West's cultural influence explodes on streets of Afghanistan

"Uncle! Uncle! Hamburger! Hamburger!" Two young boys grab for a sack of hamburgers at a hot dog-shaped food truck in Kabul.


By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 20, 2014

KABUL — Farhad remembers well the hairy aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. For three weeks straight, men who had been forced to grow long beards under the strict Islamic law imposed by the Taliban lined up day and night outside his barber shop to liberate their faces.

“At the time, all we did all day was shave beards,” said Farhad who, like many Afghans, goes by one name. “We had to start at six in the morning and wouldn’t close until 11 at night.”

Speaking in his shop, adorned with head shots of actors like Brad Pitt and Elijah Wood, Farhad said he now has to keep up with American and European celebrities, who set fast-changing hairstyle trends in Afghanistan.

“In the Taliban time, (cutting hair) was just like a farmer tending his orchard — if the tree is too big, just trim the branches and don’t worry about what it looks like,” he said.

It’s been 13 years since the American military ousted the Islamist Taliban government, and as the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force prepares to finish its combat mission at the end of the year, Western influence can be seen far beyond the battlefield in this once isolated nation — from American hip-hop blaring in taxis, to pizzerias and blue jeans.

It’s unclear if the fads will stick, but the trend is striking and with Internet access growing, Afghans are more exposed to ideas from around the globe.

Still conservative

Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative country, especially in rural areas, where much of the population lives. Many women are still covered head to toe in burqas, and many men stick to the shalwar kameez — the baggy pants and a flowing tunic common in much of Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Folk music is still the most common soundtrack, even on the streets of the capital. The smell of kebab still dominates at lunchtime, and popular sports such as cricket and the horseback game buzkashi aren’t going anywhere.

But the days of the Taliban banning music and television, forcing men to grow out their beards and confining women to their homes are long gone, at least in Kabul. In the capital, Afghans are just as likely to wear jeans and T-shirts as traditional clothing, and Western fashions have surfaced in other urban areas as well.

“Levi’s is the most popular with young people,” said an Afghan clothing store owner who specializes in jeans and brand-name shirts like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren — though he sticks to the traditional shalwar kameez.

Some taxi drivers blare American and European pop music, and a few even have dashboard television screens showing music videos, many of which would make even the most liberal Taliban blush. Cars sport large “24” stickers, a nod to the American television show that features terrorist-fighting anti-hero Jack Bauer and like the war in Afghanistan is very much a product of the 9/11 attacks.

The Apple symbol has become hip on both clothing and cars, and now, for better or for worse, at least two frozen yogurt shops have opened in Kabul.

Outside the headquarters of the international military coalition, kids hawking scarves and trinkets greet foreigners with, “Hey, man, hook a brutha up.”

Not everyone is pleased with the Western influence. The Taliban, not surprisingly, have railed against what they see as “immoral” and “vulgar” trends permeating society. But some in the Afghan government and pro-government religious circles, too, have condemned what they see as damaging Western influence.

Even former President Hamid Karzai, seen as fairly liberal on social issues, backed a push from religious conservatives in 2013 to prevent the broadcast of television programs that he deemed “vulgar, obscene and un-Islamic and are counter to social morality.”

Still, even in conservative Kandahar, the Taliban’s heartland and Afghanistan’s second city, DVD shops hock pirated copies of the latest American action movies.

At the Afghan National Institute of Music, a primary and high school for musically inclined Afghan children, visitors may hear something most unusual in Afghanistan: the muffled strains of Led Zeppelin emanating from a classroom. Practicing at the school is the band Sama, part of Kabul’s tiny but growing rock scene.

Drawing from influences as wide-ranging as Metallica and Bach, Sama is trying to bring rock to a country where folk music still dominates and many still see Western music as immoral.

“I want to show the people that Afghanistan doesn’t only play folk music and to introduce rock and pop to Afghans,” said the band’s pianist and arranger, Milad.

Pop music has gained an audience in Kabul, which now boasts an annual rock festival. But so far, Sama has confined its concerts mostly to embassies and cultural centers, where audiences are largely made up of foreigners and the Afghan elite. Sama’s members, all in their late teens and early 20s, say playing rock in public is still a dicey proposition — a risk underscored by a recent suicide bombing at the French cultural center where the group once played and by a Taliban threat that specifically mentioned the music institute.

“If you have a concert in an open place, it could be a problem,” Milad said.

One of the most popular shows on television is an Afghan version of “American Idol.” Western action movies play on televisions in corner shops and government ministers’ offices alike, and one ice cream stand even boasts a picture of reality television star Kim Kardashian.

The humble hot dog

At the Bush Bazaar, a thriving market of stolen and knock-off Western goods named after the American president who invaded Afghanistan, shoppers can get the latest camouflage gear, military backpacks and boots, energy drinks, counterfeit outdoor gear, and even dietary supplements popular with weight-lifting foreign soldiers.

Food trucks on Kabul streets hawk the humble hot dog, a staple of American baseball games and backyard grills. Reflecting the recent food truck trend that has swept much of America, the three-wheeled mobile kitchens are in the shape of a mustard-covered hot dog and ply major roads around the capital slinging their signature chicken and beef dogs — pork is forbidden by Islam — along with burgers and fries.

The trucks are run by Lazeez (Dari for “delicious”), whose co-owner, Abdullah Karim, said demand for hot dogs has been good but that it took some education in a Muslim country where dogs are considered unclean.

“The name ‘hot dog’ is tricky,” he said.

Despite some early misunderstandings, though, Karim said Afghans have embraced his mobile fast food, and he has plans to expand from five trucks to 10 by March and to as many as 50 a year from now.

“Every type of person in Kabul is eating our food, from garbage collectors to ministers.”

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

A boy plays cricket on a Kabul street. The long American military presence in Afghanistan may have had some cultural impact on the country, but don't expect baseball to replace cricket, the national obsession, any time soon.

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