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Afghanistan gets real

Inside the spot-lit Marco Polo marriage hall in Kabul, three Koranic scholars sit cross-legged on a dais. They have a copy of the Koran and sheaves of paper in front of them, writes Indrajit Hazra.

world Updated: Aug 30, 2009 01:16 IST
Indrajit Hazra

Inside the spot-lit Marco Polo marriage hall in Kabul, three Koranic scholars sit cross-legged on a dais. They have a copy of the Koran and sheaves of paper in front of them. The three bearded theologians — one wearing a Pathan turban, another an Islamic cap and the other bare-headed but looking stern nonetheless — are scribbling away furiously.

A young man sitting bang in the middle of the cordoned-off hall on a green star-shaped platform, wearing his best salwar-kameez and jacket, has just finished reading out passages from the Koran.

Now he sits nervously as his rendering of the passage — intonation, pronunciation, tackling tricky bits and holding the notes -- are being scrutinised by the three judges.

A Talib training course? No. Welcome to Afghanistan's latest reality show, Tarteel — ‘Koran Idol’, if you will.

There’s a reality show boom in Afghanistan and this pretty much got kickstarted in 2006 with Sitar-e-Afghan (Afghan Star), the Afghan version of the American talent show, American Idol. Despite facing conservative hostility at the beginning, the show has become a runaway hit among the 11 million-odd television viewers in this nation of 30 million. The channel that started this ball rolling, Tolo TV, is now Afghanistan’s biggest and most popular private television channel, not only showcasing other reality shows and TV soaps, but also making a mark as one of the few media outlets to provide credible news.

“Along with the entertainment, these shows are also about facilitating social change,” says the 43-year-old Saad Mohseni, Chairman of the Moby Group of which Tolo TV is a part. “When we started out in 2003-04, we were told, ‘Why have women as DJs?’ There were complaints and calls for Tolo being shut down,” says the former investment analyst from Sydney now heading the show with his two brothers Zaid and Jahid and sister Wajma in his tasteful Kabul office. “Now, there are copies of ‘Afghan Star’ on other channels.”

When private televisions first took off under Hamid Karzai some six years ago – now there are at least 14 with more in the pipeline -- most Afghans hungrily fed off Indian soaps for entertainment. It was so popular that the mullahs, frowning on the ‘immoral’ content requested the government to stop the channels from airing these soaps. “But it was simply too popular! It still is,” Mohseni, who bought rights for Indian soaps from India’s Star TV, points out.

Even the former Afghan Defence Minister and currently Karzai’s running mate Mohammad Qasim Faheed peppered his speeches in rallies with examples of characters including Tulsi from Kyu Ki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi…. Afghan soaps are now competing with the Indian ones, including a new crime series. “These are exciting times for television in Afghanistan,” says Mohseni, the son of a former Afghan diplomat.

Afghanistan’s burgeoning channels simply can’t keep up with the increasing demand. But Tolo seems to be the one doing the most to push the envelope as well as rake in the profits. Reality contests such ‘Fikr wa Talash’ (Dream and Achieve) has contestants vie for a panel of businessmen-sponsors to start their dream enterprise. In a country, where running a business is fraught with many obstacles, this show is not only popular among viewers but has also led to a spurt of small-time entrepreneurs setting up shop.

But the biggest change brought about specifically by reality shows in Afghanistan has been that it puts Afghans directly in touch with the voting process.

“The reality show was the first time a generation was experiencing the fact that a viewer’s choice actually influenced an outcome,” says Paul Wade, Manager, Sales and Marketing, Moby Group. “We even started a show, ‘The Candidate’, before the presidential polls that was a mock elections where viewers voted for contestants.” One could say that the reality TV elections were far more successful than the low-turnout polls on August 20. And just for the record, the 20-year-old Munir Farahmand was voted – via mobile text messages — as ‘the Afghan president’.

Women in this male-dominated country have also enthusiastically come out to participate in these programmes with the result of changing perceptions in their place in society. In one of the early seasons of ‘Afghan Star’, a woman contestant’s veil had slipped off. There was much ruckus not only from the clergy but also from conservative viewers. Today, as the fifth season of the show starts next month, women and men will be singing together from the same stage and beamed into people’s houses – almost unthinkable for years before the arrival of ‘Afghan Star’.

The five days-a-week programme, Zesht Wa Zaiba (Beauty and the Beast) has a panel of six women answering and discussing questions through phone-ins by Afghan women. “You don’t want to move too fast. Like any other part of this world, Afghanistan is a conservative society,” says Mohseni. “And you need to provide entertainment that the people want, not what you think they want.”

It’s this balancing act of the ‘radical’ and the ‘conservative’ that brings one back to the wedding hall where out of some 200 people, 30 have been chosen to compete against each other and be crowned this year’s Best Koran Reader in Afghanistan.

A lanky 22-year-old, Ridwanullah, who teaches some 3,000 students in a seminary in Nangarhar province bordering Pakistan is the favourite to win. “I’m glad that Tolo is doing this for Muslims, for Afghans,” he says. One doesn’t quite know whether this young man is sucking up to the show’s presenter who’s an earshot away, or genuinely pleased that a TV channel is spreading the word of the Holy Koran in this new innovative way.

Does he think he’ll be Afghanistan’s ‘Koran Star’? This serious youngster, who stood first in Koranic studies in Jalalabad, suddenly smiles with his eyes flashing and replies, “Of course!”. He quickly adds an Inshallah.