FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Taliban’s War on Chess

by Patrick Cockburn In Kabul

When the Taliban caught Haji Shirullah, a Kabul businessman, playing chess in his office with his brother they burnt the chessboard and the pieces. “They put us in jail for two days,” he recalled with a rueful smile. “The Taliban believed chess was a form of gambling and distracted people from saying their prayers.”

Mr Shirullah, a middle-aged man in a white skull cap, was waiting impatiently to start playing in the first chess tournament held in Kabul since the Taliban captured the city in 1996. Some 138 players had turned up – far more than expected – so some were using the floor because there were not enough tables and chairs.

For five years, Afghanistan has been the only place in the world where playing chess, always popular in the country, has been illegal. Chess players, fearful of denunciation, had to meet in secret.

Dr Qadratullah Andar, 26, became Afghan chess champion when he was a medical student just a month before the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.

He said: “At first we tried to play secretly, but my friends were arrested by the Maroof [the much feared religious police]. Some of them were well-known doctors who were arrested when playing in a hospital, so I thought it better not to play at all.”

Chess playing, unlike kite flying, another Taliban bete noire, seems well adapted to secrecy so it is surprising that the authorities were so successful at detecting it and punishing players. One reason is that Afghans, such as Mr Shirullah and his brother, used to play chess in their offices. Dr Andar said: “The religious police had nothing else to do but pursue people like us.”

Some chess players, suddenly forced to behave like drinkers in the United States during Prohibition, took stringent precautions.

The tournament taking place this week in Kabul was organised largely by Mohammed Akbar Salam, a professor of fine arts at Kabul University and a keen chess player. He said that when he and friends were playing “we put a guard in front of our gate so he could tell us if anybody from the Taliban was coming”. The tournament had not been easy to arrange, even though Afghanistan has a long tradition of chess playing. “Ordinary people used to play in the streets outside their shops,” said Dr Andar. “But even before the Taliban came this was becoming dangerous to do because of the shelling during the civil war.”

When Mr Salam tried to buy additional chess sets for this week’s tournament “we found that there were only seven or eight chess sets available in the bazaar and they were all very expensive,” he said. “We had to ask players to bring their own chess sets.”

The Taliban’s campaign against chess was so intense that it created real fear among even non-players who owned chess sets.

I first became aware of the tribulations of Afghan chess players when I tried to buy a chess set in a Kabul antique shop as a Christmas present for my 14-year-old son, Alexander. I had seen a fine-looking board in the shop, but the owner, named Said, said that, unfortunately, he had no pieces to go with it. I asked him what had happened to them. Said explained: “Under the Taliban I became frightened that they would come to my shop and find the pieces, so I took them home and hid them. But unfortunately I hid them so well, and it was several years ago, that now I can’t find them.”

Weekend Edition
February 12-14, 2016
Andrew Levine
What Next in the War on Clintonism?
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Comedy of Terrors
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh – Anthony A. Gabb
Financial Oligarchy vs. Feudal Aristocracy
Paul Street
When Plan A Meets Plan B: Talking Politics and Revolution with the Green Party’s Jill Stein
Rob Urie
The (Political) Season of Our Discontent
Pepe Escobar
It Takes a Greek to Save Europa
Gerald Sussman
Why Hillary Clinton Spells Democratic Party Defeat
Carol Norris
What Do Hillary’s Women Want? A Psychologist on the Clinton Campaign’s Women’s Club Strategy
Robert Fantina
The U.S. Election: Any Good News for Palestine?
Linda Pentz Gunter
Radioactive Handouts: the Nuclear Subsidies Buried Inside Obama’s “Clean” Energy Budget
Michael Welton
Lenin, Putin and Me
Manuel García, Jr.
Fire in the Hole: Bernie and the Cracks in the Neo-Liberal Lid
Thomas Stephens
The Flint River Lead Poisoning Catastrophe in Historical Perspective
David Rosen
When Trump Confronted a Transgender Beauty
Will Parrish
Cap and Clear-Cut
Victor Grossman
Coming Cutthroats and Parting Pirates
Ben Terrall
Raw Deals: Challenging the Sharing Economy
David Yearsley
Beyoncé’s Super Bowl Formation: Form-Fitting Uniforms of Revolution and Commerce
David Mattson
Divvying Up the Dead: Grizzly Bears in a Post-ESA World
Matthew Stevenson
Confessions of a Primary Insider
Jeff Mackler
Friedrichs v. U.S. Public Employee Unions
Franklin Lamb
Notes From Tehran: Trump, the Iranian Elections and the End of Sanctions
Pete Dolack
More Unemployment and Less Security
Christopher Brauchli
The Cruzifiction of Michael Wayne Haley
Bill Quigley
Law on the Margins: a Profile of Social Justice Lawyer Chaumtoli Huq
Uri Avnery
A Lady With a Smile
Katja Kipping
The Opposite of Transparency: What I Didn’t Read in the TIPP Reading Room
B. R. Gowani
Hellish Woman: ISIS’s Granny Endorses Hillary
Kent Paterson
The Futures of Whales and Humans in Mexico
James Heddle
Why the Current Nuclear Showdown in California Should Matter to You
Michael Howard
Hollywood’s Grotesque Animal Abuse
Steven Gorelick
Branding Tradition: a Bittersweet Tale of Capitalism at Work
Nozomi Hayase
Assange’s UN Victory and Redemption of the West
Patrick Bond
World Bank Punches South Africa’s Poor, by Ignoring the Rich
Mel Gurtov
Is US-Russia Engagement Still Possible?
Dan Bacher
Governor Jerry Brown Receives Cold, Dead Fish Award Four Years In A Row
Wolfgang Lieberknecht
Fighting and Protecting Refugees
Jennifer Matsui
Doglegs, An Unforgettable Film
Soud Sharabani
Israeli Myths: An Interview with Ramzy Baroud
Terry Simons
Bernie? Why Not?
Missy Comley Beattie
When Thoughtful People Think Illogically
Christy Rodgers
Everywhere is War: Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead: Stories
Ron Jacobs
Springsteen: Rockin’ the House in Albany, NY
Barbara Nimri Aziz
“The Martian”: This Heroism is for Chinese Viewers Too
Charles R. Larson
No Brainers: When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail