SEVEN years ago, during a very different time in a very different Afghanistan, medical student Daoud Sediqi was cycling from campus when he was stopped by the Taliban's whip-wielding religious police. The young man immediately felt an avalanche of regret because he was in violation of at least two laws.
One obvious offence was the length of his hair. His other transgression was more serious. If his captors searched his possessions, they would find an X-rated movie. Fortunately, they didn't look.
"My only punishment was to have my head shaved because of my long hair," recalls Sediqi, who at 26 is one of Afghanistan's best-known faces as the host of Afghan Star, the nation's version of American Idol.
Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, Afghanistan has been developing in fits and starts.
But television is off to a phenomenal start, with Afghans now engrossed, for better or worse, in much of the same escapist fare that seduces the rest of the world: soap operas that pit the unbearably conniving against the implausibly virtuous, chefs preparing meals that most people would never eat in kitchens they could never afford, talk show hosts wheedling secrets from those too shameless to keep their troubles to themselves.
The latest national survey, which dates from 2005, shows that 19 per cent of Afghan households have a television, a remarkable total considering not only that owning a TV was a crime under the Taliban but that a mere 14 per cent of the population has access to public electricity. In a study this year of Afghanistan's five most urban provinces, two-thirds of all people said they watched television every day or almost every day.
Each night, people in Kabul obey the beckoning of prime time much as they might otherwise answer the call to prayer. "As you can see, there is truth on the television, because all over the world the mother-in-law is always provoking a fight," said Muhammad Farid, a man sitting in a run-down restaurant beside the Pul-i-Khishti Mosque, his attention fixed on an Indian soap opera.
Women, whose public outings are constrained by custom, most often watch their favourite shows at home. Men, on the other hand, are free to make TV a communal ritual. What to watch is rarely contested. At 7.30pm, the dial is turned to Tolo TV for Prerna, a soap opera colloquially known by the name of its female protagonist. At 8pm, the channel is switched for The Thief of Baghdad. At 9pm, it is back to Tolo for the intra-family and extramarital warfare waged on Tulsi, the nickname for a show whose title literally means "Because the Mother-in-Law Was Once the Daughter-in-Law".