This is a country without faces.
The postage stamps show landscapes, the currency is engraved with mosques. Government ministry walls are adorned with Arabic calligraphy, hotel rooms hung with floral designs.
In the bazaars, there are posters and calendars for sale depicting Mecca in a hundred different styles, but none showing people. In the newspapers, stories are accompanied by photos of fruit stands and Islamic artifacts.
Afghanistan is ruled by an Islamic group, the Taliban, that severely enforces its strict interpretation of the Islamic ban on human images and idols, which are viewed as an insult to God. Two weeks ago, the Taliban shocked the world by demolishing two famous 1,500-year-old stone statues of Buddha, which it pronounced idolatrous.
The ban on faces starts at the top of the Taliban's religious hierarchy. Mohammad Omar, its supreme leader, is a reclusive Muslim cleric who has rarely been seen by his own subjects and is never photographed. The Prophet Muhammad, Islam's most sacred figure, is never depicted in any form, although Muslims here say they have read that he had a "kind and shining face."
A few Taliban officials allow foreign journalists to take their pictures at news conferences, but all visitors are under orders not to photograph "any living thing" in the country, and Taliban police frequently detain those they catch in the act or confiscate their cameras.
The faces of Afghan women are especially invisible. The Taliban says that if a man views a strange woman's face, he may be tempted to impure thoughts or acts; as a consequence, women are forbidden to leave their homes without wearing a head-to-toe cape called a burqa. If a woman needs to procure a passport or identity photo, it must be taken with only her eyes showing.
Men, too, are partly hidden from view, with covered heads and long beards required for any male past puberty. Men whose beards are deemed too short may be put in jail until their whiskers grow, and newly arrived Muslims hide their stubbled chins beneath cloaks.
Perhaps because adult faces are so muffled, those of Kabul's children seem especially sharp. They peer from every alley and workshop and garbage heap. They thrust into car windows, begging for coins. They glance up from grimy tasks, streaked with dust. Often, the children's faces are as wizened as old men's.
The Taliban's prohibition of human photography has a high sentimental cost. Couples marry without wedding portraits -- unless they can afford to cross the border into Pakistan for the ceremony. Parents die without leaving their children any likeness to remember them by. Family snapshots may be confiscated by customs officials at the Kabul airport, especially if they depict men and women together.
There are a few camera shops in Kabul, but most ID pictures are taken by sidewalk vendors with ancient wooden box cameras, who put their hands under a dark cape, swish tiny pieces of paper in film developer and dry the blurry result in strips of newspaper.
"We are not allowed to photograph women, and with men we can only show above the chest," said a veteran sidewalk cameraman. "I don't have as much business as I did once, but this is what is ordered by our sharia [Islamic] law."
At one camera shop, decorated with blowups of floral vases and alpine scenes, the proprietor said the religious police -- a powerful, autonomous force in Afghanistan -- could enter the premises at any time. If they find any photos of people larger than a passport head shot, he said, "they tear them into little pieces."
In a nearby pharmacy, several customers sipped tea and talked about the ban on human images. "When I was young, I didn't know that taking a picture was making an idol. But now I know," said the pharmacist. "Yes, you can be born and die without a photograph, but you will go to paradise."
An elderly man who had once studied abroad shook his head sadly. "This is not my idea, it is the government's idea," he said. "It is not normal." The ban on pictures of women, he added, is "a very small problem, compared to the problems of living. Women cannot work, they cannot go to school. Those are the real problems."
A turbaned member of the Taliban militia entered the shop and joined the conversation. "If I say I don't take pictures now but I once did, someone will think I was a communist," he said with a laugh. Afghanistan was governed by a communist party and then occupied by the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Beneath its sober, faceless veneer, of course, Kabul is full of photographs. Treasured family portraits are hidden in metal trunks. Shopkeepers hide postcards of Afghan women in traditional costumes behind shelves of books. Others offer special prices for prohibited photos of the destroyed Buddhas.
One antique dealer explained cautiously that he was not allowed to sell any antiquity that contained a human image, but after a cup of tea he brought out a hidden packet of prized postcards: portraits of traditional Afghan kings in their military and tribal regalia.
Around the corner was an ice-cream cart, decorated with a painting of a little girl holding up an ice-cream cone. The girl's face had been painstakingly scratched off.