Ariana Cinema’s cool 1960s-style lines stand out above a traffic-congested roundabout in central Kabul.
For decades, the historic cinema has entertained Afghans and borne testimony to Afghanistan’s wars, hopes and cultural shifts.
Now the tent has been stripped of the posters featuring Bollywood movies and American action movies that used to adorn it. The gates are closed.
After regaining power three months ago, the Taliban ordered Ariana and other cinemas to stop operating.
The Islamic militant guerrillas who have become rulers say they have not yet decided whether they will allow films in Afghanistan.
Like the rest of the country, Ariana is in a strange limbo, waiting to see how the Taliban will rule.
The cinema’s almost 20 employees, all men, still show up for work and log on to their attendance in the hope that they will eventually be paid.
The landmark Ariana, one of only four cinemas in the capital, is owned by Kabul municipality, so its employees are government employees and remain on the payroll.
The men are gone for hours. They hang out in the abandoned ticket booth or stroll around Ariana’s arched corridors. Rows of plush red seats sit in quiet darkness.
Ariana’s director, Asita Ferdous, the first woman on the record, is not even allowed to enter the cinema.
The Taliban ordered female government employees to stay away from their workplaces so that they do not mix with men until they decide whether they are allowed to work.
The 26-year-old Mrs Ferdous is part of a post-2001 generation of young Afghans who are determined to create a greater space for women’s rights.
The Taliban’s takeover has destroyed their hopes. She also now stays at home as a painter and sculptor.
“I spend time making sketches, drawing, just to keep rehearsing myself,” she said.
During their previous tenure in power from 1996-2001, the Taliban imposed a radical interpretation of Islamic law that banned women from working or going to school – or even leaving home in many cases – and forced men to grow beards and attend prayers. They banned music and other art, including film and cinema.
Under international pressure, the Taliban now say they have changed. But they have been vague about what they will or will not allow. It has put many Afghans’ lives – and livelihoods – on hold.
For Ariana, it is another chapter in a tumultuous story of six decades.
Ariana opened in 1963. Its sleek architecture reflected the spirit of modernization that the then ruling monarchy sought to bring to the deeply traditional nation.
Kabul resident Ziba Niazai recalled that he went to Ariana in the late 1980s, under the rule of Soviet-backed President Najibullah, when there were more than 30 cinemas around the country.
For her, it was an access to another world. She had just gotten married and her new husband brought her from their hometown in the mountains to Kabul, where he had a job in the Ministry of Finance. She was alone in the house all day while he was in the office.
But when he got off work, they often went together to Ariana for a Bollywood movie.
After years of communist rule, it was a more secular era than in recent decades, at least for a narrow urban elite.
“We had no hijab at the time,” Niazai, now in his late 50s, said, referring to the headscarf.
Many couples went to the cinema and “there was not even a separate section you could sit where you wanted”.
At the time, war raged across the country as the Najibullah government fought a US-backed coalition of warlords and Islamic militants.
The Mujahedin overthrew him in 1992. Then they turned against each other in a battle for power that destroyed Kabul and killed thousands of people trapped in the crossfire.
Ariana was badly damaged, along with most of the surrounding neighborhood, in the frequent bombings and gun battles.
It lay in ruins for years when the Taliban expelled the mujahedin and took over Kabul in 1996. Whatever cinemas that survived around Kabul were closed.
Ariana’s resurgence came after the Taliban’s expulsion in the US-led invasion in 2001.
The French government helped rebuild the cinema in 2004, part of the flow of billions of dollars in international aid that sought to reshape Afghanistan over the next 20 years.
When the Taliban were gone, the cinema experienced a new outbreak of popularity.
Indian films have always been the biggest draw of Ariana, as have action films, especially those with Jean-Claude Van Damme, said Abdul Malik Wahidi, who is in charge of tickets.
As Afghanistan’s domestic film industry revived, Ariana played a handful of Afghan films produced each year.
They had three screenings a day, ending in the middle of the afternoon, for 50 afghanis a ticket – about 50 cents. The audience was predominantly men. In Afghanistan’s conservative society, cinemas were seen as a male space, and few women participated.
Sir. Wahidi remembered how he and other staff had to preview all foreign films to weed them out, where scenes were considered too violent – for example, with couples kissing or women showing too much skin.
Letting something slip through could bring the anger of some filmmakers. Offended audiences were known for throwing objects at the screen, even though it did not happen at Ariana, Wahidi said.
He remembered a patron on Ariana, indignant at a scene that stormed out and shouted at him, “How can you show pornography?”
Mrs. Ferdous was appointed Ariana’s director just over a year ago. She has previously headed Kabul Municipality’s Gender Equality Department, where she had worked to achieve equal pay for female employees and deploy women as senior officers in the capital’s district police departments.
When she came to Ariana, the male staff was surprised, “but they have been very cooperative and have worked well with me”.
She focused on making the cinema more accommodating for women. They dedicated one side of the auditorium to couples and families where women could sit. Those who entered the cinema had to be applauded by guards as a security measure, and Mrs. Ferdous brought in a female guard so that female patrons would feel more comfortable.
Couples started coming regularly, she said.
In March 2021, the cinema hosted a festival of Afghan films that proved to be very popular, with the participation of Afghan actors who held talks with the audience.
Now it’s all stopped and Ariana’s staff is back without knowing their fate. The male employees have received a portion of their salary since the Taliban took power.
Mrs Ferdous said she had not been paid at all.
“If they are not allowed, their financial situation will only get worse.”
Inanullah Amany, director general of Kabul municipality’s culture department, said that if the Taliban ban films, Ariana’s employees could be transferred to other municipal jobs. Or they may be fired.
Staff said they could not even guess what the Taliban would decide, but none of them had much hope that they would allow movies.
That would be a loss, said Rahmatullah Ezati, Ariana’s chief projectionist.
“If a country does not have a cinema, then there is no culture. Through the cinema, we have seen other countries like Europe, the United States and India,” he said.