The telephone call came a few hours before the rock concert was due to start. Security trumped ticket sales, backed by the justified fears that Muslim fundamentalists might seek to enliven the on-stage action by contributing a couple of backup actors of their own, perhaps a suicide-bombing stage-diver or a Kalashnikov-waving walk-on.
“Come to Bagh-e Babur for the gig,” were our instructions.
Like well-oiled terrorist cells mobilized by a phonecall, we walked out into Kabul’s dusty, rush-hour streets. Our group consisted of a tall French blonde seeking to bring peace to Afghanistan by teaching warlords yoga; a fast-talking, larger-than-life New York brunette with a gallery in Paris and plans to start Kabul’s first biennale; and an Afghan photographer with a proclivity to documenting suicide bombings. Piling into a car, we zoomed off to the Mughal emperor’s gardens in a battered, mountain-scrabbling Kabul suburb.
Entry to the concert was through separate male and female turnstiles and charged at $5, a stiff fee for the average Afghan. After having our arms stamped with a map of Afghanistan, gig-style, and being told we couldn’t photograph anything, we came upon a couple of hundred kids – the vast majority male – milling around. Despite the prohibition on photography, they appeared to be in the grip of an all-consuming desire to leer at or film the assembled foreign women with their phonecameras.
It was Afghanistan’s first public rock festival. Despite the lack of a bar and with roast kebab the only delicacy available, the assembled Afghans – both those too young to remember the days of Taliban rule and others – stared at the scenes unfolding before them in slack-jawed amazement. Non-Muslims cavorted on stage, bashing out electrical strains under the steady gaze of light-skinned European and North American blondes, their locks barely covered by gauzy veils, gazing down from a restored khan’s balcony seats.
Paradoxically, Afghanistan under NATO tutelage is more tolerant towards heavy metal music than socially more progressive neighbours Iran and Pakistan, where extremist groups bomb venues and musicians are arrested and charged with practicing Satanism.
Close to the stage, a group of twenty or so young men were trying their best to imitate surging waves. They flashed heavy metal horn signs with their fingers and jumped on each other. One of them declared his intention to breakdance, which proclamation set the organizers bustling anxiously to clear a large enough space for him to twirl in. A desultory spin or two later, he melted back into the crowd.
An intense man with a videocamera and Asian characteristics hewed close to all this action, shooting Kabul’s heavy metal aficionados from the kind of proximity that suggested they were multitudes, nay legions, rather than just a slim line of over-excitable youngsters standing in front of clumps of their colleagues pointing and laughing at them.
At dusk proceedings were stopped in deference to the evening Muslim prayer. We headed out of the complex into the dusty streets, under the watchful gaze of soldiers standing on the battlements, their Kalashnikovs silhouetted in the fading light. Inside, the Afghan men were still trailing the few remaining women with their cellphones and comments. It all seemed very fin de siècle in its innocence and the thrill prompted at the promise of a future not fated. I wondered how these youths would recall these days a few years from now, when the foreigners had migrated back to their countries or the next crisis zone and they remained as the middle-aged citizens of another hardline regime.