We could all use a lighthearted story from Afghanistan, so indulge me while I explain the plot of a new series debuting this month on Tolo TV in Kabul. It’s a wicked comedy called “The Ministry,” about an imaginary Ministry of Garbage Collection in the fictitious country of Hechland (or in English, “Nothing-Land”).
The minister is a dapper, balding, larcenous man in a three-piece suit who presides over a collection of deadbeats, thieves and petty bureaucrats. His security guard claims that he’s stopping suicide bombers, but we see him sleeping on the butt of his AK-47. His secretary presents a list of 190 demands from Cabinet members: One wants 10 armored cars for his personal protection; another wants authorization for his drug-trafficking business; a third wants jobs for his brother, brother-in-law and cousins.
Welcome to Afghanistan, a country that is mired in real-life corruption but that also has media organizations that can expose and laugh at the national mess.
Reading the news from Afghanistan, it’s easy to think that America has been pouring money down a sinkhole, trying to help a country that is forever primitive. Some of that gloom is deserved. But a look at Tolo TV reminds me that Afghanistan is actually modernizing quite rapidly and that its reform-minded journalists and television producers are some of the smartest (and bravest) people I know.
Tolo TV will be familiar to readers of this column. I wrote about it in December 2008, when the network was promoting a film version of its musical program called “Afghan Star.” It was modeled on “American Idol,” with hosts conducting a nationwide talent search. The difference was that this was Afghanistan, where 10 years earlier the Taliban were forbidding people even to sing.
“Afghan Star” is now starting its seventh season. It’s a kitschy idea, but it’s still moving to watch performers competing in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. There have been threats against “Afghan Star” over these seven years — as against the larger project of a modern, secular Afghanistan — but it’s still filming, and people are still singing.
Keeping this motley production company together is Saad Mohseni, the CEO of Moby Media Group, which owns Tolo TV. He’s young and brash, the sort of aspiring media mogul who would be at home in Beverly Hills or Bollywood. He returned home after the Taliban was expelled in 2001, and he keeps expanding despite the chaos. He now has four networks and 1,000 employees.
Mohseni takes me on a tour of his 17 dubbing studios, spread out in a series of villas and bungalows in the middle of Kabul, surrounded by armed guards. It’s like a rabbit warren, up stairs and down, ducking into one studio that’s dubbing “Oprah” into Farsi for Persian-speaking markets, and then careening into another that’s dubbing “Sesame Street” into Dari, the Afghan national language. Getting the right voice for Grover and Cookie Monster in Dari is no simple matter, the producers explain.
Tolo is producing a new drama series called “Eagle Four,” about the adventures of an Afghan anti-terrorism squad. Like a lot of Tolo’s output, it’s partly a knockoff of Western shows, in this case “24.” In the first episode, we see a suicide bomber donning his vest, and the squad mobilizing to stop him, with the hero admonishing his colleagues: “We are all working to serve the community so that all the people can live in peace.” Corny, but it has gritty production values and a lot of viewers.
Tolo has some very good news shows that break stories and do investigative reporting in a country where telling the truth can get you killed. Talking to some of the young reporters and producers in Kabul, I am reminded of what’s admirable about the news business (which isn’t always so obvious in America).
My favorite Tolo shows are the ones that mock the government. One popular program is called “Alarm Bell,” hosted by Hanif Hamgam, who is bidding to become Afghanistan’s Jon Stewart. He creates absurd caricatures of Afghan politicians, including a pro-corruption candidate who shouts out his litany: “Who do we steal from? The people! What do we steal? Money!”
A country that can poke fun at itself, after living through the nightmare that is Afghanistan’s modern history, isn’t entirely lost. The next time you read about the misery of this country, think, too, of the voice of Cookie Monster in Dari.