CAMPAIGN AGAINST TERRORISM: The Taliban Watched Their Every Move, but Chess-Loving Afghans Survived to Play Again
Cockburn, Patrick, The Independent (London, England)
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. …