In Kabul’s cityscape of blast walls and traffic, a decorative feature stands out: the ubiquitous windshield stickers and car decals imparting everything from words of wisdom to chest-thumping braggadocio, often tinged with humour.
The practice of giving extra personality to your car is an undying, fundamental tenet of urban Afghan life, seemingly immune to dwindling foreign cash, unemployment, and constrained household budgets.
Increasingly, swashbuckling young men are using English in the stickers plastered across their rear window. “Mafia love” is a big seller. “Don’t Cry Girls, I Will Be Back” is equally popular, as is religious advice: “No Drink Because It Is Sin.”
Often, swagger is more important than syntax: “Fighter Car. If You Follow Me Will Be Die,” warns an old Toyota Corolla. Another gives life counsel: “Live Well, Love Mach, Laug Often,” accompanied, oddly, by a Che Guevara stencil nestled inside an Apple logo.
Kabul’s car sticker business dates back to the 1970s when, according to traders, a man named Mohsen returned from Pakistan with materials and a new idea. Mohsen, who died three years ago, long kept his technique a secret, but over the years other shops poached his students and eventually entered the trade themselves.
“It’s good money and easy work,” says Mohammad Rafi, 34, whose father, a trained shoemaker, was among the first to follow in Mohsen’s steps 35 years ago. A sticker costs between £2 and £7, and on a good day the family business can reap £200 in revenue, he says.
Drivers in Kabul are almost exclusively male and, if stickers are to be believed, many hunger for romance.
“All ways you are my heart. My heart is ready for you,” says a sticker on Rafi’s wall. Outside, a battered yellow taxi laments: “I Am Nailing For You, Please Come Rack Soon,” the “C” in the style of a Coca-Cola logo.
Others resist the lure of love: “No Girl No Tention,” proclaims one. A more blunt choice goes: “I Hate Girls.”
The business offers a a glimpse into Afghanistan’s modernisation, as well as its changing political climates. Forty years ago, Mohsen used a knife to cut patterns, drawn by hand, from rolls of vinyl. Motifs were simple, like flames or horses. During the Taliban rule, Qur’an quotations were all the rage, adorned with intricate calligraphy and metre-long swords.
The trade has since become an industry. Materials are no longer transported from Pakistan crammed into Toyota Corollas, but arrive in shipping containers from China. Everything is designed on computers.
Now, popular decorations include insignia of the presidential palace and stencils of the former president Hamid Karzai – not the struggling current president, Ashraf Ghani – and mujahideen icon Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Neither slogans in English nor faces of heroes were allowed under the Taliban, who banned depictions of humans and animals.
“If I had put [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar or Massoud’s face on a sticker, I would have been hanged,” says Farhad, a decal designer.
is again undergoing big changes, leaving many squeezed by the worsening economy and security. One windshield recently spotted in Kabul simply said: “If I make, I make it. If not, I’m going to Germany.”