‘Does this feel like Eid to you?’: No festival cheer for Afghans

Eid al-Adha falls at a precarious time for the country as foreign forces withdraw, peace talks flounder and Taliban makes sweeping gains.

Herat is known for its treats, but with fewer orders, sweet makers fear they may not be able to turn a profit this year [Mohammad Aref Karimi/Al Jazeera]

Herat, Afghanistan – In the years past, Kochei Leilami in Herat city in Afghanistan’s west, would be full of shoppers on the days in the run up to an Eid holiday.

The road leading back to the historic Masjed Jame would be full of people, multicoloured rickshaws and vehicles making their way to buy fabric, scarves, gold, shoes, plastic trinkets for children and everything else that used to be on display in the city’s most famous bazaar.

But this year, Eid al-Adha falls at a particularly precarious time for the city and the country as the foreign forces withdraw after 20 years. Peace talks between the government and Taliban have yet to yield meaningful results, a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic has hospitals struggling to keep up with an increasing patient load, and districts across the country continue to trade hands between the government and Taliban forces at an alarming rate.

Shepherds in Herat fear insecurity and downturn in economy may keep customers away [Mohammad Aref Karimi/Al Jazeera]

Residents in Herat say it is difficult to get into the spirit of feasting and charity the holiday is known for.

Aminullah sells plastic trinkets and jewellery from a cart only a few metres from the historic mosque. He says he has never seen the bazaar so empty days before Eid in the six years he has been running the cart.

“Other years, even on a Friday, there would be so many people on this street they’d have to close it off to cars,” he told Al Jazeera.

But this year, shopkeepers can be seen playing cards outside their largely empty stores.

One of Herat’s delicacies: gosh-e-fil, or elephant ears, made by frying dough and sprinkling powdered sugar and pistachio [Mohammad Aref Karimi/Al Jazeera]

Aminullah says the security situation in Herat province, where the Taliban enjoys a foothold in a majority of districts, is to blame for the lack of customers.

He says his past experience working with foreign forces in Shindand district makes him certain of his assessment.

“I know what I am talking about, I know what war and fighting looks like. Believe me, all of Herat is terrified right now.”

Others in the business community Al Jazeera spoke to also agreed that this is the worst year they have ever seen in terms of Eid-related spending.

In an alleyway not far from Aminullah’s cart is a large unassuming building, home to a dozen tailors’ shops. Inside, young boys and older men work diligently in the heat to try and meet the people’s demand for new Eid clothes.

Gholam Nabi, who has run his tailor shop for 26 years, says the Eid rush hit late this year. “Very late,” as he put it.

Traditionally, people would start placing orders up to 15 days prior to the holiday. This year, he says, the bulk of his order came in the final week. He also blames the security situation.

“People weren’t certain what would happen. The districts are falling, no one wanted to risk travelling to the market if the Taliban did come storming in,” he says, barely looking up from measuring a piece of blue fabric.

Working for more than 20 years has also given Nabi a keen understanding of his customers and their effect on the local economy in one of Afghanistan’s economic hubs.

He points to a piece of peach fabric covered in silver embroidery as an example of the city’s current economic state.

Hand-embroidered ‘Khamak Dozi’ clothes from Herat are highly coveted [Mohammad Aref Karimi/Al Jazeera]

Designs such as these, known as “Khamak Dozi”, are hand-sewn by women in villages outside the city. Each one can take anywhere from two weeks to several months to sew and cost between $63-$190. The one his assistant was cutting cost 10,000 Afghanis ($126).

Their high price tag means only the most discerning, well-to-do men could afford the cloth.

Nabi says the number he has been asked to sew this Eid has taken an unprecedented dive.

“It’s down 90 percent. Everyone who could afford them has left the city, if not the country,” Nabi told Al Jazeera.

In fact, he also blames the downturn in business on people fleeing the country as the war intensifies and the Taliban fighters get closer to the city.

Earlier this month, the district of Zendeh Jan, 49 kilometres (30 miles) from the city briefly fell to the group.

Nabi says his own customers have started fleeing. He says when he asks about customers he has not heard from in a while, people usually say: “Didn’t you hear? He packed up and left with his entire family.”

Even purveyors of less expensive goods, such as sweets, have seen their business affected by the intensifying violence.

With increased demand over Eid holidays, sweet makers and tailors often turn to young boys for extra help in fulfilling orders [Mohammad Aref Karimi/Al Jazeera]

Jalil Ahmad, who employs more than a dozen boys and men to produce the treats, says he still gets orders from nearby provinces.

Customers from Badghis province – where the Taliban and government recently agreed to a ceasefire after the group entered the capital for a few hours earlier in the month – and Ghor province, home to more than 130 different armed groups, will make phone orders, which are then delivered by a car.

Ahmad says his drivers have been lucky so far as they travel down two of the most dangerous roads in the country’s western zone.

“If they get stopped along the way, they just say they are there to deliver Eid candy and the Taliban lets them pass,” he says.

Reza, another sweets maker who produces candies for bulk sellers, says his orders decreased by 50 percent this year. Making the matters worse is the recent increase in oil prices, which means they make fewer profits while also fulfilling fewer orders.

But the biggest barometer of a subdued Eid al-Adha economy can be seen in the nation’s livestock markets, where shepherds and farmers sell sheep, goats and cows for the traditional sacrifice.

A young boy with a goat for sale at a market in Herat [Mohammad Aref Karimi/Al Jazeera]

Lal Gol is in his 70s and says he must sell as many sheep as possible to make up for the drought that devastated his wheat crops.

“All the wheat I planted this year dried out,” he said.

Like Nabi, the tailor, Lal Gol also says the traditional spenders are missing this year.

“Usually, a businessman will come and buy 10 or 12 sheep at once, but all those people have left,” he said in a field on the outskirts of the city.

He fears that one of Afghanistan’s economic centres may be facing a serious capital flight due to war, illnesses and the rising price of goods.

“There is fighting all around us, anyone who can get out has.”

But most of all, Lal Gol says the holiday spirit is just not there this year.

“Who can celebrate? Does this feel like Eid to you?”

Source: Al Jazeera