“Why are you travelling without a mahram?” the Taliban guard asks a young Afghan woman about her missing male escort.
She sits on her own in the back of a beat-up Kabul yellow taxi as it pulls up to the checkpoint marked, like all the others, by the white Taliban flag with black script.
What is allowed now in Kabul, and what is not?
The turbaned Talib, rifle slung over shoulder, tells her to call her husband. When she explains she doesn’t have a phone, he instructs another taxi driver to take her home to get her husband and bring them back. Once completed, all is resolved.
Kabul is still a city of a grinding traffic gridlock, wooden market carts groaning with Afghan green grapes and deep purple plums, and street kids in tattered tunics threading through the melee.
On the surface, the city seems much the same. It’s not.
It’s a capital governed by Taliban statements, and some Taliban on the streets.
“Be careful in how you deal with your people. This nation has suffered a lot. Be gentle,” urged spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in an impromptu press conference, flanked by fighters in full combat gear, the first day after the last US soldier flew home.
Some things don’t need saying. As soon as the Taliban swept, with surprising speed, into Kabul last month, Afghans knew what to do during Taliban rule 2.0. Men stopped shaving to allow beards to grow; women switched bright scarves to black ones and checked the length of their dresses and cloaks.
So much else is uncertain, unnerving.
“What should I do?” many Afghans ask in urgent cries for advice, and assistance to escape, tumbling by the hour onto my phone and computer, and those of countless others around the world.
Maryam Rajaee knew what to do when Kabul collapsed.
On 15 August, as Taliban fighters surged into the streets, she was conducting a long- awaited workshop for female prosecutors in the attorney general’s office.
“We must continue,” her eager students implored her when she flagged the looming threat.
But her class soon resigned itself to this sudden reversal. Since then, Rajaee has been moving from one safe house to the next with her family including two young children.
Her three-year-old daughter, Nilofar, already says she wants to be an engineer; her multi-coloured plastic building blocks sit in the corner of a mud-brick room, a late summer sun streams through the windows.
No one is quite sure yet what Taliban leaders mean when they say women and girls will be given “all their rights within Islam”.
Many women, including Rajaee, were told in no uncertain terms, “don’t come back to the office”. Many fear they’ll never be allowed to return to the life they lived in a city they no longer feel is their own.
“It is my right to be educated, to have a good job, to participate in society at a high level,” Rajaee tells us as she sits next to a pile of textbooks for her university degree, and her work heading a unit on gender and human rights awareness.
“All my dreams have been destroyed,” she reflects, her voice breaking.
Contractors left behind
Two decades of international engagement created a space for new ideas, new identities. Now some lives lived are a liability.
“I have good memories of our Christmas parties, of times we cooked delicious food and we were all so happy,” reminisces Hameed, who’d been a head chef at the British embassy in Kabul for 13 years. We sit cross-legged on a carpet with his five young children, and a pile of faded photographs and certificates of appreciation for his work.
But Hameed, and some 60 other employees at the embassy were hired through a private contractor. Sources say almost all of the staff directly employed by Britain’s foreign office managed to fly out of Kabul before Taliban moved in; contractors were left behind.
“We worked so hard, even during the Covid lockdown. If they don’t take us out of here, it is a big betrayal,” laments Hameed. Britain, like some other Western countries, is promising to find ways to help, in third countries, but for many it’s a daunting and dangerous prospect to find new routes out.
A chat with the Taliban
Some have already fled from this city in haste; some now happily rush in.
Taliban fighters stream into Kabul from the provinces. A group from Uruzgan, in central Afghanistan, invite us for a chat as we approach the entrance to Kabul airport.
“I haven’t been able to visit Kabul for years,” says 25-year-old Rafiullah, effusive about his “great happiness”. Asked about the many educated Afghans his own age who feel their future has disappeared, he waves an olive branch. “We are all Afghans and the country is now moving toward a good path of peace and prosperity.”
In some neighbourhoods, Taliban fighters go house-to-house. There’s a knock on the door, a demand to hand over government phones and cars, anything of value from their old job. Sometimes even private cars are seized by Taliban who doubt it could have been afforded without some kind of corruption.
In western Kabul, in neighbourhoods like Dasht-e-Barchi, populated largely by members of the minority Hazara community, residents whisper of house searches, of men being taken away.
“I’m scared,” says one woman who travels into the centre of the city for her job. “We are telling the Taliban we are our family’s only source of income and we have to go to work.”
‘Is this real?’
In the heart of Kabul, the queues in front of the banks stretch all the way down the street. Most branches are shut; most have no money.
“It’s been a week I have been coming every day to get some money,” declares one man in the bulging crowd. “This is a new start just to go backwards.”
From rural areas, far from this city in so many ways, come comments of relief that American warplanes have finally left the skies, that fighting has gone. For millions of Afghans who live with deepening hunger and hardship, life hasn’t changed one jot in their struggle just to survive.
In this time between the collapse of the old order and the creation of the new, many take each day, as it comes.
“Is this history, is this real, I can’t believe my eyes what I am seeing,” says freelance Afghan journalist Ahmed Mangli when we meet by Kabul airport.
We talk in a district strewn with rubbish and luggage abandoned during the scramble to board the last military flights during the unprecedented international airlift. Mangli first started working in Kabul when the Taliban were ousted 20 years ago.
“The Taliban spokesman is trying to co-ordinate media but everyone has a weapon, everyone feels they are king,” he reflects. “I don’t know how long I can take this risk but I want to be part of this history.”
A historic moment unfolds; a historic past is being undone. Billboards with beaming brides in glittering white gowns and racy red lipstick are now being blacked out. The sweeping street murals of the Art Lords team – which told stories of courageous journalists, committed doctors, a yearning for peace after so much war – are being painted over. The first to go was an image, starkly painted in black and white, to mark the signing of a deal last year in Doha between the Taliban and the United States.
A people of poets now struggles to find words.
An old friend, Masood Khalili, who’s fought on so many fronts over so many years, sends me some verse.
“Last night the Writer of Fate whispered in my ear, Our Book of Destiny is filled with smiles and tears.”