Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kabulis Disapprove of Western Ways

Conduct of international aid workers increasingly seen as an affront to the Afghan way of life.
By Danish Karokhel

The behaviour of westerners employed by the hundreds of non-governmental organisations, NGOs, operating in Kabul is upsetting the local community.

Women who do not cover themselves properly in public, the playing of loud pop music and the consumption of alcohol have drawn complaints from the conservative Muslim population.

The actions of foreigners in Afghanistan are now frequently being denounced by ulema (religious scholars) in their sermons.

The imam of Kabul’s Pul-e-Charkhi mosque, Mowlawee Mohammad Nabi, told IWPR that he believes westerners have not come to help but to lead people astray, “The foreign women are badly clad, which encourages Afghan women to wear such clothes.

"If they don't act according to our culture, it will provoke hostility among people, and they will be faced with the fate of the Russians, who also brought impudence and unveiling, and insults to Islam, and were finally beaten."

Liquor is a particularly sensitive topic. While Afghanistan is a Muslim country and therefore officially alcohol-free, a number of restaurants and shops catering to foreigners now sell it fairly openly, to the distress and anger of many Kabulis.

"Foreigners need to take the Afghan people’s culture into account, otherwise they will meet the same fate as the Russians," warned Dr Mohammad Daud Rawish, a social science dean at Kabul University.

Mohammad Daud, a labourer from the scenic Kamar China region on the outskirts of Kabul, told IWPR that visiting foreigners have shocked locals with their indiscreet behaviour, "We are not opposed to their picnicking in these places, but we don't like them drinking alcohol here. It was for the eradication of such corrupt things that we staged Jihad [holy war] against the Russians."

And Abdul Fattah, an Afghan who has worked for a number of international NGOs, said that that he was disturbed to find alcohol being served and men and women dancing together at a party after one regional seminar.

Sibghatullah Saiq, director of the interior ministry’s anti-crime division, told IWPR that while the liquor laws were being routinely flouted, more than 4,800 bottles of alcohol had been seized and destroyed since March 2002. "Wherever we see activity that’s contrary to the culture of Afghan people, we stop it," he said.

Saiq rejected talk that such flouting of local customs would increase the popularity of anti-western forces such as the remnants of the Taleban and the militia leader

Gulbuddin Hikmatyar. He did add, however, that many ordinary people had been disturbed by "immoral elements" among the foreign community and may well "react against them".

International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Loebbering admits that there have been a number of objections from Afghans who live near restaurants that sell alcohol as well as complaints about loud music in Wazir Akbar Khan - a neighbourhood with many foreign embassies and western residents.

While the security force itself has no authority in such cases, its spokesperson said that any unruly behaviour is passed on to the local police, adding that ISAF soldiers are forbidden from drinking in public and are allowed only two pints of beer a day, which must be consumed within their camps’ recreation areas.

However, Loeberring pointed out that it is not just westerners who become involved in drink-related incidents. "Afghans are not used to alcohol and most of them have weapons,” he said. “We have had several incidents involving local people, whom we have had to hand over to the local authorities."

Of course, most Afghans are keen to emphasise that it is not foreigners per se that they object to - but activities that undermine Afghan culture.

Indeed, the arrival of so many westerners has allowed at least some sectors of society to earn a decent living once again.

Carpet trader Mohammed Rafi says his sales are four times higher than they were during the Taleban period. "My life has changed for the better and lots of Afghans have also been able to return to their homeland. The arrival foreigners has meant employment opportunities," he said.

There are also those who appreciate aspects of western culture so looked down upon by others. Nazifa, a 32-year-old who works for the telecommunications ministry, is hooked on newcomers’ dress sense.

"Even though I only get 1,700 afghanis a month (around 40 US dollars), which is little, I get the tailor to sew clothes like those worn by the foreigners," she enthused.

Civil engineering student Ahmad Fawad agreed, saying, "The Taleban forced us to wear turbans in schools and we were not allowed to buy jeans or shave our beards, but now we have freedom."

Danesh Karokhel is an IWPR editor/reporter in Kabul.

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