Kabul, 31 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "Sunday Times" foreign correspondent Christina Lamb says the day she arrived in Herat in November 2001 -- a day after the Taliban had fled the western Afghan city -- it was still a nervous place. Many thought the Taliban were going to come back again, and she says the feeling probably was not very different as to how it was under the Taliban.
"There's something in Herat called the Literary Circle and I saw the sign for it. So I went in to see what it was. I started talking to them about the difficulties of being a writer during the Taliban. And then I asked them about women writers and I was quite surprised when they said that they had had lots of women members in the past. They took me to meet some women who had the most incredible story," Lamb says.
It was a story that would provide Lamb with the title of her critically acclaimed book on life under the Taliban regime -- "The Sewing Circles of Herat." In hearing the tale, Lamb learned about the literary legacy of an ancient Persian city with a tradition of women in the arts that dates back to the early 15th century, when the Timurid Queen Gowhar Shad was a patron of poets, architects, and painters.
"When the Taliban came, [these women authors and poets] sat around thinking, 'How can we still meet and write as women?' Herat was probably the most oppressed of places under the Taliban because it was the most cultured city and also, it is Shi'a, mostly -- a large percentage. The Taliban hated the Shi'a and they hated culture. So these women were desperate to find a way to carry on their writing, and the only thing they could think of that was allowed under the Taliban was to sew. So they set up something called the 'sewing circles of Herat.' They set up a school called the Golden Needle Sewing School where they would meet three times a week for lessons," Lamb says.
For five years, in secret from the Taliban morality police and at the risk of death, the women at the Golden Needle Sewing School took part in a brave schooling effort and studied banned foreign literature.
"They would arrive in their burqas with their bags full of material and scissors. Underneath they would have notebooks and pens. And once they got inside, instead of learning to sew, they would actually be talking about Shakespeare and James Joyce, Dostoyevsky and their own writing. It was a tremendous risk they were taking. If they had been caught, they would have been, at the very least, imprisoned and tortured. Maybe hanged," Lamb says.
Lamb says she likes to think it was the love of literature that helped the women endure the Taliban's repression in Herat. Since completing her own book on Afghanistan, Lamb has been back to Herat several times. She says she could not resist the temptation late last year to track down some of the women who had been members of the underground literature group and see how they were faring under the rule of Herat's conservative provincial governor, Ismail Khan.
"I went to find the same women writers and I was expecting they would be very happy that now they are free and they can write. One of them was studying at Herat University, which of course was impossible under the Taliban. So I went to see her," Lamb says.
The woman's name was Leila and she was among the first group of female students to enroll at the Literature Faculty of Herat University in seven years. Indoors, Leila wore tight jeans, high-heeled shoes, and lipstick. But the classes were only for women, and Leila pulled on her burqa the moment she walked outside.
"I was surprised because she seemed a bit depressed, and she said that although she could now study, that it is segregated education in Herat. The literature faculty where she was for women had very few books in the library still -- maybe just a shelf of religious books and a few other books. And I was also astonished that she was still wearing the burqa because she had spoken really vividly about how imprisoned she felt inside it, and how there was no oxygen. She couldn't breathe. She was always tripping over it. I asked her, 'Why are you still wearing this?' And she said, 'You know, our society has changed [but] even though the Taliban have gone, the mentality is still the same,'" Lamb says.
Lamb adds that Leila had married since the two had last met, and that her husband -- an Afghan employee of a foreign aid group -- would be horrified if she walked around Herat without a burqa.
Still, Lamb says there are encouraging signs in Herat. She says she was excited to see repairs being made to the dilapidated building of the Literary Circle, not far from the Gul crossroads, where the Taliban had hung bodies. Reconstruction also was under way at Herat's library, where the Taliban had burned all the books with pictures and foreign words.
"The women that I know [in Herat] are still wearing burqas out on the street, but they certainly felt the situation was a lot better for them than it was under the Taliban. It's segregated, the education, but they are at least allowed to go out and have education. We in the West tend to make too much of this whole burqa thing. For most women in this country -- which is an extremely poor country with the world's highest maternal mortality rate, highest infant mortality rate -- their priority is to be able to feed their children and to have security so that their children can go to school and they can go to market," Lamb says.
One source of insecurity that drew international attention this month is the rivalry between Ismail Khan's private army and the Herat Division of the Defense Ministry's Fourth Corps, a militia force commanded by General Abdul Zahir Nayebzada.
Ismail Khan's son -- the civil aviation and tourism minister, Mirwais Sadiq -- was killed in a battle between the rival militias, and Nayebzada fled into the mountains with a few hundred of his troops when their garrison was overrun by Ismail Khan's forces.
"Although it's all calmed down at the moment, there's still a lot of American planes and things flying over. And I'm sure that Ismail intends to get revenge. I mean, this is a long-running conflict between the two of them in the area. Ismail was furious when Zahir was appointed as military commander [by Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai]. So I don't think we've heard the end of this," Lamb says.
During the past week, Lamb has been investigating developments in Herat. She says the recent fighting represents a clash between local militia commanders. But she says it also highlights on-going tensions between Ismail Khan and Karzai's central government.
"All over the country you've got these long-running feuds between different warlords and commanders who want to exert authority over the same place. And so regardless of what was happening in the center, I think you would still have tension between Zahir [Nayebzada] and Ismail. However, there is no doubt that there is also a battle between Ismail and the central government. It's partly over money, because Ismail controls the border which is the most profitable border -- things coming from Iran -- and is said to get at least $1 million a day in revenue, of which he has only, as far as I'm aware, given 10 million in total to the central government," Lamb says.
Lamb adds that according to her sources, Ismail Khan's revenue payments to the central government so far have been in the form of pledges of future remunerations rather than hard currency.
"I think the central government would dearly love to remove Ismail, but I think he is a powerful force. He's got a well-trained militia of his own. He has controlled the area for more than 25 years. He is popular among his forces, and they are disciplined. I mean, they are the only forces I've seen in the whole country where you see them actually doing vehicle maintenance and properly looking after their weapons," Lamb says.
Lamb concludes that the situation in Herat has left Leila and her friends "strangely subdued." She says that when she asked if the "sewing circle" had written any more stories, Leila responded: "Just one, about a crazy man who never stops fighting. We thought freedom would be better than this."