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Kabul bathhouses booming again

[Afghanistan] Habib visits the bath twice a week.
Lack of water means traditional bathhouses - banned by the Taliban - are popular again (David Swanson/IRIN)

It is only eight in the morning, but the steam-filled Haji Mir Ahmad communal bathhouse, or hammam, located in the Karte Parvan District of the capital, Kabul, is already packed to capacity. Hammams, which were banned by the Taliban, are experiencing a major rebirth as thousands of men and women in Kabul - lacking access to running water - return en masse to this traditional form of bathing.

"We don’t have water in our neighbourhood, 32 year-old Habib told IRIN. "If I am to wash, this is the only choice I have," he said.

Habib is not alone. With Kabul suffering from a major water shortage, and hot water at a premium, the options for thousands of city residents are limited. The municipality’s infrastructure was devastated in the course of more than two decades of war. Costing less than 20 US cents a visit, hammams are back, proving a necessary - but less than ideal - alternative in this broken-down city.

Welcome news for bathhouse proprietors. "Business is brisk," 55 year-old Nazim told IRIN. "People don’t have water at home, so they come here," he said. Since he reopened in December, some 600 people a day were visiting his 50 year-old establishment, he claimed, adding that he was unsure about the adjacent women’s section. "We’re not allowed to go in there," he said with a toothless grin.

Before the Taliban took the capital in 1996, there were 66 hammams in the city, in each of which up to 100 people from the poorer areas lacking running water could wash together at one time. Men and women - in separate sections - would wear shorts or towels around their waists as they washed themselves in large steam rooms with marbled floors.

But under the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islam, this custom was deemed decadent. With women banned from exposing any part of their bodies publicly, the Taliban’s notorious vice and virtue police quickly closed down the women's hammams in 1996. Four years later, men were required to bathe in separate cubicles. The Taliban said Islam forbade men to display their bodies publicly - even among other men - leaving bathhouse employees at a loss as what to do next.

Khalifah Del Aqu, who for 50 US cents will provide customers with a vigorous massage, was one of five masseurs to return to the Haji Mir Ahmad hammam after almost five years of closure. "I had worked here for 35 years. I was devastated," the 55 year-old told IRIN of the time when the Taliban closed down his workplace. Married with seven children, he works from five in the morning to four in the afternoon of every day, averaging five massages per day.

Asked if he was happy to be employed again, he said: "Of course. This is the only thing I know, and the only way I can provide for my family."

The resurgence of hammams, however, is indicative of the municipality’s inability to provide even the most basic necessities, such as water. Citing sanitary concerns, most bathers told IRIN they didn’t like the hammams, but came on a weekly basis out of necessity.

According to city officials, about 70 percent of Kabul’s two million inhabitants have no access to running water. "A great deal of the city’s infrastructure was damaged in the fighting, and with the drought now in its fourth year, I worry how this municipality is going to cope," Abdy Delbar, an official at the Ministry of Public Works, told IRIN.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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