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Popular Afghan pastime goes up in smoke as Taliban bans hookahs

Taliban fighters. (Department of Defense photo by Lt. j. g. Joe Painter)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Young men inhaling fruit-flavored tobacco from hookahs had become a common site in Afghanistan in recent years.

But the Taliban recently issued a fatwa, or Islamic decree, banning the popular pastime. The militant Islamist group considers hookahs, also known as shisha, as an intoxicant, which is banned under Islam.

The ban on hookahs was announced in the western province of Herat earlier this month. It is unclear if the fatwa extends to the entire country.

The move has had a severe impact on businesses in Herat, where scores of shisha cafes have been forced to close. Restaurants that offer shisha, meanwhile, have been forced to lay off staff as the number of customers fall.

The ban on hookahs is the latest attempt by the Taliban to impose its extremist interpretation of Islamic Shari’a law in Afghanistan, where the militant group forcibly seized power in August 2021.

‘No Customers’

Omid, a young entrepreneur, owned a shisha cafe in Herat city, the provincial capital. But last week he was forced to shut down his business and dismiss his seven staff members.

“How can I run a cafe when I have no income?” Omid, who did not want to reveal his full name for security reasons, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. “How can I pay workers when we have no customers?”

Mohammad Qasim was a waiter in a shisha cafe in Herat, earning around $100 per month. After recently losing his job, he has been unable to provide for his family of five.

“I will be forced to go to [neighboring] Iran to look for work,” the 23-year-old told Radio Azadi.

The Cafe Owners Association in Herat said that around 2,500 people had lost their jobs following the ban, aggravating an already dire economic situation for many residents.

The Taliban takeover triggered an economic collapse and worsened a major humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where hunger and poverty are widespread.

‘Against Shari’a’

Not everyone in the religious and conservative country is against the ban on hookahs.

“This ban will prevent the youth from wasting their money and damaging their health,” Nazir Ahmad, a resident of Herat, told Radio Azadi. “It will also protect them from more dangerous addictions.”

Azizul Rahman Mohajer, the provincial head of the Taliban’s feared Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, said hookahs are “against Shari’a.”

“It harms our bodies and causes tobacco addiction, which can spread widely in society,” he said.

The Taliban, however, has not imposed any restrictions on naswar, a mild narcotic made from tobacco. It is popular among Afghan men, particularly in rural areas, including among Taliban fighters.

In April, the Taliban declared a blanket ban on illicit narcotics, although Afghan farmers say they continue to plant crops, including opium.

Imposing Islamic Law

The ban on hookahs is the newest effort by the Taliban to implement its version of Islamic law in the country.

Since seizing power, the Taliban has policed the appearances of women and men. The militants have also imposed strict gender segregation in public spaces. Couples who eat out in restaurants are often questioned and harassed by the Taliban’s notorious morality police.

In September, Finance Ministry employees were subjected to a test that gauged their knowledge of Islam. Employees who failed the test were fired.

Women have borne the brunt of the Taliban’s attempts to police Afghans’ appearances. The Taliban has enforced strict dress and behavioral codes that require women to cover their faces and restrict their right to move freely, work, or receive an education.

Many of the Taliban’s orders and restrictions are reminiscent of the group’s first stint in power from 1996-2001, when its regime deprived Afghans of their most basic rights.