Daniel W. Drezner

J. Lo, Conan the Barbarian, and Afghan Idol

You have to think that things are going pretty well in Afghanistan when a major subject of public debate is…. what’s on television. Kim Barker explains in the Chicago Tribune: The two men spend several minutes debating which came first, the chicken or the egg. They argue over whether people dream in color. This hardly ...

You have to think that things are going pretty well in Afghanistan when a major subject of public debate is…. what’s on television. Kim Barker explains in the Chicago Tribune:

The two men spend several minutes debating which came first, the chicken or the egg. They argue over whether people dream in color. This hardly seems like the most controversial TV show in Afghanistan. But in between the polite chitchat, these men–the Afghan version of MTV veejays–play music videos, which sometimes feature heaving bosoms, dancing women and sexually suggestive lyrics. Such videos have turned the show “Hop” into one of the most popular programs on the Afghan capital’s most popular new television station, Tolo TV. They also have drawn the ire of the country’s clerics and the scrutiny of the government. “Watching a woman with half-naked breasts and a man and a woman sucking each other’s lips on TV, like on Tolo, is not atocceptable,” said Abdul Malik Kamawi, spokesman for the country’s Supreme Court. The debate over programming on the five private TV stations in Kabul highlights a major difficulty facing the new Afghanistan: trying to balance democratic freedoms and a largely conservative Islamic society. The constitution protects freedom of expression and prohibits anything that is against Islam. That inevitably leads to conflict, because what is against Islam often depends on who is watching. Several new stations are pushing the limits in the land where the Taliban once banned TV sets and forced women to be hidden. They are playing Indian movies, which mostly focus on love and sexy couples dancing and singing. Some have shown movies from the United States, such as “Conan the Barbarian,” with sex scenes…. On Tolo, people Rollerblade and fly kites at a New Year’s celebration. Men and women talk to each other, even laugh together. Jennifer Lopez videos are shown frequently, and commercials tout the benefits of chicken bullion and dandruff shampoo. In many ways the station shows a vision of Kabul not as it necessarily is, but as many young people would like it to be. A short makeover feature takes ordinary Afghans off the street and turns them into fashionable young people who would blend into any Western city. Think of it as “Hip Eye for the Traditional Afghan Guy.” On one recent show, a young Afghan man with a beard, an uneven haircut and the typical Afghan knee-length shirt and matching pants got a shave, a haircut and a shower and was dressed in jeans and a modern shirt…. Most people on the street say Tolo TV is their favorite Afghan station. They like the news and the investigative reporting–new to Afghanistan. They like “Moments,” a prank program similar to “Candid Camera.” But most people, young and old, say their favorite show on Tolo is “Hop,” which features videos from India, Iran, Turkey, the U.S. and Afghanistan. “It’s a good program,” said Walid Shahbaz, 22, who was out shopping. “Mullahs are usually talking about things that are against Islam. But I don’t think `Hop’ is against Islam.” The TV station is planning to air a new program, one that station workers are certain will be a hit. It shows just how much the clerics are up against, and how much Afghanistan has changed since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. That show, modeled on a popular U.S. program, will feature men and women singing their way to fame. “Afghan Idol” will start shooting in a few weeks. (emphasis added)

I can just picture Virginia Postrel smiling at the bolded section. UPDATE: Barker has a follow-up piece in Tuesday’s Tribune on the opening of the first plastic surgery clinic in Kabul:

Most patients want their scars removed, all evidence of burns, skin diseases and even gunshot wounds erased. But others, hiding beneath their burqas, want nose jobs. Cosmetic surgery has arrived in Kabul, in the form of the tiny Hamkar Surgical Clinic, across the street from the bombed-out Cinema Theatre building, in need of its own face-lift. In this clinic, tucked away at the top of a dark stairway, people can pay for tummy tucks, although no one has been brave enough yet to try. Women will be able to buy larger breasts, although only one woman has expressed interest so far. “It’s peaceful now in Afghanistan,” nurse Mohammad Fazel said. “People can get rid of their wrinkles. They can get rid of their bad figures.”

LAST UPDATE: Oxblog’s Afghan correspondent provides an update on the situation on the ground outside of Kabul. Quick summary: “[E]nthusiasm, continued commitment, and some degree of optimism — these are I think proper attitudes when considering the situation in Afghanistan.”

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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