Eid under the Taliban shows a changed Afghanistan
Thousands of Afghans had piled into buses and traveled the country’s once perilous highways to relatives they hadn’t seen in years. Afghanistan’s only national park was packed with tourists who had only dreamed of traveling to its deep blue lakes and jagged mountains as fighting raged across the country.
And Zulhijjah Mirzadah, a mother of five, packed a small picnic of dried fruit, gathered her family in a minibus and rode for two hours through the crowded streets of the capital, Kabul, to an amusement park lively.
From the entrance, she could hear the thud of a roller coaster and the chorus of joyful cries of Afghans inside celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. But she couldn’t go any further. The women, he was told at the gate, were barred by the Taliban from entering the park on Eid Day.
“We are facing economic problems; things are expensive; we cannot find work; our girls can’t go to school, but we were hoping to have a picnic in the park today,” said Mirzadah, 25.
As Afghans endured the constant and random violence of the past two decades of war, many hoped that when peace finally returned to the country, Eid al-Fitr would be its culmination, a day when families long separated by fighting would end up being able to party together.
Now that the war is over. People can move freely on the highways without gunshots, roadside bombs and extortion attempts. The terrifying drone of warplanes overhead is long gone. But for many, the celebration that began last Sunday in Afghanistan served as a reminder of the dissonance between the promise of peace that many Afghans had imagined and the realities of ending the war.
A crippling economic crisis that has slashed incomes and skyrocketed commodity prices has forced many families to forgo Eid traditions of new clothes or dried fruit for the first time. Mosques were emptier than usual after a recent spate of explosions fueled fears of a return to terror attacks.
And many women in urban areas, who have been devastated by the restrictions imposed by the Taliban government, have found little cause for celebration. On Saturday, the Taliban decreed that Afghan women must cover themselves from head to toe, expanding a series of onerous restrictions on women that dictate nearly every aspect of public life.
“To be honest, we don’t have Eid this year,” said Mirzadah, who had spent the afternoon with her family sitting across from the park on a narrow strip of grass.
Most Kabul residents learned that the Taliban had announced the start of the holiday after a celebratory roar of gunfire thundered through the city on the night of April 30. Afghanistan was the first Muslim country to officially declare the sighting of a full crescent moon, kicking off the start of the holidays.
The next morning, hundreds of men with prayer rugs under their arms marched through the Sher Shah Suri Mosque, a large Sunni mosque west of Kabul. Across the courtyard, they spread the mats in the shade of twisting tree branches as armed Taliban intelligence operatives dressed in camouflage pants and bulletproof vests patrolled the grounds of the mosque looking for threats – a stark reminder of the threat of violence that persists despite the end of 20 years of war.
In the two weeks leading up to the start of Eid this year, a bloody series of terror attacks on mosques, schools and public gatherings killed at least 100 people, mostly Afghan Shiites, and raised fears that the great prayers of the first day of Eid would be the next target.
At the Seyyed Abad Mosque, the largest Shia mosque in the northern city of Kunduz, only about 50 worshipers arrived for prayers on May Day, compared to 400-500 people in previous years, attendees said . Many people, terrified by another explosion, avoided the mosque altogether. But many of those who attended were motivated by a different fear: disobeying the Taliban government’s declaration that Eid began on May Day.
Many Afghan Shiites questioned the date – one day before Saudi Arabia and two days before Iran, a Shia theocracy. But worried about the repercussions of the Taliban – who have used police-state tactics to maintain order since taking power – many attended Eid prayers on Sunday, even as they continued their day of Ramadan fasting. and refrained from celebrating at home.
“The Taliban did not threaten us that we had to pray, but as soon as they came to tell us that Eid prayers would start on Sunday and that they would come to provide security at the mosque, no one dared to tell them I don’t believe Eid has started,” said Mansoor, 33, a Kunduz resident who preferred to use only his first name for fear of repercussions.
But for Taliban soldiers and police, the holiday offered a moment of reflection on the struggle that brought them back to power and the lives they have established for themselves since.
In the parking lot of a police station in Kabul, a group of Taliban police arrived in a dark green van, guns slung over their shoulders. The handcuffs hung from the wrist of a policeman like a big bracelet, while another held a pink flower picked from the embankment of the road against his nose.
Mohibullah Mushfiq, 26, had spent every Eid in the mountains and dusty villages away from his loved ones since joining the Taliban at 15. But after the Taliban took over, he moved his family from their village in the east to a third-floor apartment in Kabul.
On the first morning of Eid this year, he shared sweets with his 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter, both bounding with excitement at the prospect of spending the holidays in the big city. He proudly welcomed his government’s announcement of the start of Eid.
“It shows our unity, our position in the Islamic tradition – they announced Eid, and everyone had to accept it,” he said.
Across the country, some Afghans took advantage of the relative security the Taliban was able to provide for Eid celebrations. Hundreds of domestic tourists have flocked from across the country to Bamiyan, a province in central Afghanistan known for its natural beauty and ancient ruins, according to hotel owners and travel agents.
Parwin Sadat, 32, a private school teacher, hiked 27 hours to Bamiyan with her husband and 6-year-old child from the western city of Herat – a trip that would have been virtually impossible during the war , when fighting along the highways turned cities into islands in their own right. Bamiyan’s visit left Sadat impressed, she said.
“I didn’t know our country had such tourist destinations, historical places and so much beauty,” she said.
In a modest home nestled on one of Kabul’s many hills, 18-year-old Zhilla gathered with relatives at her aunt’s house on the second day of Eid. Her younger cousins and siblings were chasing each other in the small yard. Inside, Zhilla marveled at her new cousin, just 6 days old, sleeping peacefully on her mother’s lap.
“The baby knows we’ve been through a lot; she has to behave for us,” Zhilla joked.
The previous year, she and her relatives had gathered near the city’s Qargha reservoir for a picnic by the river, as boys and girls cycled along its banks and out of the boats on the water – a memory that feels like a lifetime ago, she says.
“This Eid is the same as any other day – we can’t go out; we cannot be free,” she said.