Photo: UNAMA/Nasim Fekrat

Struggling to survive: A Kabul taxi driver’s tale of life under the Taliban

By Kazim Ehsan

In the dim glow of the webcam, I first glimpsed Nassir; his forehead swathed in bandages, face a canvas of bruises and pallor. The ghost of a smile played on his lips as he struggled to maintain the buoyant spirit I had come to associate with my long-time friend. In a state of shock and concern, I inquired about his well-being and the circumstances that led to his disheveled appearance. With a chuckle that belied his condition, Nassir quipped, “Fear not, it’s merely a token of the Taliban’s famed Islamic clemency and munificence.”

Nassir, a seasoned minivan chauffeur, plied the bustling streets of Kabul in his trusty Townace, ferrying passengers from one corner of the city to another. Years ago, I crossed paths with him when he navigated his taxi between Sare-Zir Zamini and Darulamn Road. Back then, Nassir was the epitome of effervescence, regaling his passengers with jokes and serenades that would momentarily eclipse the cacophony of car horns and the dreary snarl of Kabul’s infamous traffic jams.

Nassir often reminisces about what he considers the golden era of his existence, when, as a humble taxi driver, he reveled in the autonomy of being his master and living life on his terms. “People seemed happier, the city pulsed with energy, and music wafted through the air. We savored a semblance of peace despite the hardships,” he confided. However, with the resurgence of the Mujaheddin, a term Nassir uses to reference the Taliban, the world as he knew it was upended. “Now, we dare not transport female passengers or play music in our vehicles,” he lamented.

The fabric of daily life has been irrevocably altered under the thumb of the Taliban regime. The ever-watchful Morality Police and affiliated militias prowl the city, surreptitiously surveilling every aspect of the populace’s existence. Over the past year and a half, Nassir has had his car searched by the Taliban on numerous occasions and endured no less than eight brutal beatings. “The first time they assaulted me was because I had a female passenger in my taxi,” he recounted. “They grilled me about our relationship, and when I told them I didn’t know her, they mercilessly flogged me, warning that if I ever dared to transport a woman without a male chaperone again, they would not hesitate to end my life right there.”

Life has become a precarious tightrope walk for Nassir as he navigates the treacherous waters of a society governed by the Taliban’s draconian laws. The once-vibrant streets of Kabul have been muted, and a deafening silence has replaced the laughter and music that once echoed through the city. The carefree taxi driver who once brought joy to his passengers is now a shadow of his former self, grappling with the harsh realities of life under the Taliban’s oppressive rule. As Nassir soldiers on, he clings to the memories of happier days, a flicker of hope that one day, the city he loves may regain its lost vibrancy and freedom.

On several occasions, Nassir found himself in hot water for working during Namaz or refusing to pay the religious tax, or tithe, demanded by armed Taliban members. As he explains, they would invariably find a pretext to inflict both physical and psychological torment upon those who dared to defy them. “Just three days ago, my minivan was struck and damaged by a speeding Ford Ranger driven by a group of Taliban militiamen. When I confronted them about their reckless behavior, they dragged me to their station and subjected me to two days of torture,” he shared, wiping away tears.

Having sold his minivan and all other possessions, Nassir now harbors dreams of escaping his homeland, albeit illegally, for a neighboring country. “I tried my best to make a life here, but it’s simply impossible. This place is no longer a home; it’s become a living hell,” he lamented.

Nassir had once naively believed that the war’s end was in sight when the Taliban swiftly claimed control of the nation in the summer of 2021. However, he now contends that there is no war to speak of; instead, he finds himself in a country where the ruling regime, convinced of its divine right, is hell-bent on coercing its populace into its twisted and extreme interpretation of Sharia. 

Nassir confesses that he is uncertain whether the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education is the most disheartening aspect of their rule. Although schools remain open for boys, the curriculum is now saturated with the teachings of an austere and extremist version of Islam. Nassir decided to withdraw his 12-year-old son from school after the boy chastised him for listening to music, deeming it haram (forbidden under Islamic Sharia law). “He used to be passionate about math, drawing, and calligraphy, but his interests have shifted dramatically. Now he’s constantly preoccupied with questions about halal (permissible) and haram, or discussions on jihad, Qurbani (sacrifice), and infidels,” Nassir shared.

His son attributes this transformation to the teachings of his Hadith and Quranic instructors at school. Wary of the impact these lessons have had on his child, Nassir said, “I have witnessed enough of the Taliban and similar groups, and the thought of having another Taliban within the walls of my home is terrifying. That’s why I decided to pull him out of that school.”

In the throes of the 1990s civil war, when rival anti-Soviet Mujahedin factions tore Kabul asunder, Nassir was a middle school student. Tragedy struck one fateful day when a stray rocket slammed into their Karte-Sakhi home, reducing it to rubble and injuring his father and two sisters. The incident forced Nassir’s family to flee Kabul and seek refuge in Pakistan, where they resided for six years. Nassir could not continue his education and finish school, as he became the sole provider for his family after his father was left disabled by the rocket attack.

Now, history seems to be repeating itself as Nassir and his family once again face the prospect of leaving their homeland. “I cannot risk waiting for another rocket to maim or kill me as it did to my father. If something were to happen to me, no one would be left to care for my wife and young children,” he said, wiping tears from his cheeks. “I am still young and capable of performing physically demanding work to support my children’s education. I don’t want them to be consigned to a life of driving taxis,” he added, his determination shining through the despair.

Daily life in Afghanistan has become increasingly unbearable, particularly in major cities and provinces where the Taliban exerts a strong influence. The group has shuttered numerous businesses deemed incompatible with Islamic Sharia law and meted out harsh punishments to those who defy their extremist edicts. The escalating constraints, constant surveillance, and brutal corporal punishments have plunged civilians into a morass of unemployment, poverty, despair, and depression under Taliban rule.

Cinemas, music, and other art-related pursuits are strictly forbidden, with artists either being persecuted or compelled to flee the country. The vibrant tapestry of Afghan culture and society has been reduced to a somber monochrome as the Taliban’s iron grip stifles any remnants of joy or creative expression. The once-bustling cities, now suffocated by fear and repression, are stark reminders of the devastating consequences of extremist ideologies and the immense challenges ordinary Afghans face in their quest for peace, stability, and the simple right to live their lives on their own terms.