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A massive phenomenon in Afghanistan: Television

Kabul, July 31, 2007 (International Herald Tribune): Seven years ago, in a very different time in a very different Afghanistan, a medical student named Daoud Sediqi was bicycling from campus when he was stopped by the Taliban's whip-wielding religious police. The young man immediately felt an avalanche of regret, for he was in violation of at least two laws.

One obvious offense was the length of his hair. While the ruling Taliban insisted that men sprout untrimmed beards, they were otherwise opposed to scruffiness and the student had allowed his locks to grow shaggy. His other transgression was more serious. If his captors searched his things, they would find a CD with an X-rated movie.

"Fortunately, they didn't look," he recalled. "My only punishment was to have my head shaved because of my long hair."

Now, at 26, he is one of this nation's best-known men, someone sprung from a new wellspring of fame - not a warlord or a mullah, but a television celebrity, the host of "Afghan Star," this nation's "American Idol."

Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, Afghanistan has been developing in fits and starts. Among the unchanging circumstances that still give people fits: continuing war, inept leaders, corrupt police and woeful living conditions.

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 to 2005, shows that 19 percent of Afghan households own a television, a remarkable total when considering that not only was owning a TV a crime under the Taliban but that a mere 14 percent of the population has access to public electricity.

In a more recent study of Afghanistan's five most urban provinces, two-thirds of all people said they watched television every day or almost every day.

"Maybe Afghanistan is not so different than other places; people watch television because there is nothing else to do," said Muhammed Qaseem Akhgar, a social analyst and newspaper editor. Reading is certainly less an option; Only 28 percent of the population is literate. "Where else can one find amusement?" Akhgar asked.

Each night at 7:30, people in Kabul obey the beckoning of prime time much as they might 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-e-Kheshti Mosque, his attention fixed on an Indian soap opera that had been dubbed into Dari.

Women, whose public outings are constrained by custom, most often watch their favorite shows at home. Men, on the other hand, are free to make television a communal ritual. In one eatery after another, with deft fingers dipping into mounds of steaming rice, patrons sit cross-legged on carpeted platforms, their eyes fixed on a television set perched near the ceiling. Profound metaphysical questions hover in the dim light: Will Prerna find happiness with Mr. Bajaj, who is after all not the father of her child?

"These are problems that teach you about life," said Sayed Agha, who sells fresh vegetables from a pushcart by day and views warmed-over melodramas by night.

What to watch is rarely contested. At 7:30, the dial is turned to Tolo TV for "Prerna," a soap opera colloquially known by the name of its female protagonist. Then the channel is switched for "The Thief of Baghdad." Then it is back to Tolo for the intrafamily 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."

Kabul has eight local television stations, including one feebly operated by the government. "The key time slots are from 6 to 9 p.m. because that's when people switch on their generators for electrical power," said Saad Mohseni, who runs Tolo, the channel that dominates the market in most of the country. "People love the soap operas."

"We've just bought the rights to '24,' the American show," he added. "We had some concerns. Most of the bad guys are Muslims, but we did focus groups and it turns out most people didn't care about that so long as the villains weren't Afghans."

Mohseni, a former investment banker, and his three siblings started Tolo TV - Tolo means "dawn" in Dari - in 2004, assisted by a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

After living most of their adult lives in exile in Australia, the Mohsenis returned to post-Taliban Kabul looking for investment opportunities and discovered a nearly prehistoric television wilderness ready for settlement. People could buy a used color set for $75. But what did they want to watch? Afghan tastes had not been allowed to gestate over decades, passing from Milton Berle to Johnny Carson to Bart Simpson. Everything would be brand new.

"We let ourselves be guided by what we liked," Mohseni said.

For the most part, that means that Tolo has harvested every cliché from television's vast international wasteland. True-crime shows introduce Afghans to the sensationalism of their own pederasts and serial killers. Reality shows pluck everyday people off the streets and transform them with spiffed-up wardrobes. Quiz shows reward the knowledgeable: How many pounds of mushrooms did Afghanistan export last year? A contestant who answers correctly wins a gallon of cooking oil.

Some foreign shows, like those featuring disasters and police chases, are so generic that Tolo is able to rebroadcast them without translation. Other formats require only slight retooling.

Sediqi is beginning his third season as host of "Afghan Star." He has never seen "American Idol" and said he had never heard of his American counterpart, Ryan Seacrest. Nevertheless, he ably manages to introduce the competing vocalists and coax the audience to vote by cellphone for their favorites. "I must tell you that I am having very good fun," Sediqi said, employing his limited English.

He is one of several young stars at Tolo whose hipness is exotic enough to seem almost extraterrestrial to an average Afghan.

Older men who prefer soap operas to singing competitions are quite likely to want to give Sediqi a good thrashing. "People in the countryside and the mosques say that the show is ruining society," Sediqi admitted.

Music videos - primarily imports from India - are broadcast regularly. With a nod to Afghan tradition, the bare arms and midriffs of female dancers are obscured with a milky strip of camouflage. And yet sporting events are somehow deemed less erotic. Maria Sharapova played at Wimbledon with the full flesh of her limbs unconcealed.

But the strongest complaints against Tolo have come from politicians, including members of the government. Tolo's news coverage, while increasingly professional, is very often unflattering to the government and even irreverent. Parliamentarians have been shown asleep at their legislative desks or in overheated debate throwing water bottles. One lawmaker was photographed picking his nose and then guiltily cleaning his finger.

In April, when Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabet thought he had been quoted out of context, he sent policemen to Tolo's headquarters to arrest the news staff. The ensuing contretemps had to be mediated by the United Nations mission in Kabul.

"With democracy comes television," said Saad Mohseni, Tolo's chief. "It's hard for some people to get used to."