To start with, I don’t want to downplay the restrictions that the Taliban placed especially over urban life. Most of the things in the original post did indeed take place, and especially in Kabul and other large towns/cities.
An article by Juan Cole, ‘The Taliban, Women, and the Hegelian Public Sphere’ (1), describes much of this in analytical perspective that focuses on the spectacle of violence and restriction: public executions for immorality took place, but even more common was to see things like cassettes or electronic entertainment equipment ritually ‘hung’ as well in public.
Regarding birds, this was partly due to the fact that people frequently kept birds like pigeons and especially quails or partridges for competitive sports that would also involve gambling; and even if no money changed hands, this kind of spiritually and materially unproductive time-passing was seen by the Taliban’s parent school of thought as frivolous at best, and were frowned upon. The Taliban took this, and made it into a prohibition.
Addressing your larger point about prescriptions and prohibitions that include entertainment but extend far beyond them to include eg. dress, Cole writes about all this in terms of public sphere theory.
To his view, I would add a more recent material theory by Kusha Sefat, who writes about ‘Things and Terms’ in post-Revolutionary Iran. (2) The setting is different, but Sefat’s ideas work for Kabul post-1996, when the Taliban took over, and implemented policies like the uniformity of men’s and women’s physical presentations outside the home, and the removal of ‘westernized’ objects as signifiers for ‘un-Afghan’ and ‘un-Islamic’ lifestyles.
In practice, the uniformity that the Taliban demanded was also heavily skewed in the direction of ‘Pashtun’ dress, and residents of Kabul, which gets much icier than Kandahar or Jalalabad in the winter, found it highly distressing to have to wear heavy sandals and a wool shawl in the snow, as opposed to shoes/boots and a coat; and apologies that this is anecdotal from my own fieldwork in Kabul, rather than from a printed source).
In any case: the Taliban period, in Kabul, was heavily marked by attempts to reshape the material landscape, to create a proliferation of certain kinds of objects and block the visibility of other kinds, as a way to change (or ‘reform’) people’s interiority into the direction that the Taliban wanted.
In other words, the material world around one, and the way that one moves through it, have an effect on the kinds of thoughts that one thinks/can think, and will produce a new kind of ideal society in which the Taliban were raised to an almost higher level of reality, which would seem natural and thus uncontestable.
Indeed Cole, analyzing list of Taliban prohibitions, says that they all fit organically into what he calls an ‘episteme’. Many entertainment forms, like TV and radio and cinema, depicted landscapes that cut against this episteme; and the objects they depicted were especially singled out as well: the Taliban specifically outlawed Leonardo DiCaprio’s hairstyle in Titanic, which had been popular in Kabul among youths.
As Cole writes, much of this applied to ‘public’ space, but the Taliban also employed morality squads who could search homes for contraband objects, as well as practices.
Weddings and things could not be accompanied by instrumental music, although the punishment for drum music was apparently discretionary to the particular inspector.
Additionally, the Taliban, like the Mujahidin and the PDPA before them, had a well-developed network of informants, formal and informal/coerced, who could help police the domestic. Anecdotally, again, many families simply used kitchenware to produce music for happy occasions.
Returning to Cole’s article, you’re also right that urban society generally seems to have been ‘not much fun’. That is, Cole cites a Swedish Physicians for Human Rights report that says, among other things, that 97% of women surveyed (in 1998) showed clinical signs of major depression.
In the midst of this, sometimes, resistance itself could be a source of … not *fun*, exactly; but I’ll let the following speak for itself. Anne Brodsky quotes an activist in the Revolutionary Afghan Women’s Association, who ran underground educational and other services, especially for women, who were particularly restricted in their access to social goods:
“Our life is not without pleasure and meaning. Our sacrifice is for the value of freedom, not just for anything. I will not be able to achieve my personal goals in life—they were stolen by my country’s history. But for the children in this school I will sacrifice so they can reach theirs—they must be able to achieve. I am so angry at my own suffering and lost future that these innocent children must be aided.” (3)
The Taliban were simply unable to reshape the material landscape sufficient to erase any past in Kabul, nor were they able to police everything.
And, they were less focused on certain areas of life than others. Here, there is not much academic literature—Afghan history-writing has been much more focused on security issues, political economy, and state politics, rather than on cultural change in a fine-grained manner—and the best thing to do is just read accounts, of which there are many, by people who lived in Afghanistan at the time.
A lot of the time this will just help you build up a picture; but sometimes such comments also extend analysis of how the uneven policing of different kinds of entertainment objects had interesting, wide-reaching cultural-historical results.
Mujib Mashal, now a high-profile journalist, writes how he and his friends developed a passion for Iranian detective novels in a period when many other modes of entertainment were hard to come by:
“We rented these books, often thick and written in many volumes, from small stationary stores for the equivalent of $0.05 a night – a sum that became a burden on our families at the end of the month, considering that we went through one volume per night. In great detail, these books gave us what we missed: action, romance, and a world of fantasy that we otherwise did not have access to.”(4)
The prohibition on most things, but not books, seems in Mashal’s telling to have led to a boost in readership and even literacy among ordinary people. Of course religious material proliferated, but this period also led to a flourishing of secular poetic creativity.
Further, it wasn’t only books: even if ‘in general…people played it safe’, Mashal notes that ‘there was an underground market for movies and music – grocery stores doubled as movie rental centers and some people even dared to buy satellite televisions.’ (ibid.)
There are also stories of underground beauty salons for women, which surely counts as entertainment, although I can’t think of the specific references at the moment.
And finally, as Saira Shah writes in *The Storyteller’s Daughter*, people just made their own fun in ways that people have done throughout history before mass entertainment was available.
She notes, for instance, staying with a family in Nuristan in the period, and overhearing the young husband and wife telling each other fantastic stories and speculating about life, late into the night. (5) Of course Afghanistan has always had a very well-developed storytelling tradition as Margaret Mills and others have noted.
And, now that we are moving outside the capital and outside large towns, it should be noted that life wasn’t as restricted.
While the Taliban engaged in large-scale violence against some towns, and against some ethnicities, that approached genocide in some cases, they didn’t typically have a permanent surveillatory presence in the countryside in the same way that they did in the largest towns and cities of the country.
Entertainment, including music, at events continued as before in many or most villages. Traditional games, including cards, chess, animal fighting, etc., also did.
And, whether in cities or villages, they don’t seem to have restricted children’s games all that much if at all. There is an entire book *Children’s Folk Games* (originally in Dari, though I read the Pashto version) that outlines loads of different kinds–over 120 pages’ worth. These include everything from a variety of team sports, to things like jacks, several kinds of hide-and-seek, racing, tugs-of-war, tag, and a bunch of other things that have no name in English. (6)
This book was published (in Pakistan) at the end of the Taliban period, but it was researched in Afghanistan by ethnographers at the height of the Taliban period; I know this from talking to a student of one of the ethnographers who wrote it.
That student said that they mainly researched it by simply having young-ish (i.e. student) researchers go around cities and countryside in a variety of different regions, find kids who were playing outside, and ask to join in. Clearly, it wasn’t hard to find at least some people who were visibly having fun.
1. Cole (2008), ‘The Taliban, Women, and the Hegelian Public Sphere’ 118-154 in R. Crews and A. Tarzi, eds. *The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan* (Harvard UP).
2. Sefat (2019), ‘Things and Terms’ International Political Sociology 14: 175-195.
3. Brodsky (2003), *With All our Strength* (Routledge), p. 244
4. Mashal (2011), ‘Kabul book trade turns page on darker days’, Al-Jazeera Reporter’s Notebook, 6 Dec (online).
5. Shah (2003), *The Storyteller’s Daughter* (Knopf)
6. Shibl and Gardezi (2000), *Da Mashumano Ulasi Lobe* (ARIC/UNICEF).