A passion for fashion is not the first image that springs to mind when most people think of Afghan men, usually pictured in war reports wearing beards, turbans and carrying AK47s as accessories.
However, male beauty salons in downtown Kabul now hum with activity as young men update their hair and beards in the latest Western styles — indulgences that would have got them beaten or jailed just 10 years ago.
Then, religious police from the “vice and virtue” department of the Taliban regime patrolled the streets in pick-up trucks seizing or whipping men and women whose appearance was considered a sin against Islam.
However, since the Taliban fell from power in the 2001 US-led invasion, men in Kabul in particular have seized on a new freedom to be stylish or trendy.
“Kabul boys have grown very passionate about their looks in recent years,” a smiling 25-year-old Ali Reza said as he sprayed blonde highlights on the hair of The Saloon’s smartly dressed first customer of the day.
Reza was among hundreds of thousands of Afghans who fled to neighboring countries when the Taliban took over in 1996. He learned hairdressing in India and returned to Kabul when the Taliban were toppled.
“Some media portray Afghan men as angry people with long beards and shoulder-length hair,” he said. “I decided to become a stylist to show that is not always the case, and Afghan men are beautiful, have a passion for modern fashion and are very stylish.”
An interest in popular Hollywood and Bollywood styles is not new to Afghanistan — once a highlight of overland travel for young Westerners — it has simply been suppressed by more than three decades of war.
An invasion by the Soviet Union in 1979 led to a 10-year occupation followed by civil war — and then came the Taliban with their brutal campaign against anything that did not fit with their idea of religious purity.
Now, while women may show high-heeled boots and jeans beneath their coats and dress stylishly in private, in public they remain well-covered — with some still wearing the all-enveloping burqa.
However, on the streets of Kabul — and to a lesser extent in other cities — it is the men who are strutting their stuff, parading their skinny or ripped jeans and spiky haircuts.
“Young men come here, bringing the photos of popular European, American and Indian movie or sport stars and ask us to style their hair or beard accordingly,” said Sayed Mehdi, 22, a stylist at Skin Deep fashion salon.
“We also provide fashion magazines to help them choose a hair or beard style that they favor,” he said.
Mujtaba, 27, who is wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans with rips, said he was beaten by Taliban police when he had a modestly styled haircut.
“Then they forced me to wear a black turban even when I was still a kid,” said Mujtaba, who like many Afghans uses just one name.
He came to The Saloon looking for the latest style in men’s beards.
“I want my beard in Wali style,” he said, referring to a famous expat Afghan pop star who wears a thin chin-strap style beard. “We don’t want to be less than Europeans and Americans when it comes to fashion.”
While the southern and eastern parts of the country remain gripped by a Taliban-led insurgency, the Afghan capital and major cities in the north or west enjoy relative security — and a boom in the fashion business.