Now silent under Taliban, a Kabul cinema awaits its fate

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Ariana Cinema’s steep, 1960s-style marquee lines stand out at a busy roundabout in central Kabul. For decades, the historic cinema has entertained Afghans and has witnessed Afghanistan’s wars, hopes and cultural upheavals.

Now the tent is no longer with the Bollywood and American action movie posters that used to decorate it. The gate is closed.

After regaining power three months ago, the Taliban ordered the closure of Ariana and other cinemas. Islamic militants-turned-rulers say they have yet to decide whether they will allow films in Afghanistan.

Like the rest of the country, Ariana is in a strange uncertainty, waiting to see how the Taliban will rule.

On Thursday, November 4, 2021, empty seats are visible at the Ariana Cinema in Kabul, Afghanistan. After seizing power three months ago, the Taliban ordered the closure of movie theaters. (AP Photo)

Nearly 20 movie theater employees, all men, still show up to work, registering on their recordings in the hopes that they will eventually be paid. The famous Ariana Cinema, one of four cinemas in the capital, is owned by the Kabul Municipality, so its employees are government employees and remain paid.

The men while away the hours. They hang out at an abandoned ticket booth or stroll the winding corridors of Ariana. Rows of plush red seats sit in silent darkness.

Ariana’s director Asith Ferdows, the first woman in the post, is not even allowed to enter the theater. The Taliban have ordered female civil servants to stay away from their jobs so that they do not mix with men until they decide if they will be allowed to work.

Asita Ferdus sits at her home in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, November 10, 2021. She is the director of the Ariana Cinema, but is not allowed to enter the cinema as the Taliban have ordered female civil servants to stay away from their jobs. (AP Photo)

Ferdows, 26, is part of the post-2001 generation of young Afghans who are determined to make more space for women’s rights. The Taliban takeover dashed their hopes. Also an artist and sculptor, she now lives at home.

“I spend time sketching, painting, just to keep practicing,” she said. “I can no longer participate in exhibitions.”

During their previous term in power from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban imposed a radical interpretation of Islamic law, barring women from working or going to school – or even in many cases leaving their homes – and forcing men to grow beards and attend prayers. They banned music and other arts, including films and cinema.

Under international pressure, the Taliban say they have changed. But they didn’t know what they would or wouldn’t allow. This has suspended the lives of many Afghans and their livelihoods.

Kabul cinema afghanistan taliban Employees sit at the box office of the Ariana Cinema in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, November 8, 2021. They still show up to work every day, hoping that they will eventually get paid, despite Taliban orders to stop working. (AP Photo)

For Ariana, this is yet another chapter in a turbulent sixty-year history.

The Ariana Hotel was opened in 1963. Its elegant architecture reflected the spirit of modernization that the then ruling monarchy was trying to bring to a deeply traditional nation.

Ziba Niyazai, a resident of Kabul, recalled going to Ariana in the late 1980s, during the reign of Soviet-backed President Najibullah, when there were more than 30 cinemas around the country.

For her, it was the entrance to another world. She just got married and her new husband brought her from their home village in the mountains to Kabul, where he worked for the Ministry of Finance. She was alone in the house all day while he was in the office.

But when he left work, they often went to see Ariana in a Bollywood movie together.

After years of communist rule, it was a more secular era than in recent decades, at least for the narrow urban elite.

kabul movies afghanistan taliban Gul Mohammed, host of Ariana Cinema, poses for a photograph in Kabul, Afghanistan on Thursday, November 4, 2021. After taking over power three months ago, the Taliban ordered cinemas to shut down (AP Photo).

“We didn’t have a hijab at the time,” said Niyazai, now in her fifties, referring to the headscarf. Many couples went to the cinema, and “there was not even a separate section, you could sit anywhere.”

At the time, war raged across the country as the Najibullah government fought a US-backed coalition of warlords and Islamic militants. The mujahideen overthrew him in 1992. They then turned against each other in a power struggle that destroyed Kabul and killed thousands in the crossfire.

Ariana, like most of the surrounding area, was badly damaged as a result of frequent bombing and shootings.

It lay in ruins for years when the Taliban drove out the Mujahideen and took over Kabul in 1996. All the cinemas that survived around Kabul were shuttered.

Kabul cinema afghanistan taliban Rahmatullah Ezati plays back the film at the Ariana Cinema in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, November 8, 2021 (AP Photo)

The resurgence of Ariana came after the expulsion of the Taliban during the 2001 US-led invasion. The French government helped rebuild the cinema in 2004 as part of a stream of billions of dollars in international aid that has tried to reshape Afghanistan over the next 20 years.

With the departure of the Taliban, cinema has received a new surge in popularity.

“Indian films have always attracted attention in Ariana, as have action films, especially with Jean-Claude Van Damme,” said Abdul Malik Wahidi, in charge of tickets. As the domestic film industry revived in Afghanistan, Ariana has played several Afghan films produced every year.

They had three shows a day, ending in the middle of the day, at 50 afghani per ticket – about 50 cents. The audience was overwhelmingly male. In Afghanistan’s conservative society, cinemas were seen as a masculine space, with few women going to them.

Kabul cinema afghanistan taliban Abdul Malik Wahidi selling tickets at Ariana Cinema looks through unsold tickets in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, November 6, 2021.

Wahidi recalled how he and other employees had to preview all foreign films in order to weed out those in which scenes were considered too piquant – for example, with couples kissing or women exposing too much skin.

Missing something can infuriate some moviegoers. Insulted viewers were known to throw objects at the screen, although this did not happen in Ariana, Wahidi said. He remembered how one patron in “Ariana”, indignant at the scene, flew out and shouted at him: “How can you show pornography?”

Ferdows was named director of Ariana just over a year ago. She previously headed the Gender Equality Division of the Kabul Municipality, where she worked to ensure equal pay for female employees and the appointment of women as senior officers in the capital’s district police departments.

When she came to Ariana, the male staff were surprised, “but they were very helpful and worked well with me.”

She focused on making movies more hospitable to women. They set aside one side of the hall for couples and families where women could sit. Those who entered the theater had to be patted by the guards as a security measure, and Ferdus brought in female guards to make female attendees more comfortable.

Kabul cinema afghanistan taliban Rahmatullah Ezati looks at the Ariana Cinema theater from a cinema in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, November 6, 2021 (AP Photo)

Couples began to come regularly, she said. In March 2021, the cinema hosted an Afghan Film Festival, which proved to be very popular, with the participation of Afghan actors who held conversations with the audience.

Now all this has been stopped, and Ariana’s staff does not know its fate. Male employees received part of their salaries after the Taliban seized power. Ferdows said she did not receive any salary at all.

“Women suffer the most. Women are simply asking for their right to work, ”she said. “If they are not allowed, their economic situation will only worsen.”

kabul movies afghanistan taliban An employee walks the hallways of the Ariana Cinema on Thursday, November 4, 2021. Cinema staff still show up to work every day, hoping that they will eventually get paid, despite Taliban orders to stop working. (AP Photo)

Inanullah Amani, director general of the culture department of Kabul municipality, said if the Taliban ban films, Ariana’s employees could be transferred to other municipal positions. Or they could be fired.

Staff said they could not even imagine what the Taliban would decide, but no one had much hope that they would allow films.

“It will be a loss,” said Rahmatullah Ezati, Ariana’s chief projectionist.

“If there is no cinema in the country, then there is no culture either. Through the cinema, we have seen other countries such as Europe, the United States and India. “



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