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Afghan Moonshine a Growth Industry

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Tougher restrictions on alcohol imports create boom for illicit local producers catering for surprising levels of consumer demand.

By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in northern Afghanistan
Institute for War & Peace Reporting
(ARR No. 299, 27-Aug-08)

The label may say “Stolichnaya” but the contents of this vodka bottle have never seen Russia. Instead, it is a potent local brew made from raisins, which is keeping many a party going in northern Afghanistan.

Pahlavan Omar – not his real name – owns a small distillery in the northern city of Shiberghan, where he produces alcohol along with his two young sons.

The distillery is not much to look at – just a few barrels, some sacks of raisins, a couple of pressure cookers and stoves.

But according to Pahlavan, business is booming.

“Over the past few months, our production has doubled and our customers are coming back,” he said.

Alcohol is forbidden by Islam, and the ban was strictly enforced when the hardline Taleban regime held sway in Afghanistan.

Neither religious precepts nor fundamentalist rulers stopped this illicit industry. Instead, what nearly put paid to it was the relaxation of restrictions on alcohol imports that followed the collapse of the Taleban regime in 2001.

“The Taleban would have hanged us if they had known about it, but we continued producing, although at a lower rate, when they were around,” said Pahlavan. “It was when Afghanistan opened its doors to foreign products and prices fell that we had to close down most of our distilleries.”

About two years ago, however, the Afghan government tightened the rules on alcohol imports, and the flow of foreign liquor dried up. Afghan tipplers once again had to seek out the local suppliers.

Pahlavan smiled broadly, saying, “The government was not trying to give our business a boost, but in any case it was a great help to us.”

He produces 20 litres of vodka a week in his small distillery. He buys leftover raisins from markets or wholesalers, paying about 500 afghani, some ten US dollars, for a 50-kilogram sack. He steeps them in water for about a week and brews up the resulting mixture in a pressure cooker. The steam is siphoned off and cools into the final product, raw spirit.

According to aficionados, Afghan moonshine contains a high percentage of alcohol – though quite how much is hard to determine, and differs from batch to batch. But consumers say it is more than enough to do the job.

“We produce about ten litres of alcohol from each barrel,” explained Pahlawan. “We package it in plastic bags and sell it to shops.”

The drink sells for about 500 afghani a litre, so that the return on each sack of raisins is about 5,000 afghani, or 100 US dollars – ten times the initial investment.

As Pahlavan’s business grows, he is selling more and more of his product wholesale to shopkeepers, even though this nets him only 400 afghani a litre.

Imaginative marketing can increase the returns. One entrepreneur in the northwestern town of Maimana imports empty Russian vodka bottles from Pakistan and uses them to make his product more attractive to customers.

“Afghanistan’s vodka is the best, but now people are used to these foreign bottles. We have to imitate them to make more money,” he said.

This producer sells his “vodka” for 1,000 afghani a bottle – about 20 dollars.

“The quality of our vodka is much higher than the foreign one. We were producing and drinking it when there was no foreign alcohol in Afghanistan,” he said.

Shopkeepers confirm that it is easier to sell the “Russian” brand.

“People don’t want to buy alcohol in plastic bags,” said one shopkeeper in Mazar-e-Sharif. “It makes no difference to us – we make twice as much in profits.”

The production, sale, and consumption of alcohol are forbidden by law in Afghanistan, and officials insist offenders will be punished.

But the producers appear unabashed – given the all-pervasive ubiquitous corruption in this country, it should not be hard to get police to look the other way.

General Khalilullah Aminzada, provincial police chief in Jowzjan province, said that his forces have closed down approximately ten distilleries since the beginning of 2008, and have jailed the offenders.

However, he acknowledged that there are many more that the authorities are unaware of.

“This is a major social problem,” he told IWPR. “This is nothing new – alcohol production has a very long history in Afghanistan. These problems will continue as long as societies exist, and our struggle against them will also continue.”

General Khalil Anderabi, the police chief for the neighbouring Faryab province, admitted that his region was home to numerous distilleries and that so far he has not been able to close a single one.

“We have recently learned that there are such establishments in the province,” he told IWPR. “It is against the law and we have a specific plan to shut them down, but they are very artful.”

Instead, said Anderabi, police in Faryab have concentrated on imported alcohol, confiscating about 1,200 bottles so far from shops.

“Now we will begin to battle these domestic producers, and we will stop them,” he said.

Although plentiful, alcohol is not on public display. A recent informal survey carried out by IWPR reporters showed that many shopkeepers will not sell to people they do not know, denying they have supplies even when they themselves are obviously inebriated.

Alcohol consumption is on the rise in northern Afghanistan, particularly among young men who use it to spice up parties or to dull the frustration of unemployment.

Mohammad Qais, from Shiberghan, works for an international organisation and is an avid consumer of homemade vodka.

“When we go on picnics on Fridays we always take a bottle or two,” he told IWPR. “Without alcohol we wouldn’t enjoy our parties.”

Others, however, frown on drinking as a violation of Islamic values.

Sadruddin, a taxi driver in Kabul, said, “Every day I pick up one or two passengers who are drunk. It was never like this in the past. Drinking alcohol is very common now. There are no parties without vodka.

“This is not a good thing. Young people should know that it is contrary to Islam.”

Religious scholars also condemn the practice, and warn that punishment awaits those who imbibe.

“If the alcohol user repents, God may forgive him,” said Qari Hayatullah, a religious scholar in Mazar-e-Sharif. “If not, he leaves the world a sinner, and he will be punished in the afterlife.”

In this life, though, the religious scholars cannot agree on the penalty for alcohol use.

“There is a difference of opinion among religious scholars as to the punishment for the producer and user of alcohol,” said Qari Hayatullah. “It is not like murder or adultery; the punishment is not specified.”

Under the Taleban, those who were caught using alcohol had their faces blackened with soot and were paraded around the city as a lesson to others.

Because of the continuing prohibition, some farmers restrict themselves to making alcohol only for their own consumption.

“I produce my own vodka, which is unique in all the world,” said one vineyard owner in Sar-e-Pul. “I don’t care about the high price of imported alcohol, or the restrictions on production and use. I make it because it’s delicious. I set aside the best grapes and produce enough alcohol to last a year. The taste of this homemade vodka is better than the best European alcohol.”

This man pointed out that aside from distilling vodka, wine-making is a centuries-old tradition that predates Islam in Afghanistan.

Many people age their vodka like whisky, to give it a deeper flavour. Besides, as the Afghan saying goes, “Old wine makes for a special kind of intoxication.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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September 3, 2008 at 2:53 am

Posted in Society

Pop star helping Kabul destitute

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By Bilal Sarwary
BBC News, Kabul
Monday, 11 August 2008

Bibi Roagoal is busy preparing her children for school.

She is one of more than 50,000 Afghan widows struggling against the effects of war.

The mother-of-four, who is 28, lives in a house on the outskirts of the capital, Kabul.

She recently had a special visitor to extend a helping hand – and not just your average foreign aid worker.

He was Farhad Darya, one of Afghanistan’s most popular singers and a household name.

Mr Darya, who had been living in exile, was one of the first singers to return to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taleban in 2001.

Now, the 46-year-old celebrity runs a charity named Kochah, meaning street in Dari, to supplement the incomes of Kabul widows and their children.

Change for better

Kochah provides widows with $50 a month to keep their children off the street and help them receive education.

“My daughter used to collect bread from other families and my son gathered rubbish from a nearby American base for firewood,” says Bibi Roagoal, who lost her first husband to a suicide attack four years ago.

Her second marriage – to her late husband’s brother – ended in tragedy when he died in a car crash.

But now the monthly donation from Kochah has changed Bibi Roagoal’s life for the better. Her children attend school and the family has money for food.

“Only a few months ago, this would not have been possible,” says the widow. Her smile and excitement refuse to leave her face. “My children go to school now so they won’t be illiterate like me.”

Thousands of widows and orphans are a legacy of Afghanistan’s many wars which have claimed countless lives, among them many husbands and fathers.

Bread-winners

According to the United Nations, there are 37,000 street children in Afghanistan’s capital. Nearly all are fatherless.

In an almost exclusively male-dominated society with little opportunity for women to find employment, many fatherless children are the main bread-winners for their families.

They work year-round – under burning sun or in freezing snow – instead of going to school.

And most of them are engaged in odd jobs.

Ajmal – a witty 13-year-old who enthusiastically sells gum on the outskirts of Kabul – says his biggest wish is that he could attend school.

“My family relies on my work,” he says. “So I try to sell as much as I can. I wish I could focus more on my school, but I can’t afford to.”

There are also many who do not work and provide for their mothers and siblings by begging.

Like Hussain, 14, for whom begging is an accepted fact of life. He would attend school if he could, but instead spends 10 hours a day begging on the streets of Kabul.

“I tried to work,” he says “so my family could live an honourable life, but my boss at the shop paid me very little. I tried a few other jobs, but finally I decided to beg.

“I have always wanted to be a teacher. I still have hopes that our government will help the poor like us.”

Problem of funding

The monetary help Kochah is able to provide comes from Darya’s concerts and private donations.

Darya says Kochah is a non-profit organisation, and that he absorbs the administrative costs himself.

However, he says, funding is not easy to come by.

”There are thousands of Afghan traders around the world and they spend thousands of dollars everyday without thinking, but when we approach them about Kochah, they don’t give,” he says.

“A lot of Afghans in the West promise help, but few follow through.”

Kochah aims to assist 2,000 widows. So far, it has managed to help somewhere between 250 and 300.

Says Bibi Roagoal: “I pray for peace in my country all the time, because war took everything away from me.

“I don’t want another mother to be widowed, or their kids orphaned.”

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August 24, 2008 at 5:12 pm

Posted in Society

Fifty more Afghan couples marry in mass ceremony

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(AFP) 18 August 2008 – MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan – Fifty Afghan couples were married in northern Afghanistan on Monday, a day after a similar mass marriage in another city that was believed to the first of its kind in the country.

The grooms and brides — wearing all-covering white veils and clutching red roses — tied the knot in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in a ceremony sponsored by an Islamic Shi’ite charity, an AFP reporter said.

Afterwards, the newlyweds filed into 50 cars decorated with ribbons and flowers and were taken on a tour of the city.

A charity, in the name of leading Iraqi cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, covered the wedding costs.

The couples were all Shi’ite, a minority in Afghanistan, and were chosen after it was confirmed they did not have the money to pay for a wedding, said Hashimi, a representative of the charity.

Each couple received gifts of 600 dollars, a carpet and a radio, officials said.

One of the grooms, 27-year-old Ghulam Sakhi, said he had been engaged for six years but could not afford a wedding.

Another, 22-year-old Hamidullah, said he had been waiting three years to marry and was pleased to have qualified for the mass wedding.

“I have been engaged for three years but did not have the money for the wedding party,” he told AFP. “I thank him and wish that thousands of people can be married the same way.”

Another 50 couples were married late Sunday in a similar ceremony funded by another Islamic charity in the western city of Herat.

Marriage is a costly affair in destitute Afghanistan, involving huge dowries, expensive gifts and lavish parties with hundreds of guests.

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August 18, 2008 at 4:49 pm

Posted in Society

AFGHANISTAN: New campaign to tackle stigma and misconceptions

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KABUL, 23 July 2008 (IRIN) – The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US, and Constella Futures, a US-based research organisation, have been awarded contracts to implement Afghanistan’s first major HIV/AIDS projects in four cities, the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) told IRIN/PlusNews.

The two projects, costing about US$3 million, are designed to improve advocacy and communication on HIV/AIDS, help tackle widespread stigma, identify policy gaps and provide recommendations for timely interventions to prevent the spread of the virus.

“The Johns Hopkins University will conduct three integrated, biological and behavioural surveys until 2010, which will enable us to draw up appropriate policy and effectively design and implement preventive measures,” said Saif-ur-Rehman, director of the national HIV/AIDS control programme in the capital, Kabul.

Afghanistan launched its national HIV/AIDS programme in 2003 and has since received $23 million funding from various international donors. The health ministry, which runs the national HIV/AIDS control programme, has reported that thousands of people may be living with HIV/AIDS, but only 436 positive cases have been recorded over the past three years.

Tackling stigma

More than half the estimated population of 26.6 million are younger than 23 years, but fewer than 20 people per day visit Afghanistan’s six HIV/AIDS testing centres, and most of those are people who wish to travel abroad and require health certificates, Rehman said.

The very high level of stigma associated with HIV/AIDS in this conservative society means Afghans do not voluntarily visit test centres, health officials conceded. No HIV-positive person has ever publicly disclosed his status.

During a parliamentary debate over the HIV/AIDS programme budget and activities in March 2008, several MPs in the lower house of the National Assembly reportedly labelled people living with HIV/AIDS as “criminals and adulterers who deserve death”.

“Some conservative MPs, and even government officials, believe that people with HIV/AIDS should not be given health services … they say, ‘let these sinners die’,” said one official who did not wish to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

However, the MoPH said it was working hard to build up support for the country’s HIV/AIDS control efforts among decision-makers and political leaders. “We try to spread the message that people living with HIV/AIDS are not criminals and should not be discriminated against,” Rehman said.

A common misperception

“There is a common misperception that HIV/AIDS results solely from illegitimate sexual relationships,” said Rehman.

Yet HIV prevalence among injecting drug users is three percent compared to zero percent among sex workers, according to MoPH statistics.

A survey by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2005 showed there were 920,000 drug users, including injecting drug users, in Afghanistan, which produced over 90 percent of the illicit drugs consumed worldwide in 2007.

Opium cultivation and heroin production has rapidly increased over the past three years, and so has the number of domestic drug users. Health experts have warned that this is the group most vulnerable to HIV infection.

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July 23, 2008 at 5:11 am

Posted in Health, Society

Years of Hardship Take a Toll on Families in Afghanistan

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A counseling center, the nation’s first, tries to help battered wives and troubled husbands
By Anna Mulrine
Posted June 27, 2008

KABUL—Through the doors of Afghanistan’s first and only counseling center, families come to sort through the emotions that accompany decades of war and hardship. Along with the loss and grieving, of course, there are concerns that life in Kabul isn’t getting any better—and may be getting worse.
A mother walks with her children in Kabul, where soaring food prices add to family stress.
A mother walks with her children in Kabul, where soaring food prices add to family stress.
(Veronique De Viguerie/WPN)
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Unemployment is rampant, and food prices are on the rise. Watermelon, a beloved summertime snack, has become too pricey for many Afghans. Families struggle to be able to buy a 40-pound bag of wheat for $40. That cost is equivalent to two thirds of an average monthly salary—for someone lucky enough, that is, to have a job.

After 30 years of war, post-traumatic stress here is widespread. Food insecurity, in particular, takes a heavy psychological toll, says counseling center director Manizha Naderi. One comprehensive study in Kabul found that going hungry is what families report to be one of the most traumatic experiences they suffer during times of war.

The counselors here see a connection between this stress and cases of domestic violence. Until the center opened in March 2007, there were no programs for victims of domestic violence. The center is run by a nonprofit called Women for Afghan Women, although its name belies the importance that counselors place on reaching out to men as well. In the United States, domestic violence shelters tend to advocate separating a husband and wife, the philosophy being, once a batterer, always a batterer. But Afghanistan, says Naderi, “is a family-oriented country, and a woman cannot realistically live by herself. So instead of separating, the best thing is to give the man counseling.”

Sometimes the center’s methods are decidedly unconventional, at least by American standards. After being confidentially approached by a wife, for example, mal e counselors from the center might show up at the husband’s favorite hangout. “We pretend we never met his wife,” says counselor Jamila Zafar. “That’s how we get to the root of the problem.” They might strike up a conversation with the husband, mention in passing that he seems unhappy and stressed out, and offer the location of agencies that could help him find a job. They might mention, too, the availability of guidance at the counseling center.

Recently, the staff was unpacking boxes after the center’s move to a larger office on a quiet, tree-lined street. The counselors have helped some 350 families to date and are now taking an average of 40 to 50 new cases a month with the help of private donations and international foundations.

Second wives. Naderi, 32, grew up in Queens, N.Y., after her family fled Afghanistan when she was 4. Now back, she and the rest of the staff troubleshoot the sort of cases that would be unusual among American clientele, such as a second wife feeling left out when her husband takes a third wife. Or young couples who want to break off engagements arranged by their parents, because they want to marry others for love and in doing so risk ostracism or retribution. There are, too, the perennial cases of meddling in-laws. “They are important in our Afghan culture,” says Khalida Silander, legal counselor at the center. “It’s different than in America. We can’t just say, ‘Oh, ignore them.’ ”

The most dire cases are those of severe domestic violence, exacerbated in some instances by rising drug abuse in Afghanistan. Many times, counselors are able to speak to the husbands about the consequences of violence, including its impact on their families. This, they say, has often proved surprisingly effective. Unannounced follow-up home visits, as often as once a week, also help.

But in addition, the center provides emergency shelter when a woman’s life is at risk. One such victim was beaten severely by her husband, who was said to be involved in planning suicide bombings. She has gone into hiding, and he has threatened through family members to kill her if he finds out where she is.

Meanwhile, her chances of gaining custody of their two young children are slim, although she is fighting the case in court with the help of the center’s legal team. There has not yet been a single instance of a woman retaining care of her children after a divorce here. “Women who decide to leave their husbands,” says Naderi, “eventually have to leave the children as well.”

Women for Afghan Women is preparing to open another center in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif this fall. “Our plan is to have a center in every province,” Naderi says. “The need is so great. Security is getting worse, and our clients feel as though the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.”

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June 27, 2008 at 4:00 pm

Posted in Society

Chinese prostitutes imported to Afghanistan

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By ALISA TANG
Associated Press
June 14, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan – A string of lights spells out the name of the bar in the back of the basement in capital letters, PARADISE. A dozen Chinese women in skintight miniskirts and halter tops flit around clusters of beefy Western men and flirt in broken English.

Now and then, a man and woman climb the stairs to the upper reaches of the house, where Paradise does its real business.

Paradise is a brothel in an unmarked residential compound in an upscale Kabul neighborhood where prostitutes from China cater to Western men. Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, thousands of Westerners working for security firms, companies and aid groups have poured into Afghanistan. Not long after came Chinese prostitutes, in some cases trafficked into the country.

The International Organization for Migration helped 96 Chinese women who were deported in 2006. They told IOM they were deceived by a travel agency in China and promised employment in a restaurant for $300 a month. But when they arrived, they said, the Chinese restaurant owner denied them salary and forced them to provide sexual services by night.

An IOM staffer said one Chinese woman thought she was going to work in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and had no idea she had instead landed in Kabul.

Afghan officials deny these claims.

“They come here of their own will. They want to do business here. Police caught them red-handed,” said Gen. Ali Shah Paktiawal, head of Kabul’s criminal investigations.

In recent years, Afghan authorities have carried out a campaign against moral corruption, raiding brothels fronting as restaurants and deporting the Chinese prostitutes in front of TV cameras. Last year in Kabul, 180 female prostitutes were arrested — 154 “foreigners” and 26 Afghans, Paktiawal said. He would not give the nationalities of the foreign prostitutes, but many raids in recent years have been at Chinese restaurants.

Many Afghans blame prostitution on immoral Chinese women and Western men and say it is un-Islamic. The highly publicized crackdown on Chinese prostitutes has led to rampant harassment of women of East Asian origin. Police often single out Asian women in spot checks on Kabul’s streets.

In Paradise, the women speak Chinese among themselves. One says she is from a town outside Beijing.

The brothel has two identical doors in the back of the building. One leads down to the well-stocked basement bar where the women mingle with potential clients. The other leads up to the main part of the house, where every nook and cranny that can be closed off has a spartan twin bed mattress with no sheets.

A Pussycat Dolls pop song pumps on the speakers, “Don’t Cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?” One man rubs the belly of a girl in a gauzy pink miniskirt.

A frequent customer at the bar says it costs $70 to take a woman upstairs, and $150 to have her company for the night.

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June 14, 2008 at 4:49 pm

Posted in Society, Women's Rights

MULLAHS VERSUS BOLLYWOOD

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As two Afghan TV stations hold out against a ban on Indian soap operas, analysts warn freedom of speech is at stake.
By Hafizullah Gardesh in Kabul
With two television states still battling a government ban on Indian serials regarded as too racy for local sensibilities, viewers are trying to make sense of the government’s increasingly muddled media policy.
The dispute has raised questions about who should have the moral authority to censor the airwaves, how politics influences decisions on the media, and – most importantly of all – what kind of society Afghans want.
The Ministry of Information and Culture gave private channels a deadline of April 15, later extended by a week to April 22, to stop showing certain Bollywood series on the grounds that they offended Afghan sensibilities.
The ministry demanded that five serials be taken off the air.
Two television stations, Noorin and Ariana, bowed to the ban, but Tolo, responsible for two of the series, and Afghan TV have continued to air the popular serials.
The ministry has referred Tolo TV to the prosecutor’s office, but no legal action had been launched by the time this report was published.
The Indian-made soaps enjoy huge popularity among viewers. However, at a meeting last month with religious scholars and TV representatives, Information and Culture Minister Abdul Karim Khurram claimed these programmes ran counter to Islamic culture and promoted “idolatry” with their depictions of Hindu imagery.
Critics say the clothing worn by the female actors is too revealing for Afghan tastes. The dialogue and plot lines are also offensive to many, with hints of unlawful sexual conduct and other titillating material.
The driving force behind the government ban was the Council of Clerics, which brings together leading Muslim scholars. The council had called for all Indian serials to be taken off the airwaves, but expressed satisfaction with the selective ban.
“We are against anything that is against the tenets of Islam. We propose that broadcasting be adjusted to fit Islamic culture,” said Enayatullah Baligh, a member of the Council of Clerics. He said clerics were pleased with what the ministry had done although they felt it had not gone far enough.
Baligh said the Council of Clerics would assert its right to prevent immorality at any cost.
“We prevent all kinds of vice. We aren’t afraid to do so even if it means we are described as Taleban, al-Qaeda or something else,” he said. “We defend anyone who defends Islam. Afghanistan is an Islamic country and it should live under the umbrella of Islamic law.”
The cleric added that the council was well able to act on such matters independently, but in this instance had chosen to defer to government – as long as it acted in the correct manner.
The Senate or upper chamber of parliament has backed the ministry’s decision. Members of the lower house also spoke out against the “anti-Islamic” content of TV programming last month. In addition to the drama serials, they were annoyed by a show in which men and women were seen dancing together.
At national level, a bitter debate continues between those who want to impose a conservative morality and advocates of freedom of speech.
Some, like Abdul Hamid Mubariz, head of the National Union of Journalists, insist that the ban is a deliberate ploy by political and religious conservatives.
“There is a body of people in government who want to do without freedom of speech and democracy,” he said. “They are people who see freedom of speech as being against their own personal interest.
“If we are to follow Taleban-style policies, then why didn’t Mullah Omar become president of Afghanistan instead of Hamed Karzai?” he asked.
Mubariz challenged President Karzai to issue a formal ruling on the matter.
“Karzai should issue a decree and snatch away our freedom. Then we will take away from him the mantle of freedom and democracy,” he said.
Karzai has issued contradictory statements, straddling a line between upholding freedom of speech, as guaranteed by the constitution, and backing moves to defend Afghan culture.
But the Ministry of Information and Culture has no such qualms.
“Every freedom has its limits,” said ministry spokesman Hamid Naseri. “Every human being is free insofar as he does not violate and harm the person, sensibilities and faith of others.”
Naseri said that the ministry had issued its ruling based on “hundreds” of complaints sent in by members of the public.
“This is the people’s will, and we respect the wishes of our people,” he said.
Naseri also attacked external critics who depicted the TV serial ban as a restriction of media freedom. Responding to a statement issued by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, he said it had “misjudged” the situation.
“Without contacting the people and our ministry or being award of the reality, they contact traitors and accept what they say and react to that,” he alleged.
Turning to the private TV stations, Naseri accused them of being too lazy to make their own programmes, despite what he said was encouragement by the ministry to use Afghans in productions that reflected local values and traditions.
“Officials at Tolo TV are trying to ‘hide the sun behind two fingers’ [conceal the obvious]. What scenes in these serials and movies are based on Islamic and Afghan culture? This is a cultural assault pursued by Tolo TV.”
Sediq Ahmadzada, executive manager of Tolo TV, maintains that there is no justification for halting the Indian serials.
“Our programmes and broadcasts are not against the law. The statement the information ministry sent us does not contain any convincing legal reasons,” he said. “We resist any pressure that is not legal and we will continue our broadcasts.”
Political analyst Mohammad Qasim Akhgar believes that the background to this dispute has more to do with politics than with morality.
“There are some fundamentalists in government, who have put pressure on private TV stations, and Tolo in particular, in the past, too. This is a continuation of that previous pressure,” said Akhgar. “This group of people is trying to eliminate free speech as a way of maintaining their strength and giving legitimacy to their demands. Freedom of speech unmasks their plans and programmes.”
Control of the media is becoming increasingly important as Afghanistan prepares for presidential elections in 2009. Many political groups have opened their own media outlets, and Akhgar is not alone in thinking that there may be political motives behind the current tussle over the airwaves.
Akhgar disputed the ministry spokesman’s claim that the ban reflected popular demand.
“It’s completely the other way round…. People really want these serials to be broadcast. Those who complain about [them] can switch off or watch something else,” he said. “Representing this as if it came from the people is not good.”
Another analyst, Ahmad Sayedi, said it was hard to know what was really really going on in government, given the mixed messages coming out about freedom of speech.
“In a situation like this, one gets confused. On the one hand, President Hamed Karzai talks about freedom of speech and sees himself as a defender of freedom, but on the other hand, the information and culture ministry does not believe in freedom of speech. We don’t really know what is behind the curtain,” he said.
Kabul residents are divided in their outlook on the ban, and on the controversy surrounding it.
Some, like Dr Gul Rasul, argue that the Indian soaps undermine Afghan traditions, and even faith.
He recalled the day he visited relatives to pay his respects after a death in the family. Afterwards, his five-year-old daughter asked him, “Father, why were the family of the deceased not wearing white?”
Rasul explained that this was because Afghans wear black as mourning, whereas the Indian actors on TV wear white.
Schoolteacher Saleha complained that her pupils were slacking because they spent so much time gripped by the latest serials.
“The children have stopped attending to their lessons,” she said. They watch these serials until late into the night. I teach the first grade, and believe me, the girls aged six and seven pay no attention to their lessons. They’re always telling each other romantic stories about the actors from these serials.”
On the other hand Zuhra, who is 18, loves the Indian soap operas so much that she dresses like the actresses.
She says it is wrong to blame Indian programmes for Afghanistan’s many problems, “There are thefts, robberies, murders and thousands of other anti-Islamic actions taking place in this country but the Council of Clerics, parliament and government never pay attention to these things because they are implicated in these crimes themselves,” she said. “Yet they try to ban a few Indian serials that spread love, friendship and honesty among the people.”
Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s local editor in Kabul.

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May 15, 2008 at 4:16 pm