Kabul's must-see TV heats up culture war in Afghanistan

A bearded man from the bazaar is whisked into a barber shop, where he's given a shave and a slick haircut. After a facial, he visits fashion boutiques.

In a few tightly edited minutes of television, the humble bricklayer is transformed into an Afghan metrosexual, complete with jeans, sweater, suede jacket, and sunglasses.

It may sound like standard reality TV fare in the West, but it's edgy in Afghanistan. Tolo TV aired the show only once.

But in a pop culture as barren as the mountains here, Tolo's mix of MTV-style shows and hard-hitting news programs has turned the up-and-coming network into an entertainment oasis.

Today, it's a kind of must-see TV that has government officials leaving work early to catch their favorite show. But it's also a lightning rod for Afghan critics who see the station as a threat to the country's Islamic values.

"We have to be a little bit careful, because people will start saying that we are trying to change people's culture," says Saad Mohseni, one of three Afghan brothers who started the station.

Tolo has already drawn significant criticism for airing Indian music videos and Western films, as well as presenting shows with young hipsters who wear baseball caps sideways, talk and laugh freely with the opposite sex, and otherwise break the mold of stiff public propriety here.

In March, the country's ulema shura, or council of Islamic scholars, criticized Tolo and other stations for transmitting "programs opposed to Islam and national values." The controversy may deepen after Tolo's launch last week of satellite broadcasting, which expands its reach outside of Kabul to rural, more conservative regions.

At issue is the direction of Afghanistan's next generation, those age 22 and under who make up the majority of the country. Analysts say that the show's obvious popularity as well as the US presence here have kept the censors at bay.

"If mullahs react against Tolo, it won't matter," says Fahim Dashty, editor of the English-language Kabul Weekly. "The ministers are showing that they have more interest in a free press because they have US-backed support."

Since receiving starter funds from the US Agency for International Development and going live in October 2004, Tolo has grown into a self-sufficient operation. With a reported 81 percent share of the market, it's the most popular station in Kabul.

Like Tolo, other Afghan stations broadcast a mix of news, music, and religious programming. But Tolo's style sets it apart. At the station headquarters in Kabul, almost everyone is young and dressed in tight shirts and faded jeans.

There's nary a salwar kameez in sight - partly because management discourages it. Young men and women work side by side without awkwardness.

This revolutionary atmosphere shows on air. The station receives plaudits for its independent, hard-hitting news programming. One recent segment of the nightly news magazine, "The 6:30 Report," tackled the issue of pedophilia, which is disturbingly common here.

The no-holds-barred news reports have been widely appreciated, even by the Taliban who have sent communications to the station to get their message out. But it's the music video hour called "Hop," and programs like "Candid Camera" knockoff "Moments" that draw the most fire for "imitating" foreigners at the expense of traditional Afghan culture.

Such broadcasts are "against our identity here, because our nation is Muslim," says Maulavi Qiam-ud-Din Kashaf, spokesmen for the ulema.

The government has set up an independent review board to hear complaints about broadcasts, but so far the Ministry of Information and Culture has not shut down any stations. "Banning a TV network is not the way to solve it," says Sayed Makhdoom Raheen, minister of information and culture.

Instead, the response by both the ministry and the ulema has been to put their efforts into alternative stations. The ulema plan to launch their own religious station with the blessing of the government.

But it's unlikely these efforts will enjoy the same popularity as Tolo, analysts say, because Tolo is tapping into issues within the youth zeitgeist.

Modesty in male-female relations and respect for elders are two important parts of Afghan culture that Tolo is challenging, Dashty and others say. They point especially to a presenter on "Hop" whose mannerisms betray a brash attitude that is "not Afghan." But if Tolo is imitating a form of Western youth culture, it doesn't bother M. Kazem Ahang, the former head of the journalism department at Kabul University.

"We are imitating science, we are imitating medicine, we are imitating journalism," he says. "Imitation can be defined as the cleverest way of learning."

"No one can say for certain what is Afghan culture," says Jahid Mohseni, another Tolo director. "There are a lot of vocal comments about why this is not Afghan. But the reality is people are watching it." Interviews with young Afghans here reveal similar divisions.

"We will progress and adapt ourselves according to our own culture," says 26-year-old medical student Massoud Nasimi. "The way of progress is step by step."

Other educated young Kabulis express similar sentiments. But some younger and less-educated residents feel differently.

"I don't think it's right to say that the way people wear clothes will affect their religion or culture," says Shahab Temori, a 19-year-old dressed in a jeans and a Harley Davidson belt buckle. "We will not forget our salwar kameez, our Afghan culture. But we will also wear these new things, too."

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