The breakdancers of Kabul: Afghan youth busting moves

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The French Cultural Center in Kabul is one of the few places where the mixed-gender Top Step crew are able to practice and feel relatively safe. (AFP)
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The French Cultural Center in Kabul is one of the few places where the mixed-gender Top Step crew are able to practice and feel relatively safe. (AFP)
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Breakdancing is a rare sight in the fiercely conservative Islamic society of Afghanistan. (AFP)
Updated 24 September 2019

The breakdancers of Kabul: Afghan youth busting moves

  • ‘Breakdancing keeps us away from stress and war’
  • Still, breakdancing is a rare sight in the fiercely conservative Islamic society

KABUL: In the land of suicide bombings, burqas, and unending war, a group of Afghans have turned to breakdancing for stress relief and self-expression — even as fears the Taliban could yet return to power fuel worries of a renewed crackdown on the arts.
At the French Cultural Center in Kabul, the group takes turns practicing the basics — toprocking, headspins, and freezes, while watching YouTube videos on their phones of famous b-boys like Lilou and Hong Ten for inspiration.
“Breakdancing keeps us away from stress and war. It gives us freedom. It frees our minds from the stress of living in Kabul and we forget about the war and killings,” explains Murtaza Lomani, 23, from the Top Step crew.
Still, breakdancing is a rare sight in the fiercely conservative Islamic society, where traditional folk music mostly dominates the radiowaves and dancing takes place mainly at gender-segregated weddings.
The cultural center is one of the few places in the Afghan capital where the mixed-gender Top Step crew are able to practice and feel relatively safe, Lomani says. But even here there are risks.
Just five years ago, the center was attacked by the Taliban as it hosted a play about suicide bombings, where Lomani was among the injured.
For Heja Aalia, who says she is one of just four female breakdancers in Kabul, there are other worries.
“If I train outdoors in our society, people insult you,” says Aalia, adding that many young women are interested in breakdancing but are unable to get permission from their families to try it out.


“It’s really difficult for a girl to practice breakdance, especially in Afghanistan where people think dance is against Islamic culture.”
The sport first originated in New York’s Bronx borough in the 1970s, where “breaking” along with rap music and graffiti art formed the pillars of hip-hop culture that has gone on to dominate everything from pop music to fashion worldwide in the ensuing decades.
But while the rest of the world was quick to embrace that culture, decades of war and hard-line Taliban rule in the 1990s prevented the phenomenon from taking root in Afghanistan.
“Afghan society has changed a bit in recent years, the generations have changed and people are thinking positively,” says Lomani, who admits that many laughed at their dance moves when they first started in 2011.
“But we have convinced some youth and now it is really good that we practice,” he adds.
Fellow Top Step member Obaidullah Koofi, 24, says he first got interested in breakdancing after seeing videos online.
“We learn our new moves from YouTube, and YouTube is our mentor because we do not have any trainer here to ... teach us,” he says.
However, there are fears that it all may change soon.
After 18 years of war, the United States spent the last year locked in negotiations with the Taliban, seeking a deal that could see a gradual withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan.
The deal was, temporarily at least, taken off the table after President Donald Trump declared the talks “dead” earlier this month.
Instead, Afghans are now gearing up for a presidential election set for Saturday, when incumbent Ashraf Ghani and main rival Abdullah Abdullah will be seeking a strong mandate to negotiate with the Taliban as they seek a lasting peace.
However, Washington’s desire to end its longest war has been made clear, and Afghans are still apprehensive that a hasty US exit — with or without a deal — might allow the long-feared Islamists, who have been resurgent on the battlefield in recent years, to regain some semblance of power in Kabul.
“If the Taliban come none of us can continue,” says Aalia.
But despite those fears, and the backlash against female breakdancers, she has vowed to continue.
“One day if the Taliban comes, we can stop this publicly,” she says.
“But we will practice breakdancing underground or secretly.”


At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

In this Monday, Jan. 20, 2020 image, Lizzie Chimiugak, right, gets a hug from her granddaughter Janet Lawrence at her home in Toksook Bay, Alaska. (AP)
Updated 9 min 42 sec ago

At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

  • The decennial US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867

TOKSOOK BAY, Alaska: Lizzie Chimiugak has lived for 90 years in the windswept western wilds of Alaska, born to a nomadic family who lived in mud homes and followed where the good hunting and fishing led.
Her home now is an outpost on the Bering Sea, Toksook Bay, and on Tuesday she became the first person counted in the US Census, taken every 10 years to apportion representation in Congress and federal money.
“Elders that were before me, if they didn’t die too early, I wouldn’t have been the first person counted,” Lizzie Chimiugak said, speaking Yup’ik language of Yugtun, with family members serving as interpreters. “Right now, they’re considering me as an elder, and they’re asking me questions I’m trying my best to give answers to, or to talk about what it means to be an elder.”
The decennial US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867. The ground is still frozen, which allows easier access before the spring melt makes many areas inaccessible to travel and residents scatter to subsistence hunting and fishing grounds. The mail service is spotty in rural Alaska and the Internet connectivity unreliable, which makes door-to-door surveying important.
The rest of the nation, including more urban areas of Alaska, begin the census in mid-March.
On Tuesday, Steven Dillingham, director of the census bureau, conducted the first interview after riding on the back of a snowmobile from the airport to Chimiugak’s home.
“The 2020 Census has begun,” he told reporters after conducting the first interview with Chimiugak, a process that lasted about five minutes. “Toksook Bay isn’t the easiest place to get to, and the temperature is cold. And while people are in the village, we want to make sure everyone is counted.”
Dillingham was hours late getting to Toksook Bay because weather delayed his flight from the hub community of Bethel, about 115 miles (185 kilometers) away. Conditions didn’t improve, and he spent only about an hour in the community before being rushed back to the airport.
After the count, a celebration took place at Nelson Island School and included the Nelson Island High School Dancers, an Alaska Native drum and dance group. Later, the community took over the commons area of the high school with a potluck of Alaska Native foods, including seal, moose and goose soups, herring roe served with seal oil and baked salmon.
Robert Pitka, tribal administrator for Nunakauyak Traditional Council, hopes the takeaway message for the rest of the nation is of Yup’ik pride.
“We are Yup’ik people and that the world will see that we are very strong in our culture and our traditions and that our Yup’ik language is very strong,” he said.
For Chimiugak, she has concerns about climate change and what it might do to future generations of subsistence hunters and fishers in the community, and what it will do to the fish and animals. She talked about it with others at the celebration.
“She’s sad about the future,” he eldest son Paul said.
Chimiugak was born just after the start of the Great Depression in the middle of nowhere in western Alaska, her daughter Katie Schwartz of Springfield, Missouri, said. Lizzie was one of 10 siblings born to her parents, who lived a nomadic lifestyle and traveled with two or three other families that would migrate together, her son said.
Lizzie and her 101-year-old sister from Nightmute, Alaska, survive.
In 1947 Lizzie married George Chimiugak, and they eventually settled in Toksook Bay after the town was founded in 1964 by residents of nearby Nightmute. There are five surviving children.
He worked maintenance at the airport. She did janitorial work at the old medical clinic and babysat.
Like other wives, she cleaned fish, tanned hides and even rendered seal oil after her husband came home from fishing or hunting. Her husband died about 30 years ago.
She is also a woman of strong Catholic faith, and told her son that she saved his life by praying over him after he contracted polio.
For her own hobbies, she weaved baskets from grass and remains a member of the Alaska Native dance group that performed Tuesday. She dances in her wheelchair.
She taught children manners and responsibility and continued the oral tradition of telling them stories with a storyknife.
Chimiugak used a knife in the mud to illustrate her stories to schoolchildren. She drew figures for people or homes. At the end of the story, she’d use the knife to wipe away the pictures and start the next story with a clean slate of mud.
“She’s a great teacher, you know, giving us reminders of how we’re supposed to be, taking care of subsistence and taking care of our family and respecting our parents,” her granddaughter Alice Tulik said. “That’s how she would give us advice.”