On a street of pulsing electronic shops, young men with spiked hair and tight jeans browse through DVD stalls and huddle over sidewalk computer stands, downloading the latest hot song or video clip and passing them instantly via bluetooth technology from cellphone to cellphone.
Often the content is sexually alluring and semi-forbidden in Afghan society: shimmying female singers from Iran or starlets from India. But in recent months, another craze has gripped the capital circuit, holding a more disturbing appeal for a generation of Muslim youths yearning for excitement.
The images are of real war and shocking violence: U.S. military vehicles exploding; Western troops tossed high in the air; terrified foreigners being dragged and mutilated. The soundtracks are a mix of gunfire and chants in male voices praising fallen heroes and calling for sacrifice in the name of Islam.
“O Talib, come to my dreams,” begins one. “The brave infidel slayers are everywhere. We will burn their tanks and set them on fire. The brave infidel slayers are turned to ashes, but they still live. . . . O Talib, come to my grave. The infidel dragons have killed me; follow my footsteps when I am gone.”
These are Taliban videos, made with sophisticated production techniques and vague credits such as “Quetta Jihadi Studios” and “Wardak Martyrdom Studios.” Some have been available in Afghanistan for several years, but many more have appeared in circulation here in recent months. It is not clear where the incidents featured have occurred, but the videos appear to be genuine.
They are also illegal. Many sidewalk vendors charge about 20 cents to download the videos, the same price as clips of pop singers or novelty ring tones, but they can be arrested and jailed if caught selling the insurgent material.
One vendor named Abdul, 17, said he acquired his first Taliban video when a man wearing a turban asked him to copy a song onto his mobile chip. But the stranger’s chip was already full of “fighting and killing and planting mines,” Abdul said. Now he passes the battle clips on to “different people. Some guys just like watching them, and some look like killers. I am very careful to make sure they are not from the police.”
On the surface, most urban and educated young Afghans seem to have little in common with the rural Taliban fighters — and zero desire to fight. Yet they might also be ambivalent about whom to root for in a war that pits increasingly unpopular NATO forces against homegrown fellow Muslims whom the Afghan president constantly refers to as “sons of the soil.”
The surreptitious popularity of Taliban videos and the official efforts to intercept them constitute a perverse new chapter in the high-tech cultural war that has raged here for almost a decade. Until now, the battle has focused largely on sex, with television stations and Internet cafes pushing the edge of risque entertainment, and government ministries and clerics trying to keep depictions of women and couples within the bounds of conservative Afghan traditions.
Last year, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology blocked two of the most popular Web sites browsed by young men at dozens of Internet clubs in Kabul; the sites were dedicated to international pornography. This year, a council of Muslim clerics in Kabul issued an edict against a Turkish TV soap opera called “Forbidden Love,” which featured tangled tales of adultery and affairs.
“These dramas about women and sexuality are totally against Afghan culture, values and traditions. They violate the privacy of Islam and push our young people toward a wild life,” said Enayatullah Balegh, a mosque leader on the clerical council. He said the council is equally opposed to the Taliban videos, because they “show a cruel and harsh idea of Islam.” But as with sex on TV, Balegh said, “we express our deep concern, and we hate it, but we can’t really stop it.”
The attraction of sexually oriented entertainment seems obvious in a society in which young people, raised in a strict family and religious environment, are suddenly being exposed to Western lifestyles and freedoms through the electronic media. The appeal of Taliban violence is harder to explain, because Afghans are still recovering from decades of war and are caught up in a conflict in which Taliban insurgents are officially labeled “the enemies of Afghanistan.”
But as social analysts and media figures here suggest, both trends are symptoms of the broader confusion among young Afghans today. Bombarded by electronic come-ons yet expected to defer to elders, the youths are struggling to find a balance between temptation and tradition. Barraged with mixed messages about the Taliban being cruel zealots and errant compatriots, they are struggling to come to grips with these contradictions, too.
“Our own government is like the formula for a soap opera, with good guys and bad guys, but it never gets resolved,” said Saad Mohseni, co-owner of the cutting-edge Tolo television enterprise. “Whether it’s pornography or war or the extremes of new wealth here, there’s an element of fantasy that is very hard for young people to reconcile with their own aspirations and their daily lives. It’s hard for them to know what’s real.”
Kabul’s youths, whether they are hidden in the fetid gloom of Internet cafes, staring at sex sites that pop up on “favorite” lists all over town or browsing sidewalk video stalls and furtively sharing violent Taliban videos via cellphone, are vicariously experiencing thrills they can’t have — and, at some levels, might not really want to have.
“The first time I saw one of the Taliban clips, I just went numb. All the violence seemed like human madness,” said Nazir Mohammed, 25, who manages a cellphone shop in the capital. “I like to sell songs and video games but not things that are against Islam.”
Last year, Mohammed said, he ran a similar shop in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, where Afghan emigre workers flocked to buy the gruesome insurgent videos. “Maybe you can enjoy a beheading if your family has never suffered,” he said. As an Afghan, Mohammed said, he also found the secular glitz of Dubai alien and uncomfortable. “All the mosques were surrounded by nightclubs,” he said. “I just wanted to come home.”
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.