results not due until mid-October, and predictions that a run-off will then be required, there is a lot of space for fresh friction.
Yet beyond the headlines of carnage and political dysfunction, there has always been another country. Afghanistan long ago passed Vietnam as America’s longest war. Some of the US troops now deployed there had just been born when the 9/11 attacks happened – the trigger for the US invasion in October 2001. But while the war got old for America, Afghanistan got young.
More than half the Afghan population today is under 18, born since the Taliban were overthrown. And behind the canyons of blast walls and sand-bagged checkpoints that divide Kabul and other cities, this growing army of young people are creating the outlines of a new country – by instinct as much as by design.
“I come here two or three times a week now, because I want to enjoy my life,” said Sami, after finishing his turn on the bowling lane. “And I want to meet girls.”
Two years after he graduated from Kabul University with a computer science degree, Sami – who asked me not to publish his real name – is still looking for a job. The violence is a constant worry, he admits. “But we want to have a life. We want freedom.”
The décor in the bowling centre is fresh and modern. It serves as a sanctuary from the rigidly traditional attitudes that prevail in many parts of Afghan society. Those beliefs were on display during the election campaign – from the most controversial candidate running. A woman could never be president in an “Islamic nation such as Afghanistan”, said Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a hard-line Islamist former warlord (and one-time US ally), during a pre-election debate. This was not “discrimination against women,” he argued. It was just that “when it comes to dealing with issues, particularly when making a judgment, they [women] act emotionally.”
People old enough to remember Hekmatyar’s role in the civil war of the early-1990s, which killed at least 50,000 people, are infuriated that the 70-year-old has been able to claw his way back into politics. “So that was rational when he was rocketing the city?” spat a teacher-friend who survived those days. And yet the influence of old-guard figures such as Hekmatyar is steadily waning.
“When I first started seeing young men and women together like this in public, I would always check their ring fingers,” remarked an old Afghan friend. “I don’t any more. It’s becoming more normal now, at least in Kabul.”
There were more signs, too, of candidates trying to appeal to younger voters in this campaign. In the past, they tended to focus on creating a uniform national image, mixed with traditional “vote-bank” tactics, involving deals and alliances with regional power-brokers. But 18-25 year-olds now make up an estimated 30 per cent of the electorate, representing a powerful new constituency for candidates who can win them over.
President Ghani’s campaign drafted hundreds of young volunteers to help its effort, many of them staffing a giant call centre to target younger voters via their phones and on social media. “No candidate had the balls to target the youth vote in the past,” said Ajmal Ghani, the president’s blunt-speaking cousin and a senior campaign advisor, “because they were too worried about offending the older generation.” They also produced a rap video with an Afghan rap singer extolling the president’s virtues. “We are even on Tik Tok,” said Ghani proudly, referring to the viral new video sharing site.
Back at the bowling centre, duty manager Hamid – who was born in the 1970s and lived through Taliban rule in Kabul – confessed he was “amazed” to see the scenes around him. This place is still not ‘average Afghanistan’, but neither is it an exception. It sits on a street lined on both sides with cafes and restaurants aimed at a like-minded crowd. When I first visited west Kabul, after the Taliban’s fall in 2001, it was a rubble-strewn wasteland – the legacy of the civil war. There was barely a building left standing then. Today, there is barely an empty building plot left.
It is a similar story across Afghanistan’s high-altitude capital, which keeps mushrooming outwards – fuelled by rapid population growth, refugees returning from abroad and an influx of internal refugees displaced by the continued fighting.
Saad Mohseni, the boss of Tolo TV, one of the most-watched channels in the country, thinks a more realistic assessment of the rural-urban split in the country is now 50:50, “and that’s transformative for a country like Afghanistan.”
A critical challenge is providing jobs for the country’s new youth majority. It’s hard to get accurate figures on unemployment in a country where only a minority have formal jobs, but unemployment may be at least 40 per cent. Many young people still hope to find a way of going abroad. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have gone to Iran in recent years, hoping to find work there, including many younger people – though thousands then get deported back.
Over several days touring Kabul, almost everyone I spoke to asked me if I could help them find a job. In the bowling centre, Sami did. Hamid, who used to work for international NGOs, said he had been looking for a job for two years until he landed his manager post, via a relative. “You could have papered the whole of Kabul with all the letters and CVs I have sent out,” he said.
In the Charahi Qamber area of northwest Kabul, more than 5,000 IDPs (internally displaced people) live in mud-brick huts with open sewers in the lanes between and fitful water supplies, right next to newly-built apartment blocks and ornate villas – with a dividing wall in between. Only the kites being flown by boys from the rooftops of the IDP settlement cross this boundary.
“You can see how we live here,” said 23 year-old Abdul Ghaffar, squatting down and running his hand through the dust at his feet. “The situation is very bad. I am jobless and we have no electricity.” Asked about the election, he shrugged. “Having a vote is our right, but voting in elections has no benefit for us.”
However the political contest plays out, a wider struggle is already underway in Afghan society – between the old traditions and a new individualism being spearheaded by the young.
Back at the bowling centre, Hamid said he sees signs of change rippling outwards. “We even have older people coming here to bowl in the evenings,” he said. “Sometimes, we are open until 1 o’clock at night.” Aren’t they worried about being attacked, I asked? “Yes,” he said. “Everyone is worried, but you have to live your life.”
In a ground-floor studio and gallery space in another west Kabul district, I watched as a young artist painted the shape of a large hand-grenade on a canvas, and then, inside the grenade, rows of houses. “It’s about how the bombs explode right next to our homes,” he explained.
The studio is run by an activist group known as Art Lords, which started a movement of volunteers who have been painting murals on the towering concrete blast barriers encircling Kabul’s high-security “Green Zone” and other parts of the city. Recently, they painted 25,000 tulips on walls around the country to honour the victims of the conflict. Their Kabul headquarters have become another gathering place for young people. “Here I can paint what I want,” said 22 year-old Negina Azimi.
The changes in Afghan society are palpable, says Omaid Sharifi, Art Lords’ founder. “The old guard may still be in power, but there is so much going on beneath.” Yet he also admits things are fragile, against the backdrop of the continuing conflict and fears about what any deal with the Taliban could mean for Afghans’ hard-won new freedoms.
Azimi is in no doubt where she stands. “The people I call my fellow citizens are those who share the same culture and history, but also believe in the positive changes that have happened in our homeland. If they accept these changes then I accept them, whether they are Taliban or anyone. But I will never accept those who fight or stand against these values.”
Illustrations by Andrew North
Andrew North is a journalist and artist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. He was previously based in Afghanistan as the BBC’s resident correspondent in Kabul, and has reported from the country many times since 2002.