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Jewish World Review Nov. 27 2001 / 12 Kislev, 5762

Robert W. Tracinski

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An Afghanistan Thanksgiving -- THIS year's Thanksgiving was an unusual one. This uniquely American holiday was punctuated with a constant flow of news ... at our house, most of it courtesy of my friend Jack, an inveterate news hound ... about far-off Afghanistan. I had feared, after Sept. 11, that war news would cast a pall over the holidays. But thanks to the success of America's air campaign in driving back the Taliban, much of the news last week was uplifting. It served as a timely and surprisingly cheerful reminder of all that we have to be thankful for. It showed us the effect, on a people who have been denied all the essentials of life, of the values that we take for granted as a normal part of our own lives.

News reports from newly liberated regions of Afghanistan have portrayed a people emerging from darkness and enjoying their first taste, in five years, of a human existence.

A press report from January of this year described how Taliban thugs had arrested 22 barbers in Kabul. Their crime: "giving men Leonardo DiCaprio-style haircuts deemed offensive to Islam." (DiCaprio must be mentioned somewhere in the Koran.) The hairstyle was called "the Titanic," after the Hollywood movie. In the past few weeks, the barbers have taken their revenge, as men have rushed to have their beards shaved and their hair cut.

The Taliban's imposition of a total-body covering on women has, rightly, received the most attention in the Western press. But it struck me, on reading about the barbers of Kabul, that men also had been barred from showing their faces in public. The beards required by the Taliban were an attempt to impose a stifling and anonymous uniformity, quashing the basic individuality of a man's face. The human face, in Afghanistan, has now been liberated.

So have other means of expression. A New York Times story in June of this year described "the dangerous life of a TV repairman" who made his living fixing old television sets hidden by the residents of Kandahar; he also sold smuggled copies of American movies. Describing television's popularity, he explained, "The Taliban expect you to work and pray and do nothing else in between." This repairmen may still have a dangerous life in the Taliban's last major stronghold, but news reports describe Afghans in other cities digging up the television sets they had buried when the Taliban took power. One man is described as slipping "a worn copy of Titanic" into his VCR.

I finally realized last week why that film keeps popping up. It was made in 1997, just after the Taliban gained power and just as they were tightening the grip of their totalitarian religious fundamentalism. It would have been the last epic American film most Afghans were able to see. Although I didn't care for the film myself, I recognize that, whatever its other flaws, the film's message of seeking the maximum enjoyment of life would be a ray of light compared to the grim semi-existence imposed by the Taliban.

One of the most striking signs of liberation has been experienced, not as light, but as sound. Music has blared from the streets of Afghanistan's cities as the people have brought their illicit radios out of hiding. Singer Buryali Wali returned from six years of exile in Pakistan; he describes his music as "songs of happiness." In Nangahar, a radio station whose programming for the past five years is described in a New York Times report as "all Koran, all the time," began broadcasting love poetry. The show's announcer explained: "For 23 years," since just before the Soviet invasion, "it's been blood and guns and death ... what other theme? But now we are broadcasting the poetry of love to the people. Today we talk about the beautiful lips, the beautiful hair, the beautiful cheeks of our beloved. And that is the change."

The change is appropriate, because Afghan women are now allowed, for the first time in years, to show their lips, hair and cheeks. Two days before Thanksgiving, hundreds of brave women ... dressed, according to reports, "in leather jackets, skirts, and flowered headscarves" ... marched in the streets of a Kabul suburb to demand full rights for women. "This isn't about politics," one of the women explained, "it's just about a normal life."

But she is wrong. The freedom to live a normal life is one of the great political achievements of the West. The past week should remind us to be grateful for that achievement.

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