Young smokers worry as Afghanistan’s “vice police” ban shisha.
Late on the morning of November 7, workers from the Taliban’s Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice were spotted going around Shahr-e Now, a neighborhood in Kabul home to dozens of restaurants, cafes, and shopping malls frequented by the city’s youth.
At Majid Mall, dozens of young men and women enjoyed food and drinks at Turkish and Yemeni restaurants. At the Prime Steakhouse and Grill, there was an unusually large crowd for a Monday morning spread throughout the eatery. And, at nearly every table: at least one shisha, or hookah.
In Kabul, meeting friends and smoking at such places are one of the few remaining leisure activities.
But then the Taliban came in. They were there to deliver their latest edict, one which would strike yet another blow to social life in the Afghan capital. “You have to stop selling shisha,” they said.
The staff at the steakhouse and its neighboring sports lounge were worried. Customers, including those sitting in the family section, were already smoking shishas they had paid for.
“From this afternoon on, we don’t want to see anymore shishas,” the Vice and Virtue representatives said.
For the rest of the day, these Taliban officials issued similarly stern warnings to other establishments, adding that any breach of the ban would result in a hefty fine and potential shuttering of the business.
For restaurant owners in Afghanistan’s urban centers, Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Mazar-e Sharif, the ban is yet another setback. At a time of rising unemployment, Western sanctions, wealthy families fleeing, and Taliban limits on social life, businesses have already seen downturns in their earnings over the last 15 months.
Business owners who spoke to me in the weeks leading up to the ban in Kabul said they tried to appeal to the Taliban leadership citing the financial hit they would take. Two young entrepreneurs who have invested in dining and entertainment businesses in the city said that restaurants bring in at minimum, 34 million Afghanis ($386,000) a month in tax revenue.
And for many of them, shisha orders are a major part of their earnings.
Mohammad, a waiter at a high-end restaurant, who asked for his name to be concealed due to fear of repercussions from Vice and Virtue officials, says in the weeks since the ban, the number of customers at the pricey eatery has taken a huge hit.
“We lost 70 percent of our customers. Every day we get people walking in or calling asking if we have shisha,” he said of the immediate effect of the ban.
Mohammad says it’s not just the restaurant he works in. Neighboring establishments are facing similar shortfalls.
Even lower-end eateries where a shisha costs between two and six dollars are experiencing setbacks. Shisha bars across from the Shahr-e Naw Park, in the center of the city, have either shut their doors entirely or are completely empty.
Farshid Rafi, who owns the Friends Bowling Alley in the West Kabul neighborhood of Pol-e Sorkh, says the shisha ban has compounded the issues his business was already facing over the last year.
Rafi said shortly after the Taliban returned to power last August, their bowling business had started to suffer. Unemployment was on the rise, wages were down, and people were cutting back on hobbies.
Rafi says his customer base of 18 to 40-year-olds were especially susceptible to the economic downturn and societal limits that followed the Taliban’s return. Many of his customers, particularly those with money, fled the country within months, or even weeks, of the Taliban’s arrival.
Those who stayed couldn’t justify the cost of a round of bowling.
“It was an entertainment business, and in times of economic trouble, if you have to cut back on something, it will be entertainment,” Rafi said.
But shisha sales helped keep Rafi afloat. Rafi and other entrepreneurs point out that shisha was a much more economical option for customers. Often, it was groups of two or more people who would order shisha and split the costs.
“Our only business was the shisha. Now, almost nobody comes,” Rafi says from North America, where he now lives.
Like the businesses in the Shahr-e Now neighborhood, Rafi says the ban has cost him at least 70 percent of his customers, and he worries that he won’t be able to get them back given the ongoing economic downturn.
Prior to the ban, profits from shisha sales also helped offset the rising cost of basic goods, including food. According to the Red Cross, the price of cooking oil alone has surged by 55 percent over the last year. Wheat flower is up by another 68 percent. Rafi says these rising food costs are affecting business owners as much as families, and that it has become increasingly difficult to turn a profit on food orders alone.
“The profit margin for food was always low, and now, on some items, we barely break even,” Rafi said.
This is not the first time that an Afghan government has tried to ban shisha, though.
The former Western-backed Republic tried to shut down shisha bars in 2016, saying they “promote debauchery and vulgarity in society,” but that ban lasted only a few weeks.
Omer Amiri, who returned to Kabul from the United States shortly after the Taliban came to power, said he finds the ban confusing and misguided.
“It’s uncalled for. Maybe it doesn’t have health benefits, but it was one of the only social activities left in the city,” Amiri said.
He’s not wrong.
Shortly after the Taliban came to power, television stations stopped broadcasting music and entertainment programmes, including popular Turkish soap operas. At weddings, music is only allowed in family sections, and even then there have been reports of Vice and Virtue not allowing any music.
In recent weeks, women have been banned from public parks and hamams. And most of the nation’s cellular providers have started to block access to TikTok, one of the most popular social media platforms in the country.
Shekeb Noori, a worker at a local telecom provider, is also critical of the Taliban’s latest ban.
“It was one of the last things a young person could enjoy. We don’t have proper cinemas or parks or anywhere else to gather, it was the one thing young people could get together and do to pass the time.”
As a body builder, Noori acknowledges that smoking has no health benefits, but he says in the context of Kabul, the city he has grown up in, the ban is another blow to young people.
“When you don’t have anything else to enjoy, you take what you can. Anything to get together and forget your worries for a few hours.”
Everyone I spoke to, customers and entrepreneurs, said if the ban was about public health, then it would have applied to cigarettes and chewing tobacco, which are much more common than shisha.
Young people worry that the shisha ban, combined with all of the other recent restrictions, could be a sign of a growing societal clampdown by the Taliban.
“Who’s to say that next they will say families can’t come and eat together,” said Mohammad, a waiter.
Sulaiman Bin Shah, a former Deputy at the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, whom business owners have approached to help them convince the Taliban to reverse the ban, admits that fighting the perceived moral argument (something even the former Republic referred to in their short-lived ban) will be difficult.
Instead, he says the Taliban should think of the business implications of their decisions, and that if they wish to enact such policies, they should at least seek the advice of businessowners.
He says the ban is another example of how the Islamic Emirate lacks a “tangible economic and business vision,” which he says is embodied by the Emirate’s failure to include the private sector when formulating policies that will ultimately affect their bottom line.
According to the World Bank, since the Taliban’s return to power, the Afghan economy has shrunk by nearly 30 percent. Despite their best efforts, the Islamic Emirate, which is subject to banking restrictions and international sanctions, has been unable to recoup that loss.
Because of this Bin Shah says the Taliban should be focusing on how to boost investor confidence in the nation, rather than cutting into their profits.
“Fewer revenues lead to firing off employees and cutting downs costs. In some cases, even closures of entire businesses,” said Bin Shah. He says considering that small and medium enterprises constitute more than 80 percent of the Afghan economy, these kinds of policies can have much larger ripples on the overall financial state of the country.
For Mohammad, the waiter, the ban is personal.
He fears that if it isn’t reversed or business doesn’t pick up, he could be out of a job. He also fears that the shisha ban is just the beginning.
“Who knows what’s next, they’re not just costing us our jobs, they’re taking even the simplest pleasures from us,” he says.
ALI M LATIFI is a Kabul-based freelance journalist. His work has appeared in Al Jazeera English, The LA Times, CNN, The New York Times, VICE, Deutsche Welle, Foreign Policy and Business Insider. He has also appeared on TV and radio for CNN, Deutsche Welle, PBS, Al Jazeera English and NPR.