TV’s Koran Idol keeps Afghan clerics at bay
Christina Lamb in Kabul
The Sunday Times – UK
It is just before dusk at the Marco Polo wedding hall on the outskirts of Kabul and an excited crowd is gathering for the final of Afghanistan’s latest reality television show.
Over the past two months the contestants have been whittled down from 250 to just two men and a schoolgirl, each hoping to receive the most votes from viewers.
One of the finalists is Ahmad Hasib Kazemi, 31, who sells shoes in the bazaar. He had to go without food to buy his suit and has spent the day fixing the generator so his wife, three children and assorted cousins can watch the show.
“I really hope I win,” he says. “I’ve told all my friends and family to vote.”
Up against him is Ahmad Bahir, a 19-year-old student, who says he has been practising for hours every day.
“It’s amazing, the power of TV,” he says with wide eyes. “People recognise me in the street now.”
Brought up by another family after his own parents were killed in the war, he dreams of studying in Mecca.
“I don’t have money and am hoping this will help,” he says.
The only female finalist is Uzra Mohamedi, a 16-year-old schoolgirl who is closely flanked by her mother and sister, all shrouded in black. “I’ve been practising with my mother and I’m ready,” she says shyly.
As the three finalists walk before the cameras and packed audience there is no clapping or cheering.
Instead, a Saudi cleric intones a long passage from the Koran.
For this is Koran-Star and, rather than sing, the contestants must recite long passages from the Islamic holy book.
It may not look like gripping viewing but the programme secured an impressive 80% audience share.
The programme was created to appease the council of clerics, which was threatening to close down Afghan Star, the country’s most popular programme, an Afghan version of Pop Idol. Television is one of the few areas to show signs of progress since the 2001 fall of the Taliban, which banned the medium along with music.
Although only 15% of the population have access to electricity, Afghanistan has 13 private TV channels.
The most popular, with more than 50% of viewers, is Tolo TV, started by the Mohseni brothers, four Afghans who grew up in Australia.
Initially they created the country’s first private radio station, causing a sensation by putting out a weekly Top 40 show.
From there it was a natural move into television, and Moby Media, their company, has two channels.
Tolo’s mix of news and entertainment has drawn huge audiences, particularly since it hit on adapting western reality TV shows.
Afghan Star gripped the nation. The final of its third season earlier this year is estimated to have drawn 11m viewers, almost half the population.
“TV in Afghanistan is a massive opportunity,” said Jahid Mohseni, the boss of Moby Media, who sits in an office with six screens showing different programmes.
The building is protected by gunmen after threats. “It’s a very young population, with 47% under 14, and there is no alternative entertainment.
“People can’t go out because of security and have nothing to do. Whole families or villages will be watching one set, so shows have to appeal to the entire spectrum.
Afghan Star was followed with Dream and Achieve, a copy of Dragons’ Den, in which would-be entrepreneurs try to sell their ideas to a panel of businessmen. The investment on offer was only £12,000, but that did not stop one contestant asking for £290m, almost the entire budget of the Afghan government.
His project was to build a canal to his farm. Another, a former commander who arrived with 10 armed guards, asked for £1,700 but had no project. When asked why not, he said: “I thought you were just giving away money.” The winner was a father of nine who wanted to set up a plastic recycling plant.
While viewers may love reality shows, the government does not.
Television stations face an increasing number of restrictions, including bans on dancing, fashion shows and Indian soap operas.
Mohseni fears that, like so much else in Afghanistan, media freedom is going backwards.
“In terms of content we’re getting much better at making programmes,” he said. “But we’re facing more and more restrictions from the government. A fair bit that we were broadcasting three years ago we can’t show now.”
In April the information and culture ministry banned five Indian soap operas, describing them as “immoral”.Two were Tolo TV’s most popular shows.
Mohseni insisted they were not offensive.
He said the channel edited out anything unsavoury and even changed storylines: “Once there was one with an adulterous relationship, so we changed that.
How can you run a business when halfway through a series you’re suddenly told, ‘We don’t like that; you have to stop’?”
His nemesis is Abdul Karim Khurram, the portly minister for information and culture, who said: “Indian soap operas are a catastrophe for Afghanistan.
People running TV stations are dealing with people’s thoughts and minds so must be careful.” Khurram blames channels such as Tolo for the revival of the Taliban. “People are against such vulgarity,” he said. “That’s why the Taliban are coming back.”
The minister said he was horrified when, in the final of the last Afghan Star, a contestant called Sitara, who had been voted out, whipped off her veil for her last song and danced. “It’s as if a German said Nazism is good,” he said.
The show was denounced by the Afghan Ulema Council as “immoral and unIslamic”, and in March parliament banned dancing on television.
Sitara had to go into hiding because of death threats but is now recording an album in Kabul. However, the woman who came third, 20-year-old Lina from Kandahar, is having to live under armed protection even though she did not dance, as many in the conservative south disapprove of her having appeared on television at all.
Fearful that its hit programme would be banned, Tolo executives agreed to increase the channel’s Islamic content. Apart from a literacy series helping people to read the Koran, they came up with the idea of Koran-Star, which aims to educate viewers on good recitation.
The series has won the warm approval of the information minister. “That’s a model programme,” he said.
This month Tolo TV will start auditions for the fourth series of Afghan Star. The deteriorating security situation, however, means filming around the country will be far harder.
A nation more used to competing with Kalashnikovs than texts, Afghans are not always good losers. Noor Rahman, a contestant, was furious when he was voted off Koran-Star in the penultimate round and had to watch Uzra, the schoolgirl, collect the winning prize of £2,300, a vinyl sofa and a trip to Dubai. “I don’t agree with this process,” he said. “I’m the winner!”
Habib Amin, the young producer, tried to calm him, pointing out that he could enter another show. The channel has just bought the rights to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?