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Teenage Pipedreams in Mazar-e Sharif

Either harmless pastime or slippery slope to drug abuse, water-pipes have taken off among young men.
By Qayum Babak

In a cafe in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif , six schoolboys lounge on a mattress smoking a water-pipe.

Sayed Yama, 15, sucks in and then lazily releases smoke rings into the air, watched admiringly by his friends as they wait for their turn with the water-pipe, known in Afghanistan as a “qaylon”.

The air in the room full of young men at the Sham-e Mazar café is thick with aromatic smoke from the powdered dried fruit in their water-pipes.

“Come on, don’t you want to smoke?” Yama asked, offering the pipe to an IWPR reporter.

“I come here every day and smoke,” he continued, admitting that he used the money his father gave him for school to fund trips to the café with his friends. Each water-pipe costs four US dollars.

“My family don’t know I have become addicted,” he said. “If they find out, they won’t pay my school costs.”

There are qaylon cafes at regular intervals along major streets in Mazar-e Sharif, and they are packed with young men from morning until night.

The water-pipe familiar across the Middle East has gained in popularity in Afghanistan as refugees return from Iran, where this form of smoking is widespread.

Many here are concerned about this new craze. Although the habit is not physically addictive, some fear that habitual pipe-smoking could encourage young people to start using illegal narcotics.

“The existence of pipe-houses opens the door to drug addiction for young people,” Ghausuddin Anwari, director of the main hospital for Balkh province, of which Mazar-e Sharif is the main town. “Addiction to such things is just the beginning.”

The national counter-narcotics ministry estimates that more than one million people are addicted to illegal drugs, which in Afghanistan consist of hashish, opium and its derivative heroin. The public health department for Balkh province recorded 100,000 addicts there last year.

Anwari added, “As well as the harmful smoke, the fact that one pipe is used by at least 100 people a day is the best way to spread epidemic diseases from one person to another.”

Khalilurrahman, formerly the provincial counter-narcotics chief, agreed that smoking a water-pipe might be conducive to drug use.

“Anything that disrupts a person’s mind can be described as narcotic,” he said. “Although narcotics aren’t used in these pipes, there’s no guarantee that young people won’t put drugs into them.”

At the same time, Khalilurrahman acknowledged that water-pipes paled in comparison with the widespread use of illicit drugs.

“The government has failed to eliminate opium,” he said, “and hashish is cultivated everywhere outside the towns.”

Dr Khalil, who heads the environmental health department at the Balkh hospital, said medical staff wanted to work with police to curb water-pipe use because of the health risks.

“We’ve noticed that young people sometimes smoke drugs, hashish in particular, in the water-pipe houses,” he said.

Mazar-e Sharif’s mayor Yunes Moqim said no statistics had been gathered on the number of cafes offering water-pipes, but the authorities saw them as a potential problem.

“It’s a matter of great concern to us that hundreds of young people visit these pipe-houses on a daily basis,” he said. “These places can become centres for the sale of drugs and youth addiction. We are going to take action to address this soon.”

Mohammad, the owner of the Sham-e Mazar café where Sayed Yama and his friends gathered, argued that smoking was not harmful and just served as a pleasant way to pass the time.

“Our tobacco is made of dried fruits like apples, peaches and pears,” he said. “So it isn’t at all harmful to health.”

He was making a tidy profit out of the fad, he said, adding, “Many people come here every day, mostly young people – they don’t have any other place to go to have fun.”

Mazar-e Sharif is short of parks and recreation areas, and many boys amuse themselves by playing football in the streets time.

Some residents like Hajji Rahim, whose son recently took up smoking water-pipes, want the authorities to take action.

He blames Iran for exporting what he regards as a vice.

“May God destroy the Iranians with His anger, because they have never given the Afghans anything but destructive gifts,” he said.

Such views are unlikely to deter those who hang out at the smokers’ cafes.

“There isn’t any other recreational area here,” Ramin, one of Yama’s friends at the café, said. “What else would we do if we didn’t smoke pipes? We’ve got used to doing it – and everyone needs a hobby.”

Qayum Babak is an IWPR-trained reporter in Balkh province.

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