Soap Operas in Afghanistan

Stephen DeAngelis

August 21, 2007

I’m curious where Abraham Maslow would have put soap operas on his hierarchy of needs. Escapism, be it watching soaps or movies, listening to the radio, or reading Harry Potter novels, seems to be an itch that needs to be scratched once individuals have achieved a certain level of needs. That level is probably somewhere in the middle of the pyramid in the “Love/Belonging” strata [for more on the hierarchy of needs, see my post Applying Maslow to Development-in-a-Box]. People apparently long to connect with one another and seem to have unending curiosity about how others live. Closed societies rush to purchase cell phones and televisions once they are opened up to the larger world. Afghanistan, apparently, is no exception [“Amid War, Passion for TV Chefs, Soaps, and Idols,” by Barry Bearak, New York Times, 1 August 2007].

“Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, Afghanistan has been developing in fits and starts. Among the unchanging circumstances that still leave people fitful: continuing war, inept leaders, corrupt police officers and woeful living conditions. According to the government’s latest surveys, only 43 percent of all households have nonleaking windows and roofs, 31 percent have safe drinking water and 7 percent have sanitary toilets. But television is off to a phenomenal start, with Afghans now engrossed, for better or worse, in much of the same escapist fare that seduces the rest of the world: soap operas that pit the unbearably conniving against the implausibly virtuous, chefs preparing meals that most people would never eat in kitchens they could never afford, talk show hosts wheedling secrets from those too shameless to keep their troubles to themselves. The latest national survey, which dates from 2005, shows that 19 percent of Afghan households own a television, a remarkable total considering not only that owning a TV was a crime under the Taliban but that a mere 14 percent of the population has access to public electricity. In a study this year of Afghanistan’s five most urban provinces, two-thirds of all people said they watched TV every day or almost every day.”

We shouldn’t be too surprised that escapism is popular, especially during trying times. People living during the Great Depression managed to scrape together enough money to go the movies and families found themselves huddled around the radio listening to dramas and comedies hoping to forget just how bad conditions really were. Conditions in Afghanistan reflect other similarities to those during the Great Depression, including the fact that many people have nothing else to do.

“‘Maybe Afghanistan is not so different from other places,” said Muhammad Qaseem Akhgar, a prominent social analyst and newspaper editor. ‘People watch television because there is nothing else to do.’ Reading is certainly less an option; only 28 percent of the population is literate. ‘Where else can one find amusement? Mr. Akhgar asked. Each night, people in Kabul obey the beckoning of prime time much as they might otherwise answer the call to prayer. ‘As you can see, there is truth on the television, because all over the world the mother-in-law is always provoking a fight,’ said Muhammad Farid, a man sitting in a run-down restaurant beside the Pul-i-Khishti Mosque, his attention fixed on an Indian soap opera that had been dubbed into Dari.”

Bearak points out that there are cultural differences when it comes to watching television.

“Women, whose public outings are constrained by custom, most often watch their favorite shows at home. Men, on the other hand, are free to make TV a communal ritual. In one restaurant after another, with deft fingers dipping into mounds of steaming rice, patrons sit cross-legged on carpeted platforms, their eyes fixed on a television set perched near the ceiling. Profound metaphysical questions hover in the dim light: Will Prerna find happiness with Mr. Bajaj, who is after all not the father of her child?”

Although Bearak makes light of the popularity of soap operas in Afghanistan, there is a deeper social change reflected in television’s popularity. Having experienced isolation under the Taliban, people are opting in large numbers to get connected.

“Kabul has eight local television stations, including one feebly operated by the government. ‘The key time slots are from 6 to 9 p.m. because that’s when people switch on their generators for electrical power,’ said Saad Mohseni, who runs Tolo, the channel that dominates the market in most of the country. ‘People love the soap operas. We’ve just bought the rights to “24,” the American show,’ he said. ‘We had some concerns. Most of the bad guys are Muslims, but we did focus groups and it turns out most people didn’t care about that so long as the villains weren’t Afghans.’ Mr. Mohseni, a former investment banker, and his three siblings started Tolo TV (Tolo means ”dawn” in Dari) in 2004, assisted by a grant from the United States Agency for International Development. After living most of their adult lives in exile in Australia, the Mohsenis returned to post-Taliban Kabul looking for investment opportunities and discovered a nearly prehistoric television wilderness ready for settlement. A used color TV cost only $75. But what did they want to watch? Afghan tastes had not been allowed to gestate over decades, passing from Milton Berle to Johnny Carson to Bart Simpson. Everything would be brand-new.’We let ourselves be guided by what we liked,’ Mr. Mohseni said.”

Having lived in Australia, the Mohseni’s tastes have more of a Western bias than other station owners, but the fact that “what they like” can rub off on others demonstrates the power of media, especially television and radio in countries where illiteracy is the norm. They don’t simply show reruns of old Western shows, they adapt old show ideas to local circumstances.

“Tolo has harvested the hackneyed from television’s vast international landscape. True-crime shows introduce Afghans to the sensationalism of their own pederasts and serial killers. Reality shows pluck everyday people off the streets and transform them with spiffed-up wardrobes. Quiz shows reward the knowledgeable: how many pounds of mushrooms did Afghanistan export last year? A contestant who answers correctly earns a free gallon of cooking oil.”

This new openness and connectivity, as you can imagine, is not being greeted enthusiastically by all sectors of society.

“Whatever the constraints, some observers consider TV a portal to promiscuity. ‘Forty million people are living with H.I.V.-AIDS, and television is finally helping Afghanistan contribute to those figures,’ the Ayatollah Asif Mohseni said with sarcasm. He is an elderly white-bearded man, and while he is not related to the family who runs Tolo TV, he, too, has entered the television business, starting a station more inclined to showcase Islamic chanting. ‘We have an economy that is in ruins,’ Ayatollah Mohseni said. ‘Do you think rubbish Indian serials with half-naked people are the answer?’ But the strongest complaints against Tolo have come from politicians, including members of the government. Tolo’s news coverage, while increasingly professional, is very often unflattering and even irreverent. Members of Parliament have been shown asleep at their desks or in overheated debate throwing water bottles. One lawmaker was photographed picking his nose and then guiltily cleaning his finger. In April, when Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabet thought he had been quoted out of context, he sent policemen to Tolo’s headquarters to arrest the news staff. The ensuing contretemps had to be mediated by the United Nations mission in Kabul.”

Given time, Afghanis will learn to deal with this new openness. Societies that try to control upstream content (i.e., censor information) always find themselves fighting a losing battle. Societies that successfully deal with connectivity (and, therefore, are more resilient) concern themselves with downstream behavior. Afghanistan still has a long and difficult road to travel until it fully joins the rest of the world, but, all things considered, soap operas are sign that things are changing — hopefully for the better.