With just a week left until Eid al-Adha, a four-day Islamic festival, it was supposed to be a busy season for dressmakers in Kabul.
But Ahmad Dawood’s tailor shop on the Afghan capital’s bustling Lycee Maryam shopping street is half-empty these days.
“It’s a tradition in Kabul that nearly everyone wears new clothes for Eid, so normally we’d be flooded with orders ahead of the festival,” Dawood says.
“Even on ordinary days, without Eid, we’ve never been short of customers. But it all ended abruptly with the rumors of the Taliban coming back,” he says. The 24-year-old is worried about the business and his own future.
Uncertainty and fear hang over Kabul as the last U.S. troops leave Afghanistan and the Taliban makes strides across the country.
Like Dawood, young people of Kabul -- both men and women -- anxiously watch as the ultraconservative militant group closes in on big cities in its quest to return to power after nearly two decades of fighting government forces.
Many fear the Taliban would bring back its strict interpretation of Islam and undercut people’s freedoms.
Roman Asrar, who graduated from Kabul University this year, says the new generation of Afghans grew up “accustomed to certain freedoms” such as going to secular schools, listening to music, wearing modern clothes, and sporting trendy hairstyles.
“I can’t imagine losing it all,” Asrar tells RFE/RL. “I’ve had more or less concrete plans about my future, working and living in Kabul. I can’t dream or make different plans anymore.”
Reports from the areas in Afghanistan recently seized by the Taliban suggest that the group has already banned women from leaving their homes without a male guardian. Men have reportedly been banned from shaving or even trimming their beards.
The Taliban denies the claims, saying “everything will stay the same” until the war is over.
But the group’s leaders have been vague about whether the Taliban has changed its draconian, oppressive policies from when it ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996-2001 or still holds the same views.
“I don’t know if the Taliban has changed since 2001, but what I know is that the Afghan people have changed since then,” says Bashir Forogh, a 25-year-old teacher in Kabul.
Teachers fear that high schools and universities might lose half of their students -- the girls -- if the Taliban comes back to power and again bans or severely limits girls’ education.
Forogh says taking away people’s freedoms would deal another blow to the Afghan people, already suffocated by extreme poverty, war, and violence.
‘Having An Open Mind’
The Taliban says it will respect women’s rights within Islamic norms and allow girls education as long as they wear the Islamic hijab.
“But it’s difficult to trust the Taliban, because their leaders say one thing and their local chiefs do completely different things,” says Mahjabin Ramz, a Kabul resident.
Ramz said she was horrified by reports that the Taliban allegedly forced single women to marry militants in the areas they captured.
“There is nothing Islamic in such actions,” she says.
A graduate of Kabul University with a degree in journalism, Ramz is looking for work. But she doesn’t know what the future will hold for her and millions of other educated women in Afghanistan.
She's fearful of reports that female journalists in areas newly taken over by the Taliban have been told by representatives of the militant group not to return to work.
In the capital’s Macroyan 3 neighborhood, Razma Saad tried to stay optimistic about the future should the Taliban take power or join the government in some form of ruling partnership, as a peace deal forged by the United States last year promotes.
Saad has just completed her first semester at a private university where she studies finance and trade.
She has heard from her older relatives about the dark days of the Taliban’s short-lived rule that ended after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
But unlike many others, Saad says she believes the Taliban “might have changed” and might be willing to “make concessions to people.”
The young student hopes she will be able to continue her studies and that “the situation won’t be as bad as many people fear.”
But Saad says the Taliban must set aside its hard-line views, listen to people, and respect their wishes if it wants to govern them.
‘Small Details Of Freedom’
Shapoor, 34, owns two successful pharmacies that pay for his comfortable life in a newly built house in a plush quarter of Kabul’s Khairkhana neighborhood.
He often wears traditional Afghan clothes -- a long, loose shirt reaching his knees, with matching wide pants. He has a short beard.
Shapoor’s wife stays at home to take care of the couple’s two children and do household chores.
Despite living a “traditional lifestyle,” Shapoor says he is concerned about the Taliban taking power in Afghanistan.
“I don’t want to be told what to wear. It has to be my own choice,” he says.
Shapoor, who first met his wife -- a distant relative -- at a wedding party, says even housewives like her stand to lose their freedom under the Taliban.
“We eat out sometimes, I buy [my wife] flowers for Valentine's Day, and she likes going to the hair salon," Shapoor says. “These are small details of our freedom, but they matter to us.”
Leaving Afghanistan is not an option for Shapoor. He lived most of his childhood in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, after his parents fled Taliban rule in the 1990s.
Shapoor doesn’t want his children to experience “becoming unwanted strangers in somebody else’s country.”
Running Out Of Options
At his tailor shop in downtown Kabul, Dawood listens to his favorite Afghan pop music as he puts the finishing touches on a customer’s red-and-black Eid dress.
Outside his window, Lycee Maryam Street is as busy as ever; cars and minivans honk loudly as pedestrians and cart-pushing ice-cream sellers cross the road with complete disregard to traffic.
On the surface it seems to be business as usual in the city of some 4 million where people still go to work and markets are packed with shoppers.
Afghanistan's Cricket Board just appointed its world-famous star, Rashid Khan, as the national team captain for the Twenty20 World Cup in October.
But underneath the normal activity, people “are devastated about the future that will be either a continuing war or a miserable life under the Taliban,” says Dawood.
Most of the customers at his shop are women who order a wide range of clothes, from evening gowns and dresses to school uniforms and two-piece office wear.
Dawood “can’t picture the Taliban allowing men to make dresses for women.”
Under the Taliban, Dawood faces losing both his work and his hobbies -- listening to music, copying Bollywood fashion and hairstyles, and having dinner with friends at the city’s trendy bistros.
Dawood wants to leave Afghanistan but doesn't have much money and has nowhere to go. Like millions of Afghans, Dawood says he is left with no choice but to stay and hope for the best.
Radio Azadi correspondents in Kabul contributed to this report.