x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Passion for fashion sweeps war-weary Afghanistan

Since the demise of the Taliban regime, which banned individual expression, Afghan men have shown themselves avid for the latest international style trends.

A Kabul barber styles a young man's hair at his salon in Kabul. Although conservative voices still raise objections, there has been much more freedom to follow fashion since the fall of the Taliban.
A Kabul barber styles a young man's hair at his salon in Kabul. Although conservative voices still raise objections, there has been much more freedom to follow fashion since the fall of the Taliban.

An interest in 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.

But male grooming salons in central Kabul now hum with activity as young men update their hair and beards in the latest western styles - indulgences that would have earned them a beating or a spell in jail 10 years ago, when religious police from the "vice and virtue" department of the Taliban regime patrolled the streets in pickup trucks, seizing or whipping men and women whose appearance was considered inconsistent with 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 and trendy.

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

Reza was among hundreds of thousands of Afghans who fled to neighbouring countries when the Taliban took over in 1996. He learnt hairdressing in India and returned to Kabul when the Taliban was 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 destination of overland travel for young westerners. It has simply been suppressed by more than three decades of war.

Now, while women may show high-heeled boots and jeans beneath their coats and dress stylishly in private, in public they remain well-covered.

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

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 expatriate Afghan pop star who wears a thin, chin-strap-style beard.

"We don't want to be less than Europeans and Americans when it comes to fashion."

The Afghan capital and major cities in the north or west enjoy 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, 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.

Despite the backlash from conservatives, fashion enthusiasts such as Reza and Mehdi remain upbeat as a new generation grows up with an interest in accessories a little more chic than the old AK-47 that has brought so much woe to the country.



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