By Zahid Hussain – Songs blared from shops and bands played in the restaurants of Mazar-e-Sharif Saturday as Afghans celebrated freedom from Draconian rule.
Men lined up at barber shops to have their beards trimmed or shaved off and women threw away their burkas, walking freely with their faces exposed without fear of being whipped by the religious police.
The city was transformed a day after the opposition Northern Alliance seized control, ending four years of harsh Taliban rule. The conservative militia had banned music and television, and declared it un-Islamic for women to show their faces or to wear lipstick. Playing music earned a public lashing, cassettes were smashed and their tapes fluttered from telegraph posts in most cities. Men who trimmed their beards were arrested and faced jail sentences.
Now the city wears a festive look. Music plays from shops that were allowed to sell only religious chants or martial songs. The streets are patrolled by uniformed Northern Alliance fighters, replacing the turbaned Taliban religious police. The entry of opposition forces led by General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord, late on Friday ended the grip of the Ministry of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which was responsible for enforcing rules regarded by the Taliban as embodying the purest Islam.
Mazar-e-Sharif, predominantly populated by Uzbeks, has long been a cultural center and was one of the most liberal cities in Afghanistan before it fell to the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. It was the only major city to emerge unscathed from the resistance against the Soviet occupation and the civil war. It has been a destination of pilgrims, as it is believed to be the burial place of Hazrat Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and its blue-tiled mosque is the most spectacular in Afghanistan.
The city is surrounded by lush fields that provide much of the country's wheat. It also sits in one of the richest natural-gas fields in the region.
During the past five years, the city has changed hands four times in savage battles. Hundreds of Taliban soldiers were massacred by Northern Alliance forces which recaptured the city in 1997 after losing it for a few days. But the Taliban retook it in 1998. Many Pashtuns who supported the Taliban fear persecution by the opposition. There are signs of relaxation in the Taliban's attitude in their strongholds as the Islamic militia tries to win the support of Afghans who resent their rule.
Even in the southern city of Kandahar, the base of the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, shops selling music cassettes and even CDs have appeared. The religious police have virtually disappeared there after the ministry building was the target of several U.S. bombs last month.