Feb 16, 2012
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Passion for fashion sweeps war-weary Afghanistan

Feb 16, 2012

Feb 16 - A passion for fashion is not the first image that springs to mind when most people think of Afghan men, usually pictured in war reports wearing beards, turbans and carrying AK47s as accessories.

Since the Taliban fell from power in 2001, men in Kabul have seized on a new freedom to be trendy (Photo: AFP/File, Massoud Hossaini)

But male beauty salons in downtown Kabul now hum with activity as young men update their hair and beards in the latest Western styles -- indulgences that would have got them beaten or jailed just 10 years ago.

Then, religious police from the "vice and virtue" department of the Taliban regime patrolled the streets in pick-up trucks seizing or whipping men and women whose appearance was considered a sin against Islam.

But since the Taliban fell from power in the 2001 US-led invasion, men in Kabul in particular have seized on a new freedom to be stylish or trendy.

"Kabul boys have grown very passionate about their looks in recent years," says a smiling 25-year-old Ali Reza as he sprays blonde highlights on the hair of The Saloon's smartly dressed first customer of the day.

Men in Kabul are now wearing skinny jeans and sporting spiky haircuts (Photo: AFP/File, Massoud Hossaini)

Reza was among hundreds of thousands of Afghans who fled to neighbouring countries when the Taliban took over in 1996. He learned hairdressing in India and returned to Kabul when the Taliban were toppled.

"Some media portray Afghan men as angry people with long beards and shoulder-length hair," he says.

"I decided to become a stylist to show that is not always the case, and Afghan men are beautiful, have a passion for modern fashion and are very stylish."

An interest in popular Hollywood and Bollywood styles is not new to Afghanistan -- once a highlight of overland travel for young Westerners -- it has simply been suppressed by more than three decades of war.

An invasion by the Soviet Union in 1979 led to a 10-year occupation followed by civil war -- and then came the Taliban with their brutal campaign against anything that did not fit with their idea of religious purity.

Now, while women may show high-heeled boots and jeans beneath their coats and dress stylishly in private, in public they remain well-covered -- with some still wearing the all-enveloping burqa.

But on the streets of Kabul -- and to a lesser extent in other cities -- it is the men who are strutting their stuff, parading their skinny or ripped jeans and spiky haircuts.

"Young men come here, bringing the photos of popular European, American and Indian movie or sport stars and ask us to style their hair or beard accordingly," says Sayed Mehdi, 22, a stylist at Skin Deep fashion salon.

Male beauty salons in downtown Kabul now hum with activity (Photo: AFP/File, Massoud Hossaini)

"We also provide fashion magazines to help them choose a hair or beard style that they favour," he says.

Mujtaba, 27, who is wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans with rips, says he was beaten by Taliban police when he had a modestly styled haircut.

"Then they forced me to wear a black turban even when I was still a kid," says Mujtaba, who like many Afghans uses just one name.

He has come to The Saloon looking for the latest style in men's beards.

"I want my beard in Wali style," he says, referring to a famous expat Afghan pop star who wears a thin chin-strap style beard.

"We dont want to be less than Europeans and Americans when it comes to fashion."

While the southern and eastern parts of the country remain gripped by a Taliban-led insurgency, the Afghan capital and major cities in the north or west enjoy relative security -- and a boom in the fashion business.

Sayed Abdulla, who owns a trendy clothing store in Kabul, says he has to import the latest fashion trends to keep hundreds of customers satisfied.

"Every day young men and women come looking for the latest brands of jeans, shirts and dresses," he says while displaying a tight pair of jeans for a group of men in his store.

Abdulla says he owned a clothing shop during the Taliban regime but was only allowed to sell the traditional Perahan Tenban, a loose trouser and shirt outfit, and turbans.

"There has been a huge change in fashion and style since," he says.

In 2009, Afghanistan also witnessed its first TV modelling show -- "Afghan Model" -- which aimed to find the top model in the war-ravaged country, emulating "America's Next Top Model".

"We asked for whoever wanted to participate in the programme to show their clothes, their looks, and their styles," says Naseer Ahmad Noori, 25, who along with his wife Setara Noori was one of the judges.

Naseer says he was amazed by the response -- "thousands showed up, most of them men".

The resulting show was opposed by the country's clerics, which led to a lull in the series but it is expected to resume this year, he says.

"This is embarrassing when you see our men dressing themselves like Americans and other infidels," says an angry, turbanned, Mullah Naqibullah, drinking tea in a shop across from the The Saloon.

"This kind of dressing is totally un-Islamic and against Afghan values. These people should be punished to remember they are Afghans and Muslims," he says, pausing for a sip of green tea.

"The Taliban would know how to deal with them!"

But despite the backlash from conservatives, people like Reza and Mehdi remain upbeat as a new generation grows up with an interest in accessories a little more chic than the old AK47 that has brought so much woe to the country.

by Usman Sharifi

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