Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the amount of money India donates to Afghan reconstruction.
In the dusty heat of Afghanistan’s capital, the best defense is a scarf: It filters the gritty air, blocks the sun, sops up sweat and, in a pinch, even doubles as a prayer mat.
Utility is usually the point. But now comes the Salman Khan scarf.
Khan, a famed Indian actor, is responsible for launching a neck-accessory craze that has spurred a fivefold to tenfold increase in the price of a certain scarf: narrow, boldly hued and more fashionable than practical.
It is seen in a movie trailer featuring the song “Mashallah,” a Bollywood romp in which Khan changes scarves at a blistering pace, while wooing a flesh-baring temptress in an Arab-style bazaar.
The look gradually caught on with teenage boys after the video’s summer release, and the scarves now add striking dashes of color — red, orange, blue and striped combinations — to the drab, forbidding landscape of Kabul, which bristles with steel-and-wire encampments and machines of war.
It is but one signifier of increased outside cultural influences here, particularly among the young, to the chagrin of some older Afghans. They see an erosion of the Islamic ways as people reject traditional dress to keep in step with Bollywood and Hollywood.
“I am totally against these Western influences,” said 50-year-old Mir Jan, wiping down his dusty taxi on a recent evening. “If a movie actor would take his pants off and put them over his shoulder, the next day you would see it in Kabul.”
But faddism translates to good business. “The Afghan people know every Indian actor — not only the actor but who their father is,” said shopkeeper Khalid Ismail Zada, 26, who displayed a colorful rack of Khan-style scarves, $5 apiece.
Around town prices have been hiked from $1, with some scarves even going for $10.
But no matter: “Afghans, even if they have nothing to eat at home, will dress stylishly and follow the fashions they see on TV and in movies,” Zada said.
The U.S. military, after an 11-year presence here, has introduced its share of popular looks, including tattoos, camo shorts, and rubber wristbands bearing the American or Afghan flag.
Now, however, the United States is fighting a tough image war, in part because of an Islam-insulting YouTube video, which many here have taken to the streets to condemn. And President Hamid Karzai often blasts the United States as a sovereignty-violating bully.
India, though, has long been in good repute in Afghanistan: It has been the largest regional donor to Afghan reconstruction, spending $1.5 billion over the years on infrastructure, including roads and power plants, and humanitarian projects — and has pledged to spend half a billion more, Indian officials say. Last year, the countries signed a strategic pact under which India will help train Afghan security forces.
Some wearers of the Salman Khan scarf say it is an expression of individuality — although youth fads tend to be quite the opposite, a product of peer pressure.
Fifteen-year-old Ghulam Mohammad said that after his friends in southern Paktia province started wearing colorful scarves this summer, influenced by Khan, he picked up on the trend, too, though he said he had never seen the video.
He also started gelling his hair, copying the spiky coifs and emo-look cuts touted on salon placards throughout the capital. Older folks deride the kids as looking like roosters and porcupines.
The magazine Afghanistan Today, reporting on the rise of Western trends earlier this month, quoted a cellphone salesman who said police dragged away some of his friends and cut their hair.
“Afghanistan’s the land of war. It’s always war, war, war,” said 18-year-old student Abdul Monir. “What we want is to express ourselves. The latest trend is the scarf and the hairstyle and the clothes.”
He displayed all three: a turquoise-and-black-striped scarf, a tousled mop, and tight-fitting black pants.
“Businessmen are watching the movies to see the styles, and then they import them,” Monir said knowingly.
Some skinny-scarf-draped teens say that Mazar-e Sharif, a city in the north, exported the trend to Kabul months ago. But it clearly was Khan’s video — a promo for a movie released in August called “Ek Tha Tiger” — that sent the look viral. The leading lady is Katrina Kaif, deemed one of Bollywood’s most beautiful actresses, and it features sexy belly dancing that would not please Muslim clerics.
Yet the song title, “Mashallah,” is an Arabic blessing used in many Muslim countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. It translates as “May God be praised” but means more than that: It is an expression of admiration conveyed toward beautiful things as well as an invocation for their protection.
Under Islamic mores of modesty, teen girls are more constrained in their fashion choices than boys; one almost never sees a woman, young or old, with her hair uncovered.
But not all follow the rules: “Even our women copy the actresses,” Jan, the taxi driver, lamented. “Now they are wearing their dresses with half-sleeves!”
On the sidewalk, a trim youth dressed in black passed by, his
T-shirt emblazoned with the English words “Oh S--- I Am In Low,” whatever that means.
Jan just kept cleaning his car and shaking his perspiring head, which he had wrapped tightly with a black-and white scarf.