Afghan city of party prohibitions

Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan - Since the fall of the Taleban, some areas of life in Afghanistan have relaxed, with girls going back to school and kite-flying and music - both of which the Taleban completely banned - returning.

Yet, in this highly conservative country, some places are becoming more restrictive again, including the relatively liberal northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Here, in July, local mullahs persuaded the provincial authorities to introduce new restrictions on parties and celebrations.

Evidence of the new rules and regulations is clear on a Friday night on the terrace of the Hotel Kefayat.

Neon-lit plastic palm trees glow, while party music drifts through doors that swing open from time to time, giving glimpses of women and young children inside - a very un-Afghan looking scene.

Many of the women are wearing tight tops and short skirts. The male wedding party was held separately; now the girls and women are having their fun.

Outside that very private space, smartly dressed men and boys - family, mostly - wait for them on the terrace, chatting.

A genial man clutching red prayer beads, the groom's Uncle Faizullah, tells me the women's party is subject to new rules. All the live musicians and singers are children; no adult male entertainers are allowed.

"It's because of a suggestion from the religious scholars to the respected governor of our province," he says, referring to General Atta Muhammad Noor, a well-known former Mujahideen commander.

"Our governor agreed, because he wants to impose Islamic law here. So he decided not to allow men or boys over 14 or 15 to entertain at women's parties. Men of 20 or 30 used to perform at women's parties, but that's changed now."

Exquisitely decorated

Mazar-e-Sharif has a special relationship with weddings, as a visit to the famous shrine to Hazrat Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, shows.

At this 15th century monument in the heart of the city, exquisitely decorated in blue and turquoise, a steady flow of solemn young bridegrooms visit with their friends to seek Ali's blessings on their marriage.

Under the new, stricter rules, the city's many hotels and marriage halls can continue to host wedding parties, but nothing else. They are banned from hosting engagement parties, parties for the newborn, parties for pilgrims to Mecca, or any other types of celebration.

At the Asadia Madrassa, a modern Islamic school with 700 pupils including 60 newly-admitted girls, I meet its head, Mawlawi Rahmatullah - the senior local mullah who persuaded the governor to tighten the laws.

The softly-spoken cleric greets me warmly. He says one major reason for the changes is that people often get into debt because they feel obliged to hold too many parties, especially before and after weddings.

"So we are getting rid of the extra parties," he says.

He would like further restrictions.

"To be honest, Islam bans music," he says. "Music is unlawful. Anyone who listens to it is guilty. Anyone who listens and enjoys it is more guilty."

I tell him some people are describing the current clampdown in Mazar-e-Sharif as Talebanisation. He rejects this.

"It's not Talebanisation; it's Islamisation. The Taleban was a strong government because it was able to ban music. The other governments should have banned music," he says, referring not only to Afghanistan but the wider world.

Not far away, Shoib Najafizada showed me round his garden, an oasis of fruit trees and flowers in a hot and dusty city, and explained how the new rules have affected him.

His first child, a boy, was born five days earlier. But he couldn't formally name him without a special party - a party usually held in a big public place.

"We need to take this party in a hotel to really enjoy it," he said, laughing at the recollection.

"I asked many hotels. But they rejected us and said that 'sorry we don't have permission from the government'. I said, 'what if we take this party as a secret?' He said 'no, it's not possible for it to be kept secret!'"

Denunciation of music

Mr Najafizada said it was not up to the government to tell people how to spend their money and he did not believe the new rules would be popular.

"In the past there were parties, music, everything was in Mazar-e-Sharif. It's very difficult to change the habits."

I met the provincial governor's adviser on social matters, Abdul Qadir Misbah.

He seemed uneasy about the mullah's denunciation of music - but stressed that his government would punish hotel owners who allowed unauthorised parties.

"There are many factors involved," he said. "One is the need to implement religious rules. Another is the freedom of neighbours not to be disturbed by music at night. Also we need to help the younger generation to marry, even if they don't have much money."

That is the message the authorities in Mazar-e-Sharif are stressing - they mention the need to protect people from going into debt in justifying their tighter rules.

Some local people welcome the changes for that very reason.

But underneath there also seems to be a more basic tension at work - between mullahs who admire the Taleban's extreme austerity, and more liberal people who are waiting to see whether party-going and music are going to be further restricted.