Photograph: I pose with Monisa, the Afghan Paula Abdul.
Hollywood studios might be the agencies best able to capture the hearts and minds of Afghans. Witness the recent success of the third season of Afghan Star, a television program modeled on American Idol. Afghanistan has a population of approximately thirty million people, most of whom live in impoverished rural areas with few luxuries; but an estimated ten million people watched the final episode of Afghan Star last month. I was impressed that one-third of the country’s population had access to a television. Small towns and villages across the country aired public broadcasts of the show that is the most popular television program in Afghanistan.
Saad Mohseni , founder of the television station that produces Afghan Star, thinks that his television show will bring about social change in the country. You might scoff at the idea that popular entertainment might foster anything but brain death, but consider Mohseni’s quotes: “… people voted, … they lined up in an orderly manner (outside the show) … the losers are gracious. No one is threatening violence. That’s a huge change.”
Afghanistan is a country without a history of democratic elections and where sectarian leaders have traditionally compensated for a political or military defeat by lobbing mortars at innocent civilians. I applaud any effort that models good sportsmanship. And any initiative that convinces a crowd of Afghans to organize themselve into an orderly formation should be carefully analyzed and studied for implementation in different social spheres. I’m thinking that Mohseni is correct, and perhaps the United States might want to modify our engagement strategy with the Afghans by providing every household a television set and wiring the country for digital cable access. We might also want to work a little harder to get urban areas like Kabul reliable electrical power to facilitate prime time viewing. And we shouldn’t forget that most Afghans still lack clean drinking water, proper schooling, medical care …
But back to Afghan Star. Like American Idol, Afghan Star employs a panel of judges to select the winner. The Paula Abdul equivalent is Monisa , a native Afghan woman who has lived for awhile in Germany studying music as an acedemic. She recently returned to Afghanistan and now is completing a clerkship in medicine at the National Military Hospital in Kabul, where I met her today. Like Beyonce or Madonna, she is popular enough to need only one name, and she’s the only woman I’ve seen in Afghanistan who does not cover her hair with a scarf in public. Thankfully, she has also avoided Abdulian displays of public disorientation and suspected intoxication. My Afghan interpreter identified her as the Afghan Star judge, after which I approached her and said “I saw you on tv and would like to take my picture with you.” Like every other Afghan I’ve met, Monisa was thrilled to pose for a photograph.