In Afghanistan, comedians joke their way to civic renewal

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.

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."

In fact, says Mr. Zadah, "If officials want reconciliation and rehabilitation in the country and want to bring peace and stop ethnic tensions ... they should strengthen cinema and theater in the country."

Reading about unity in a book is one thing, he says, but, "we see it in theater. We reflect what unity means. We get better results when we see it."

Comedy in Afghanistan thrived from the 1800s until the 1960s, when Afghans held actors in high esteem, and Kabul's royal family frequented theaters.

But after the Soviet invasion of 1979, actors slipped out of the country and comedy declined. During the factional fighting in the early 1990s, mujahideen literally blew the roof off the once-stately theater that used to show Molière and Chekhov adaptations. And when the Taliban arrived in 1996, comedy came to a standstill.

Now, with more than $8 billion worth of reconstruction aid estimated to flow into the country during the next 3 years, comedy is finding its footing once again.

In fact, one of the most popular shows on Tolo TV, a private cable station in Kabul, is "Lahza Ha," (Moments). It's the Afghan equivalent of Candid Camera, where pranksters stop Kabulis on the street and con them with gags.

The show is so well liked that some Afghans pray early so they don't miss it, and jokes are rehashed the next day.

Mubariz and his fellow unemployed actors in Khost City stick with comedy even though they aren't paid. They make do with fraying stick-on mustaches and ingenuity.

Indeed, the Afghan version of "Desperate Housewives," requires Mubariz to be the only forced drag queen in the country. Because women are stowed behind walls in this staunchly conservative city, he's left to don a scarf and screech the falsetto whine of a desperate Afghan housewife.

Getting into character

To study women, he cooks at home - a job strictly reserved for women here - and grills his 10 sisters-in-law for material. "I learned a lot of acting from them," he says. He also watches Mr. Bean, Jackie Chan, and Charlie Chaplin films, then practices in front of a mirror.

Mubariz's muses help him and the other actors perfect their delivery to communicate educational messages to audiences - such as the dangers of opium and the benefits of voting. Mubariz speaks fluently both official Afghan languages, Dari and Pashtu, and uses both in performances, a subtle way of reaching across the ethnic divide. This is a challenge for many actors in the country.

"The problem is the people aren't educated," says Mohammad Sharif, one of the actors at Kabul Theater, as he huddles around a tiny wood stove in the dank bowels of the complex. "They just think, 'this is a Pashtun. He's against me. I'm a Tajik. I'm against him.' The theater explains for the people that we are all brothers and can work together."

But ethnic reconciliation after years of war isn't always easy. During the presidential election, Gulmaki Shah Ghiasi, the head of Kabul Theater, put on plays encouraging people to vote. People flocked. She estimates that more than 1,000 people came to each of their 200 shows.

But in Jalalabad, a majority Pashtun city two hours from Kabul, angry locals attacked the actors during a performance, possibly because women were part of the cast.

"They're not going to kill me," Shah Ghiasi says, her nose ring winking in the afternoon light. "They just want to scare me. But I'm not afraid."

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