Two squeaky clean heart throbs and a demure teenage songstress in a headscarf will battle it out this week for a place in the final of Afghan Star, a television talent contest that has gripped more than ten million viewers from Jalalabad to Herat.
The show, modelled on Pop Idol, has become the biggest phenomenon to date in Afghanistan's burgeoning entertainment world, which has grown into a profitable industry since the days of the Taleban when TV and music were banned.
To Western eyes, Afghan Star looks as gawky and awkward as a TV show from the 1950s. The singers are chaste, the sets wooden and the tunes traditional. Female contestants are draped in headscarves as they nervously sing anodyne songs before crowds of youths in their smartest clothes and on their best behaviour.
Afghans, nonetheless, love it. Each week they tune in to take their minds off the bombs and problems facing their nation and vote in their hundreds of thousands by SMS for their favourite singer. When it is broadcast early on Friday evening the country grinds to a standstill. Electricity companies only dare to inflict power cuts after the show is finished.
This season, the show's third, there is a chance that there will be a female winner for the first time. She is a shy 18-year-old called Lima Sahaar from the deeply conservative southern city of Kandahar, once the spiritual home of the Taleban and still a place where no women venture out on the streets unless wearing a burka.
Commuting with her protective mother from Kandahar for performances, she has become the anxious centre of attention for millions of Afghan pop fans. They have voted for her despite her unsteady singing voice and a stilted stage performance.
Despite such apparent handicaps, the teenager has managed to win over a nation that expects its women to be modest in public.
Yesterday, at a press conference where she sat beside two cocky male semi-finalists who sniggered and looked embarrassed when a Western reporter asked them about girlfriends, she appeared almost saintly.
“If I win and become rich I will give the money to the poor,” she said to murmurs of approval. “I want to work hard, serve the people and write good songs.” The boys quickly added that they also wanted to get rich so they could help the poor. The show's presenter, Daud Sedeqi, a former TV repairman and now one of Afghanistan's biggest stars on the private Tolo TV station, looked like the Taleban's worst nightmare in leather jacket and slicked-back quiff.
He puffed out his chest and told reporters in a voice quivering with patriotism that Afghan Star set a moral example for the nation. “We can see that our army is fighting against the enemies of Afghanistan. We think this programme and our music will be a psychological remedy for the people of Afghanistan, and a portrayal of national unity.”
Two thousand performers from all over the nation have taken part in the six-month contest, which every year draws the impotent wrath of religious conservatives. While the talk at the press conference was lofty, outside in the street an over-enthusiastic mob of autograph hunters were held back by security men brandishing wooden truncheons. “Afghans love music too much and they are full of passions,” one security man said, before laying into the fans with his weapon.