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In Afghanistan, comedians joke their way to civic renewal

By Lane HartillCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 23, 2005


Mubariz Bidar would give Robin Williams a run for his money. He's an Afghan comic who has this city - once ruled by severe Taliban - howling at their former oppressors.

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His spot-on impressions of everyone from a Taliban soldier to an Afghan drug addict would have even Mullah Omar giggling into his turban.

At a recent impromptu performance, Mubariz wraps on a long black turban - a favorite Taliban accessory - and twists his face into a scowl. He grabs a Kalashnikov to complete the look.

Then he screams at the men to go to the mosque, physically prodding them with his rifle. He grabs one long-haired man and berates him for letting his locks grow - a Taliban pet peeve. His imitation is so precise that the audience can't stop laughing.

It's a disturbing sight for outsiders, but for Afghans who remember the hard-line regime and can finally laugh at it, it's a welcome release.

In a country that had been stung by successive violent regimes, humor has long been a trusted coping mechanism.

Even when in power, the Taliban were the butt of jokes - behind closed doors - that targeted everything from their spot checks for shaved armpits (a rule in Islam) to the radio call-in show where people dedicated songs by mullahs (minus the music, of course). Like others, Afghans have used humor to channel dissent, avoid aggression, and let people separate themselves from the ruling group, experts say.

From youth using humor to cope with - and eventually bring down - Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, to comedian Jay Leno's post 9/11 monologues of Osama bin Laden jokes, comedy is gaining legitimacy as a post-conflict healer.

In fact, stand-up comedians from the Arab world, Israel, and the Palestinian territories plan to travel to both Palestinian and Israeli locations this year to give comedy performances promoting peace.

"Humor is especially important in conflict and post-conflict countries, because it is a way of transcending or disengaging from the difficulties," says Don Nilsen, a member of the International Society for Humor Studies and a historian at Arizona State University who used to work in Afghanistan.

"The humor used by the Jews in Nazi concentration camps allowed the Jews to take a little bit of control of their own lives," he says. "Humor is a way of inverting the power system."

Back in Khost, Mubariz continues to thrill the crowd with impressions - this time with the fake, but flawless, twitter of a Chinese bride. Mubariz is one of the lead actors in Khost Theater, a small band of dedicated actors in this conservative eastern city that is taking comedy to the masses.

Comedy as civic education

Before last October's presidential elections, a Kabul-based nongovernmental organization hired the actors to promote voting in some of the country's most remote southern villages. Hundreds of people saw each show; the message stuck. Women's turnout in Paktia province, which borders Khost and is so traditional that women are rarely seen in public, was among the highest in the country.

The success of the shows, Afghan observers say, illustrates how effective humor and theater is for educating a public with a low literacy rate (only 64 percent of Afghans can read). It may be, they say, the best way to unify the country's four major ethnic groups that are still quietly split along ethnic lines - one of the major obstacles to lasting peace.

"Theater has a big role in the unifying the people in the country," says Mohammad Azim Hussain Zadah, the head of the theater and cinema department in the Fine Arts Faculty at Kabul University. "It's like a guide for the people."