Saturday, February 23, 2002

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- In the rubble and mud of Kandahar, in the weary heart of a battered land, a laughing 10-year-old held up her hands Friday to show what the Eid al-Adha holiday means in the new Afghanistan: "Nail polish!"

To the whistle and pop of fireworks, to the beat of a once-outlawed band, the people of this most traditional of Afghan cities, old bastion of the stern Taliban, could again celebrate a joyous Muslim holiday in the most joyous ways they could. Even "egg fighting" was back in the streets.

In a way, the children were first to see the change from the Taliban days. "This Eid is better than last year," said a boy named Essa Jan. "Today we're celebrating freedom. We can watch TV and VCR. We can listen to CDs."

The 12-year-old, shod in shiny new metal-studded sandals for the holiday, talked to an American visitor on the fringe of a congregation gathered for morning prayers beneath the soaring sky-blue dome of the city's Eid Mosque.

Kandahar Gov. Gul Agha told the mosque crowd of several thousand that on this Eid he was praying for "a stable, independent, free country, a strong Afghanistan."

Agha is the representative of the two-month-old Afghan government that emerged from the lightning U.S.-led war against the Taliban, protectors of the al-Qaida network blamed for the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States. The Taliban's defeat ended a five-year rule in which the Islamic fundamentalists outlawed music, movies, girls' education and women's few opportunities outside the home, among other activities deemed un-Islamic.

The war, particularly the American bombing campaign, also contributed to the accumulation of pulverized mud brick and stone rubble in this ancient crossroads city of several hundred thousand people that was the base of the Taliban and the home of their leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

"Under the Taliban, our major entertainment was playing cards quietly, secretly in the house," said Mirwais Fazly, 26, a shopkeeper who with his brothers' families and parents invited three American visitors to their home for a midday holiday meal of mutton.

The lunch began with the ritual slaughter of a sheep in the family courtyard, and the burning away of its coat with a propane blowtorch. "It's easier that way," it was explained.

Steaming chunks of mutton eventually took center stage on a tablecloth laden with rice, fruit, yogurt and pickled vegetables. The scene would be repeated in hundreds of thousands of Afghan homes over the three-day holiday, which commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son at God's command.

In Kandahar's streets, meanwhile, holiday scenes unfolded that would have brought the Taliban's religious police swooping down in years past.

Up a muddy lane from the ruins of the police's old headquarters, demolished by American bombs, children lofted makeshift kites into the air, a frivolous pastime deemed offensive by the old regime. Firecrackers popped in the evening air, another taboo a year ago. And clumps of men and boys on sidewalks across town sparred in the gentle sport of "egg fighting," in which they tapped their hard-boiled eggs, some gaily painted, against each other. The one that cracked first was handed over to the victor. Illicit gambling, the Taliban had decreed.

Music, perhaps, was missed most of all under the Taliban. On Friday around Kandahar, crowds of eager young men pushed against the entrances to concert sites as Eid al-Adha was put to music for the first time in years. At one open-air concert, the six-piece band "Anil Bux and Party," which spent the Taliban years in Pakistani exile, pounded out throbbing Afghan love songs to a mesmerized male audience.

"Music is not allowed in Islam," 19-year-old Ahmed Zia conceded. "But it's a necessity. It's good for the heart."

Half the adult population still couldn't partake in these public pleasures.

Afghanistan -- and Kandahar in particular -- remains deeply conservative, and women remain traditionally sheltered in the home, or hidden beneath the blue head-to-foot burqa when they must venture outside. But Kandahar's younger girls -- like 10-year-olds Majeeba and Naieda -- made the most of their newfound holiday freedom Friday, with sequined long dresses, flashy jewelry, painted nails. Toes, too.

"During the Taliban time, we couldn't come out to play on Eid," Naieda said. But now, said her friend, "it's the happiest day."

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