We arrived late for Friday prayers from a meeting in the city centre. Carried on a warm May breeze, the sermon droned over the little loudspeakers of the dome-less, minaret-less mosque to an audience of motorcycles, chained handcarts, and an avalanche of footwear. The audience inside was mixed: middle-class men in crisp perahan-tumbans (tunics and trousers) sat with their sons alongside street vendors and young men in distressed jeans and logoed t-shirts.

The imam began the second part of the sermon as we entered, describing how Muslims of yore gave all they had, including their lives, to safeguard their community and faith. It was our duty, he explained, to protect the nation, our families, and our belief! I deliberately continued ignoring my colleague’s nervous glances. ‘And we need to begin with our mosques!’ the imam suddenly exclaimed, launching into a list of outstanding repairs and the mosque’s construction needs. A cart-puller stood up, interrupting the imam. ‘With your permission Mullah Saheb,’ he began in Pashto-accented Dari, ‘we’ve no food for our children, the cost of living increases daily, where will this money come from?’ Amidst a cacophony of encouraging cries, bids to shut up and sit down, and astaghfirallahs (heaven forbids), the cart-puller stubbornly continued, emphatically suggesting that the government, the police, and religious officials bleed everyday people dry; that perhaps early Muslims did not face similar problems of inflation and lack of social support.

Thomas Johnson, Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict, London, Hurst, 2018

The sermon and prayers came to a quick end. The cart-puller’s frustrations seemed forgotten as people streamed out to begin their weekend. Heading back to the office, my colleague apologised repeatedly for the scene on my first Friday in the city. His contrition rang with embarrassment; he had, after all, invited me to this mosque to ‘see the real Kabul’, and whatever happened reflected indirectly on him. ‘These karachiwan (cart-pullers) have no manners,’ he sneered, betraying an anti-Pashtun bias I had yet to catch, ‘they come from the village with no idea of how to talk to people. But these mullahs are no better. They just chase after money, even when they say the right things.’ Every Friday after that, despite my suggestions, if we prayed together it was always at a larger mosque where a banal, government-approved sermon was delivered to a mostly bored, socially-mobile audience itching to finish the obligatory prayer.

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