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Afghanistan: In Kabul, Drivers Wear Their Hearts On Their Cars, Not Their Sleeves

  • Charles Recknagel

Kabul is a city that has seen a lot of warfare and death in recent years, but it is still a place with a strong appreciation for the better things in life, including a sense of style and humor. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, those traits can be found everywhere, including in the English-language slogans that decorate many of the capital's cars.

Kabul, 4 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It's not always easy to find love on the streets of Kabul. That is, unless you're looking at the slogans that cover so many of this city's taxicabs, buses, and trucks.

These slogans express a wide range of emotions. Some express the pride a driver takes in his vehicle -- such as the word "Power" printed in block letters on the side of a Toyota taxi, or "Hero Benz" painted on the cab of a truck that longs to be a Mercedes.

Then there are the slogans designed to lure in potential passengers. Slogans such as "Comfortable Moskvitch" on the back of a Russian-made taxi, or the reassuring "We Trust in God" on the door of a van. Not to mention -- usually on buses -- the promises of a pleasant trip, such as the ubiquitous, if slightly muddled, "Good Your Journey" or the much rarer and slightly ominous "Eternity Express."

And then there are the cars with brand names for products of every sort -- products usually unavailable in Kabul -- emblazoned on their doors. Very often the words read "National/Panasonic," the name of a well-known electronics company. The trademarks give the cabs a prestigious air of carrying paid-for ads in a city with no advertising industry.

All the slogans and brand names are part of a mania for car decorations that has created a booming business in decals that can be glued onto cars without damaging their paint. The decals are sold in small, curbside specialty shops bursting with choices.

The manager of one decal shop is Azimullah. His back wall is hung with sheaves of professional decals imported from Europe and Asia, including popular options like "Road Prince" and "King Bird." The center of the shop is crowded with a large table on which assistants make additional homemade decals by cutting out letters from orange adhesive paper. The homemade decals include the occasional spelling mistake, such as one reading "through to aim," which in this shop means "true to aim."

Azimullah says his business in car decals has accelerated rapidly since the days of the Taliban, when sales suffered from the militia's no-fun approach to everything. But he says even members of the Taliban could not completely resist the pleasures of sticking something on their vehicles.

"[The decal passion] existed before and during [the Taliban] and even the Taliban were, if not a lot, at least a little interested in them. They especially loved trademarks, though usually they didn't know what they meant," Azimullah says.

The shop owner says that during the Taliban period, he sold some six decals a day. Now he is selling 10 or more daily. Azimullah says most of his imported decals are from Belgium or Thailand. A big part of his business is providing fresh versions of automotive trademarks to owners of cars whose original factory markings have been damaged. Many of the cars are second-hand vehicles imported from Japan and which arrive looking distinctly less than brand-new.

Often the second-hand cars come from a previous life as business or company cars and include their original advertising, written in Japanese. The attractive calligraphy of the advertising has inspired another passion among Kabul's taxi drivers -- for neatly lettered Japanese slogans on their cars, though nobody knows what they mean. Azimullah's shop sells several homemade decals that are copies of Japanese originals, though he, too, cannot say what he is reproducing.

Azimullah is a professional teacher who manages the shop to supplement his income. He says he can predict with 60 percent accuracy what his customers want as soon as they come through his door. Older men usually want a nature scene to beautify a rear window. A younger man usually wants something racy to put on his bumper.

"For young people, we have some samples here. [Some of the ones they like] are 'Good Luck' and 'City Boy,'" Azimullah says.

Another highly popular slogan on the side of taxis these days is "Road Fighter." It can be found all over Kabul's busy streets, where the weapon of choice is the horn, followed only at the last moment -- and if absolutely necessary -- by use of the steering wheel or brakes to avoid a collision.

One of these "road fighters" is Sher Mohammad. On duty at a vegetable market, he has collapsed the back seat of his car and is loading cauliflower into it for a trip across town. Asked to explain why he chose this particular slogan for his car, he says he inherited the decal when he bought the vehicle from another man. But he says he likes the slogan and the image it gives his car.

"The slogan is on the car. The car is on the road, driving. My car is a [Toyota] Corolla, not some [lesser] kind of car. It's driving down the road, and it's fighting with the road," he says.

By the number of "Road Fighter" decals, it would be easy to conclude there is little place on Kabul's streets for the kinder and gentler sort of drivers. But that would be a mistake. Every so often -- not frequently, but sometimes -- a more sensitive man will drive by with love on his mind instead.

These "love men" -- usually in trucks -- move through the heavy traffic with slogans like "Enjoy the Love" or "Hunger for Love" scrawled across the top of their windshield. Sometimes the messages read like a cry for help. One driver claims to be "Lovesick." Another has "Unrequited Love." Yet another warns the world -- perhaps from bitter experience -- that "Hot Love Soon Grows Cold."

Jow Mohammad is a taxi driver and confirmed love man. So far, he has no love message on the outside of his car, but he has pasted several sentimental postcards on the inside of his car doors and on the dashboard. The postcards are collections of all the time-honored symbols of affection: a heart pierced by an arrow, a pair of doves, and a burning candle -- the kind that, like a man, burns in vain when love is not returned.

Asked if he really believes in love as much as his car suggests, Jow Mohammad pulls up his shirt sleeve and reveals a tattooed heart. As for what kind of decals he would like to have on the outside of his car, he says: "I would choose more hearts and a love message. It should be written nicely, with a red pen, and I would put a picture of a burning candle."

He also says that in this world of violence, it is important that as soon as people get into his car, they know he is a loving man -- especially if they, too, are loving people. Women, he says, should not be afraid to take a ride with him: "When other loving people come into my car, they should know I am a loving man, without my having to say anything. I don't have any designs on my passengers. And as for women, just seeing [their beauty] is enough."

Today, fully appreciating women's beauty remains difficult in Kabul, where more than a month after the Taliban's collapse, almost every woman still wears the face-concealing burqa. Many women say they still fear aggression on the street if they unveil, though before the Taliban, large numbers of women in the capital wore only the headscarf acceptable to mainstream Muslims.

Still, true love men are willing to wait -- especially when they, too, have just emerged from five years under the Taliban, who had no time for a sentimental view of life. Jow Mohammad, who says he is very much in love with his wife, can remember a time when his car featured a postcard of two doves -- call them lovebirds -- and his Taliban passenger tore it up.

Perhaps that's why he says that at home now he never throws away the wax from the candles he burns at night -- in this case for light, because he has no electricity. Instead, he has collected all the wax and formed it into a large pyramid. On the pyramid, he has engraved still another slogan: "Love Is Not a Sin."

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