Kabul, Afghanistan – On Monday evening, Ahmadullah Azadani climbed on the roof of his house in the Western Afghan city of Herat and awaited something that would have been unthinkable in the city even a week earlier.
He waited on his roof overlooking the ancient city, until he heard a single voice calling out: “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest), over and over.
At first, it was only one voice in the distance, then suddenly the voices increased until it became an echoing cry around the city that only a few days ago was on the verge of falling to the Taliban.
Azadani, who had returned to his native Herat from the Afghan capital Kabul several months ago, said he had never witnessed anything like it before.
“I have never seen our people join in such vocal support of their troops and the people who fight alongside them,” he said, referring to the volunteer militias known as “uprising forces” that took up arms with the Afghan National Security Forces in their fight to expel the Taliban advance towards the city.
For young people like Azadani, those cries harkened back to stories their parents had told them about the communist rule and subsequent Soviet occupation of the 1980s.
Then, as now, people took their roofs in defiance of the brutal Soviet-backed communist rule of their country. At that time, Herat was one of the first cities to see the public rise up against what was seen as un-Islamic rule by millions of Afghans across the country.
“Last night’s event resurfaced all those stories for those who were alive during the communists’ time, and they, in turn, reminded the younger generation like me of these kinds of events in the past,” he said.
Azadani described the experience as a once in a lifetime moment.
“I felt a sense of hope, community and belonging, all at once,” he said.
But Azadani said last night’s event differed in one crucial way from the practice from decades prior.
“In the past, people were doing this against the communist state including against its army. Now, we do it in support of our Afghan National Security Forces and the national resistance movement, and to say a big ‘NO’ to the Taliban,” he said.
‘Cry of defiance’
Within hours, video of those cries filled Afghan social media, as Afghans at home and abroad expressed similar sentiments about the footage.
The fact that the last week has seen Taliban assaults on the cities of Herat, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah only added to that collective sense of pride.
On Tuesday morning, President Ashraf Ghani expressed his support in an address to the media.
“Last night, the people of Herat showed exactly who represents the cries of Allahu Akbar.”
Ali A Olomi, an Afghan-American professor of the History of the Middle East and Islam, said the fact that the people chose “Allahu Akbar” as their cry of defiance to the Taliban is especially profound.
“It is a declaration that God, no matter the circumstances whether in victory, or defeat, is greater than any and all. It is a cry of defiance when facing an overwhelming oppressor, or experiencing the vicissitudes of persecution,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Even in those dire circumstances, God can overcome. In victory, it is a reminder of humility and a cry of thanks. In defeat, it is a proclamation of hope and defiance,” Olomi said of the significance of the phrase.
In recent months, social media has become a renewed propaganda ground for both sides of the Afghan conflict, and on Monday evening, several Taliban supporting accounts tried to claim the cries were in support of the group.
However, Azadani does not buy that claim.
“I talked to the people. I live here. I can say with certainty no one was doing it for the Taliban,” he said.
“It was a very clear message to the Taliban that we don’t want you … everyone said they did it to show their defiance.”
On Tuesday evening, it was Kabul’s turn.
Despite a heavy explosion occurring only an hour from the 9pm (16:30 GMT) start time, the people still took to their roofs and the streets to chant “Allahu Akbar”. For more than 40 minutes, voices of children, men and women could be heard ringing from the city, even as the sounds of gunfire and smoke rose from the blast site.
Online video showed people gathering on the streets of various parts of the capital, waving the nation’s tricolour flag.
— Reporterly (@Reporterlyaf) August 3, 2021
But Kabul was not alone, Afghan social media was suddenly filled with videos of similar actions in Nangarhar, Khost, Kunar and Bamiyan provinces.