KABUL, Afghanistan – The cool 1960s-style Ariana Cinema lines stand out over a busy roundabout in downtown Kabul. The historic cinema has entertained Afghans for decades and is a witness to Afghanistan’s wars, hopes and cultural changes.
Now the marquee has been stripped of the Bollywood movie and American action movie posters that used to adorn it. The gates are closed.
After regaining power three months ago, the Taliban ordered the closure of Ariana and other cinemas. The militant Islamic guerrillas who became rulers say they have yet to decide whether to allow films in Afghanistan.
Like the rest of the country, the Ariana is in a strange limbo, waiting to see how the Taliban will rule.
The cinema’s nearly 20 employees, all men, still show up at work and sign up in the hope that they will eventually get paid. The landmark Ariana, one of only four cinemas in the capital, belongs to the municipality of Kabul, so its employees are government employees and remain on the payroll.
The men spend the hours. They hang around the abandoned ticket office or stroll through the curved corridors of the Ariana. Rows of plush red seats sit in the silent darkness.
The Ariana director, Asita Ferdous, the first woman on the post, is not even allowed to enter the cinema. The Taliban ordered women government employees to stay away from their jobs so they would not mix with men until they decide whether to work.
Ferdous, 26, belongs to a generation of young Afghans after 2001 who are determined to create more space for women’s rights. The Taliban takeover has dashed their hopes. Also a painter and sculptor, she stays at home now.
“I spend time sketching, drawing, just to keep practicing,” she said. “I can’t do any more exhibitions.”
During their previous tenure, from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban imposed a radical interpretation of Islamic law prohibiting women from working or going to school – or in many cases even leaving the house – and forcing men to grow beards and To attend prayers. They banned music and other arts, including films and cinema.
Under international pressure, the Taliban now say they have changed. But they were vague about what they would or would not allow. This has put the lives of many Afghans – and their livelihoods – on hold.
For the Ariana it is another chapter in a tumultuous story spanning six decades.
The Ariana opened in 1963. Its sleek architecture reflected the modernizing spirit that the then ruling monarchy was trying to bring to the deeply traditional nation.
Ziba Niazai, who lives in Kabul, recalled going to Ariana in the late 1980s, during the reign of Soviet-backed President Najibullah, when there were more than 30 cinemas across the country.
For them it was an introduction to another world. She had just married and her new husband brought her from her mountain home village to Kabul, where he was employed in the Treasury. She was alone in the house all day while he was in the office.
But when he was out of work, they often went to Ariana together for a Bollywood movie.
After years of communist rule, it was a more secular era than the past few decades, at least for a narrow urban elite.
“Back then we didn’t have a hijab,” says Niazai, now in his late 50s, with a look at the headscarf. Lots of couples went to the movies, and “there wasn’t even a separate section, you could sit where you wanted.”
Back then, war raged across the country as Najibullah’s government fought a US-backed coalition of warlords and Islamic militants. The mujahideen overthrew him in 1992. Then they turned against each other in a power struggle that destroyed Kabul and killed thousands of people who were caught in the crossfire.
The Ariana, along with most of the surrounding neighborhood, was badly damaged in the frequent bombings and shootings.
It was in ruins for years when the Taliban drove the mujahideen out and captured Kabul in 1996. All cinemas in the Kabul area have been closed.
The Ariana was revived after the Taliban was overthrown in the 2001 US-led invasion. The French government helped rebuild cinemas in 2004 as part of the billions of dollars in international aid that attempted to reshape Afghanistan over the next 20 years.
With the departure of the Taliban, cinema experienced a new surge in popularity.
Indian films have always been the biggest draw at the Ariana, as have action films, especially those starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, said Abdul Malik Wahidi, who is in charge of the tickets. As Afghanistan’s domestic film industry was revived, the Ariana played a handful of Afghan films each year.
They had three shows a day that ended in the afternoon, one ticket for 50 afghanis – about 50 cents. The audience consisted mostly of men. In Afghanistan’s conservative society, cinemas were considered male space and few women attended.
Wahidi recalled how he and other staff had to preview all foreign films to weed out those with scenes that were considered too racy – like couples kissing or women showing too much skin.
Slipping something through could provoke the anger of some moviegoers. Offended viewers have been known to hurl objects at the screen, although that didn’t happen at the Ariana, Wahidi said. He remembered a guest at the Ariana who was outraged by a scene and stormed out and yelled at him, “How can you show pornography?”
Ferdous was named director of Ariana a little over a year ago. She previously headed the Gender Equality Department in the city of Kabul, where she campaigned for equal pay for female employees and made women senior officers in the capital’s district police stations.
When she came to Ariana, the male staff were surprised, “but they were very cooperative and worked well with me.”
She focused on making the cinema more welcoming to women. They dedicated one side of the auditorium to couples and families where women could sit. Those entering the cinema had to be patrolled by guards for security reasons, and Ferdous brought a female guard with him to make the female guests more comfortable.
Couples came regularly, she said. In March 2021, the cinema hosted a festival of Afghan films that proved very popular, which was attended by Afghan actors who had conversations with the audience.
Now everything has come to a standstill and Ariana’s staff no longer know about her fate. The male employees have received part of their salaries since the Taliban took over. Ferdous said she didn’t get any salary at all.
“Women suffer the most. Women only claim their right to work,” she said. “If they are not admitted, their economic situation will only worsen.”
Inanullah Amany, director general of Kabul city’s cultural department, said Ariana employees could be transferred to other city posts if the Taliban ban films. Or they could be fired.
Staff said they had no idea what the Taliban would decide, but none had high hopes that they would allow films.
That would be a loss, said Rahmatullah Ezati, Ariana’s chief demonstrator.
“If a country has no cinema, then there is no culture. Through the cinema we have seen other countries like Europe, the USA and India.”