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The Taliban’s War on Chess

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.”

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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