Pop culture tests Afghan
By Paul Wiseman, USA
Afghanistan — The ups and
downs of Afghan Star — Afghanistan's
version of American Idol — can tell you a lot about how this country is
this year's version of the smash TV hit, one of the three finalists was from
the troubled province
of Kandahar. This was a
big step for a conservative area that gave rise to the Taliban, the
fundamentalist Islamic regime that prohibited all Western influence until it
was toppled by the U.S.
invasion in 2001.
more remarkable: The finalist from Kandahar,
20-year-old Lima Sahar, was female.
host of Afghan Star says the conservative strains in Afghan society
remain strong. When Dauod Sediqi travels to Kandahar to oversee tryouts for the shows, he
takes a plane instead of driving because he fears he might be targeted by
the major cities of Afghanistan,
people love me," says Sediqi, 27, who wears Dolce & Gabbana shirts and
lathers his hair with mousse. "But there are some places in Afghanistan
where it is not safe for me to go."
contradictions abound in the rapidly expanding, ever-changing world of the
Afghan media. Dozens of new TV stations, newspapers and magazines are proliferating
and testing the limits of what is acceptable, while Taliban sympathizers and
others lash out at what they see as heretical foreign influence.
of armed, masked Taliban insurgents barged into mosques in Logar province south
of Kabul last month,
threatening anyone who watched "un-Islamic" television programs,
Information Ministry official Najib Manelai told Reuters.
female owner of a radio station was killed by gunmen last year, and the female
host of an MTV-style music show was gunned down in 2005.
all of the resistance has come from extremists.
pro-Western, pro-U.S. government of President Hamid Karzai also has put its
foot down after deciding local norms were violated.
April, the Ministry of Culture and Information banned five popular Indian soap
operas, saying they violated Islamic and Afghan values. Afghan television
networks had dubbed the shows into local languages and edited out anything
offensive — revealing shots of women, references to Hindu practices and alcohol
consumption — but their efforts were not enough.
ban is before the Afghan attorney general and may go to court.
March, the lower house of parliament called for an end to dancing and other
"un-Islamic" practices on television. The resolution passed after the
nation's No. 1 television network — privately run Tolo TV — aired men and women
dancing together onstage at a film awards show.
staff of Tolo TV — founded in 2004 by Afghan-Australian entrepreneur Saad
Mohseni and his siblings — has reacted to the climate of oppression by using it
as creative inspiration.
stone walls and barbed wire at the Tolo headquarters, there's a buzzing
newsroom; a garden where writers sit alone brooding over scripts; and a canteen
where women in jeans and men in T-shirts and sunglasses trade ideas and gossip.
Wednesday night, Tolo airs Danger Bell, one of its most popular
programs. Comedian Hanif Hamgam uses satirical songs, skits and gags to skewer
politicians of all stripes.
don't respect anybody," he says. "No matter how tragic the news,
people must laugh."
of Hamgam's favorite targets is Culture Minister Abdul Karim Khurram, installed
two years ago with fundamentalist support.
always criticize the culture minister," Hamgam says. "He is an
convinced that Khurram is an enemy of free expression, has been broadcasting
video of the minister declaring that "all this stuff … which they bring to
us from the West and from Europe and call it
freedom of speech and so on — this is just useless talk."
a onetime follower of fundamentalist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, says the
comments were taken out of context; he says he was critiquing someone else's
view, not expressing his own.
have lived in the West," the French-educated minister says. "I want
the same rights for Afghans."
says some shows do go too far — showing unveiled women, singing, dancing and
religions other than Islam.
things are not reasonable in our culture," Khurram says. "University
professors, religious scholars and students all complained that they are not
fit for Afghan families."
programming manager Hussain Naikzaid counters, "We haven't had complaints
from ordinary people."
the campus of Kabul
student Ahmed Shekib Noor, 20, says he likes watching Indian soap operas and
admires Afghan Star finalist Lima Sahar.
doesn't understand why clerics want to banish singing and dancing from the
is a democracy," he says. "Why shouldn't they sing?"