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Indian Soaps Fall to Islamic Censorship in Afghanistan

Friday, Jan. 18, 2008

Ask anyone in Kabul who Tulsi is and you're sure to see eyes light up. "Tulsi? Of course! She's the victim. Her daughter-in-law hates her and her two-timing husband has a younger woman. She was right to leave home with her three kids," people will tell you with a huge grin of satisfaction. Then passersby will get dragged in as the discussion shifts to the latest episodes of Afghanistan's best-loved TV serial.

The title is a tad tortuous, but it translates roughly as: "Because the Mother-in-law Was Once a Daughter-in-law Too." It's the latest trend in Afghan popular culture: Indian serials dubbed into Dari with Pashto subtitles. This is one of the most direct consequences of globalization, Kabul's liberation from the oppressive Taliban regime, and the rise of private television stations.

The best-known of the latter is Tolo TV, which controls about half of the market and has three soap operas running. Its flagship is Tulsi's epic tear-jerker, starring an attractive Hindu actress from Mumbai who mesmerizes Afghan viewers with her curve-enhancing costumes and babyish complexion. Close behind, and in a similar vein, are "The Story of Every House" and "The Trial of Life." The storylines are a classic mix of star-crossed lovers, betrayals and running away from home, garnished with kisses, tears, silicone-enhanced figures and song-and-dance routines. In the land of burqas, child slavery, captive women, furtive sex with adolescents, and high-walled homes as impenetrable as medieval manors, Tulsi is revolutionary.

All this freedom is too much for the self-appointed custodians of tradition. The gauntlet has been thrown down and, earlier this month, a group of prominent experts in the Quran, all influential members of the Islamic Council of Scholars, gained the support of part of Hamid Karzai's government to censor the "sinful" programs. The move followed several months of intensive campaigning against privately owned TV stations and films imported from the world of "worshippers of graven idols," as Hindus are known in these parts.

The Afghan minister for information and culture has written to the directors of the new TV channels threatening them with immediate closure if the programs are not modified. "It's a severe blow for the broadcasters. These 15-minute episodes every day are excellent tools for attracting advertising," says Amir Shah, dean of Kabul's press corps. It comes as no surprise that this time Karzai has declined to take on the Islamic Council directly. To the contrary, he is more or less openly backing it.

For some time now, the man who in 2002 was seen as the president who would open up Afghanistan to the rest of the world and lead it toward a relatively secular society has in fact been seeking compromise with hard-line conservatives. For more than a year, police officers have had orders to confiscate alcoholic beverages sold on the street, and the days when Chinese brothels operated openly in the city centre are no more.

Only two months ago, a couple of dozen red-light establishments were shut down and about 300 Chinese prostitutes expelled from Afghanistan. "Everyone knows what the problem is. Economic growth ground to a halt over two years ago and the eagerly awaited boom failed to materialize. The Taliban are on the offensive and terrorism continues unabated. Ordinary Afghans view foreign troops with growing suspicion and now we have a sort of restoration. It's hardly surprising that Karzai should listen first to religious leaders, even if it means blocking social and cultural development", notes Azim Roboti, director of Caravan Film, one of Kabul's few film companies.

Roboti considers himself to be one of the victims of the latest clampdown. Four years ago, he was hoping to produce a series of films on women's liberation for the Afghan market. Last October, he filed for bankruptcy.

Lorenzo Cremonesi is a correspondent for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. The above article first appeared in the Jan. 12 edition of Corriere della Sera. The English translation is by Giles Watson.

Photo: Publicity Shot from "Because the Mother-in-law Was Once a Daughter-in-law Too" (Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi)