KABUL, Afghanistan -- The past is a foreign country to Abdul Wasi Hamdard, one where they did things differently and he was an artist full of promise.
On the face of it, that past was hardly to be envied: he fled the modern-art-hating Taliban in 1996 and joined a few million of his fellow Afghans as a refugee in Pakistan, separated from his family. He lived alone in a small room scarcely bigger than his bed, with a window and an easel.
"I painted from 9 p.m. until dawn every day," he says. "I was very happy then."
The result was a remarkable output: 10,000 canvases over the ensuing years, mostly oils but also watercolors, establishing himself as one of Afghanistan's most successful young artists.
When the Taliban fell in late 2001, Mr. Hamdard, then in his late 30s, returned, and Kabul's galleries snapped up his paintings. By then, few Afghans could afford them, but the capital was full of foreigners passing through for whom prices as low as $100 a canvas (ranging into the low thousands for larger pieces) were a steal for fine art.
"You can find one or two of my paintings in every corner of the world," he says.
The Norwegian and Indian Embassies were among those that held showings; for a time, the American Embassy even had a small gallery inside its compound, with Hamdards as a staple offering.
There is a photograph of him from the early part of the decade, vital and cheery in front of his work. He was often invited to art events, nearly always at embassies. His friend Karim Khosravi, a businessman and art lover, started the Bamiyan Gallery on Chicken Street and did well from his 30 percent commission on Mr. Hamdard's paintings. A Swedish woman helped start a Web site featuring his work.
The money poured in steadily -- not riches (his most expensive painting to date, "Wedding," sold for $6,500), but in the Afghan economy, it was plenty, at least at first.
He moved into a large house with his seven brothers; none of them artists or professionals, they were taxi drivers and restaurant workers, government workers, shop clerks -- people whose monthly salaries were often less than even an inexpensive Hamdard. He supported the entire family, and though he did not marry, his brothers did, until soon the house had 30 people including all the wives and children.
Mr. Hamdard stopped painting at home; it was just too crowded, he says. Yet he was honor- and culture-bound to remain with his brothers. According to friends, two of his family members suffered from mental illness; his mother had a stroke and was paralyzed. Their house collapsed one day, and he had to rebuild it, the expense devastating his savings.
He won't talk much about it, other than to say: "If I had a studio and peace, I could do happy paintings. But I have a lot of problems."
More recent photographs would show a man who has aged suddenly, pale and tired-looking, his dark hair receding rapidly.
He had long been a painter who worked in many genres, though chiefly expressionist oils with a strong sense of Afghan place, often done with a palette knife instead of brush. Later, his output became more abstract expressionist, twisted and dark.
"I first met Hamdard in Islamabad," said Hedayat Amin Arsala, the senior minister in President Hamid Karzai's government and his former vice president. "I sensed some vulnerability in him, very tormented somehow." Mr. Arsala was a patron for several Afghan artists, including Mr. Hamdard, and has followed his career since; he is one of the few Afghans who own the artist's work.
"He reminds me a lot of the painter in 'La Bohème,' " Mr. Arsala said. Like Marcello, Mr. Hamdard has never married, though he will not say why exactly. For years, his brothers tried to arrange a match, but he spurned all offers. "I could never find a woman who understood me," he says.
Many of what Mr. Hamdard considers his best paintings currently reside in the closet of a guesthouse run by a friend. They include "Brothers" and "The Fundamentalist," and what Mr. Hamdard says he calls his best work, a painting he originally called "Twenty Years of War." The war went on, the painting never sold, and he renamed it "Thirty Years of War."
And as the war went on, things changed in Kabul. A number of high-profile Taliban attacks, including against embassies and other installations housing foreigners, led to greater security restrictions. Westerners no longer went so freely to places like Chicken Street. The Swedish woman left town, and the Web site stagnated. The American Embassy closed its in-house gallery.
Aggravating that trend, the numbers of foreigners began to decline with the approach of the deadline for a NATO withdrawal in 2014.
"This was a perfect opportunity for foreigners to be exposed to Afghan artists, an opportunity for both sides," Mr. Arsala said. "But now they're totally apart."
The art business, which depended so heavily on the foreign community, declined markedly. At the gallery, Mr. Khosravi tried to persuade Mr. Hamdard to lower his prices because months were going by without a sale; he refused. He did not care, he says: "We have seen many bad days in this war, so it won't bother me if we don't sell."
Every sale occasioned regret, anyway. "It's like you say goodbye to a friend forever," he says.
For a while, he responded to the sagging market by cranking out the sort of clichéd Afghan painting that has long been a staple of the tourist trade here -- the buzkashi matches, Afghan horsemen chasing a goat carcass as a polo puck; tritely colorful marketplaces sans squalor; endless painted knockoffs of the Steve McCurry photograph of the green-eyed Afghan refugee girl. Mr. Hamdard's most recent work looks painfully like that of so many paint-by-number Afghan artists.
Then one day two years ago, Mr. Hamdard just put aside his paints and stopped entirely. For all his relative success, he says, he felt like a failure in his own country. "How would you feel if your own people don't admire your work?" he said. "I know how van Gogh felt: nobody admired his painting when he was alive. Now it is like I am cutting off both of my ears."
Since Mr. Hamdard had sold mostly to foreigners, who were usually just passing through, he was little known and recognized in his own country, said Mr. Khosravi, who now manages to keep his Bamiyan Gallery open only by subsidizing it with a travel agency business. "His work has gone to the four winds, that's the problem," he said. "In Afghanistan, people don't care about art."
Mr. Hamdard's brothers pleaded with him to go back to it, but he took a job at Kabul University, teaching drawing to undergraduates. It pays $140 a month.
"That's the problem with my brothers: I know why they encourage me to paint -- they want the money," he says. "I want them to admire my art. If they ever once talked to me about art the way you have, I might change my mind."
Abdul Wasi Hamdard is no longer a young artist. He does not want his precise age published, but says he is older than he looks. Perhaps not. About his decision not to paint, he answers like this: "Say you have a soldier, and you ask him, 'Do you know how to fight?' And he says yes. Then you ask, 'So do you mind it when you don't?' "
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.