Even at the Khoja Bahauddin bazaar, where commerce and enterprise should reign, there is little movement. Shopkeepers lazily eye customers. There is little reason to hustle. Everyone sells the same dusty goods banana biscuits and tomato paste from the Islamic Republic of Iran, wormy apples from neighboring Bagram province and the sole product (until last weekend) from the United States of America: Selsun Blue anti-dandruff shampoo.
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A generator sells for $700. A Kalashnikov, for $70.
Do these belong to you?
Last Saturday, a new product finally hit the bazaar: a bright-yellow pack of Humanitarian Daily Rations. Dropped by U.S. planes as free aid to the starving and displaced, they are now selling here or just over $1. Except to Americans. For them, the HDRs could be free. When a pair of Western journalists walked through the market, a kind- eyed, 70-year-old man ambled up. The yellow bag in his hands was emblazoned with the words: Gift from the United States of America. But the man could not read English, and he looked puzzled. Was the HDR ours, he inquired. He had heard the yellow bag had dropped out of an American plane. Did we want it back?
There are no women walking through the market. There are girls, and there are men. There are donkeys, walking haystacks with dark, somber eyes peering out from under bundles of dried grass. There are even a few scraggly turkeys. But there are no women. In Afghanistan, the men do all the grocery shopping.
October is watermelon season, so the men buy armfuls of the melon to take home. Everywhere you look, everyone seems to be eating watermelon, scooping out the juicy flesh with eager fingers. The more fortunate also suck pomegranate seeds or lick Mars Bar wrappers tossed by foreign journalists who brought them from Dushanbe, the capital of neighboring Tajikistan.
Neither seen nor heard
It may be the poorest of the former Soviet republics, but Tajikistan is a gastronomic paradise compared to northern Afghanistan. Tajikistan, for instance, has sit-down restaurants. And women can dine out in public.
If women do ever walk outside in Afghanistan, they look furtive, scurrying from one place to another in head-to-toe burkas. The men recognize their wives by subtle gradations of their billowy contours: potato-shaped, pepper-shaped, turnip-shaped.
Whether in Taliban or Northern Alliance-held territory, an Afghan girl trades her veil for a burka at age 15. But in Northern Alliance country, girls from wealthier families can attend schools taught by female teachers. Still, mud walls throughout this nation are built high to keep women shielded from outside eyes. Women in Northern Alliance territory are allowed to be educated, but they are not to be seen. That, says one bearded man, is the way it has always been. Ever since biblical times. And Afghanistan seems in no hurry to leave that bygone age.