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After Taliban, next to go were beards

In this town just freed from the Taliban by Northern Alliance troops, the busiest spot was Amon's Barbershop, where men lined up to have their beards shaved off.

One after another they came and one after the other the beards fell to the floor. At the end of the day, Amonullah, the proprietor, stood exhausted in a pile of beard cuttings. He smiled when he realized there was one thing he had forgotten to do.

"Tomorrow, I'm going to shave off my own beard," Amonullah said. With that, he closed for the night, capping the busiest day he has known.

In the 12 hours since the Taliban left this town, a joyous mood has spread. The people of Taloqan, who lived for two years under the Taliban's oppressive Islamic rule, burst onto the streets to toss off the restrictions that burrowed into the most intimate aspects of their lives.

Men tossed turbans into gutters. Families dug up long-hidden TVs. Restaurants blared music. Cigarettes flared, and young men talked of growing their hair long.

In the most noticeable change, women, clad in head-to-toe burqas, walked the streets alone, no longer required to have a male relative at their side. They walked alone and they walked with each other, their blue and white and red burqas blowing open in the breeze.

"The Taliban, they were cruel people, and the whole city clapped and cheered when they retreated," said Muhammad Humayun, a 23-year-old pharmacist. "The first thing I did was take my turban off and throw it away. I am going to enjoy my freedom."

Of course, the ebb and flow of armies always produces some quick adaptations of habits and views. Behind the enthusiasm of some residents there possibly lurked a cooler calculation of where their best interest now lay. Still, the joy here was palpable.

Taloqan, a valley town in northeast Afghanistan, fell to the Northern Alliance on Sunday, after troops under Gen. Daoud Khan overran Taliban front lines and secured the defection of an important local warlord.

The Taliban, sensing that their fortunes were changing for the worse, fled the city. As Daoud and his men rolled into the city, townspeople poured into the streets to greet them.

With that celebratory entrance, Taloqan became the second major city to fall to the Afghan opposition in three days, and the first that foreign journalists have been able to enter. Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest northern city, has remained inaccessible to correspondents since its reported capture by the Northern Alliance.

In the tea shops and food stores that line the main bazaar here, the locals said the city never embraced the Taliban soldiers or the creed that they brought with them.

After they captured Taloqan two years ago, the Taliban imposed the extreme brand of Islam that has brought them condemnation from around the globe. All men had to wear beards. No woman could work, go to school or leave the house alone. Television, music and photos of people were banned. Violators were beaten, jailed, mutilated and killed.

The ideology, however harshly imposed, never sunk in, it seems.

"All the restrictions, on television, on shaving, on women," said Muhammad Asif, a young shopkeeper. "The Koran says nothing about such things. The Taliban people are a bunch of illiterates."