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Afghanistan's Latest Drama: No Soaps

(Soundbite of song "Kumkum Theme Song")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) (Arabic Spoken)



If you've ever been to Kabul, Afghanistan, you'll have a hard time avoiding Indian soap operas. They're everywhere. Shop clerks have them blaring on TVs in their shops. They're on in virtually every restaurant, either out in the dining room or back in the kitchen. And for many Afghan families in the post-Taliban era, watching Indian soaps has become an evening ritual. We're listening now to the theme song of one popular soaps called "Kumkum."

(Soundbite of song "Kumkum Theme Song")

MARTIN: But these soaps might have a short life span. The democratically-elected government in Afghanistan is now trying to get them off the air. A couple of weeks ago, the Ministry of Culture and Information ordered several television stations to stop airing the Indian soaps, calling them un-Islamic.

Some Afghans say this ban is a frightening sign that the Taliban, or at least its laws, are creeping back into Afghanistan. On the line now is Tom Coghlan. He's been in Afghanistan for the past five years or so covering that country for the British paper the Daily Telegraph, and the Economist Magazine. Hey, Tom.

Mr. TOM COGHLAN (Reporter, Daily Telegraph and The Economist): Hi there.


MARTIN: Thanks for joining us. So, I understand you are personally not the biggest fan, shall we say, of these soaps yourself. I mean, you've been there for awhile now. You've seen your fair share of them. What's your take on these?

Mr. COGHLAN: I have. Absolutely, yeah. And you just playing that music there sent shivers down my spine. I can't stand these things.

MARTIN: And not in a good way?

Mr. COGHLAN: They are everywhere.

MARTIN: What is it about these soap operas that is so offensive to the ulema, or the clerics, who are part of the Ministry of Culture who have instituted this ban?

Mr. COGHLAN: These soap operas are a real breath of fresh air, but quite a lot of the more liberal sort of Afghans, they'll follow the things that were banned under the Taliban, and people like them for that very reason.

They have a bit of a whiff of sexual excitement about them. There's a slightly-racy storylines about extramarital sex. Well, by Afghan standards, indecent clothing. You can occasionally see a flash of female flesh.

MARTIN: Like an elbow or an ankle. We're not talking about...

Mr. COGHLAN: Yeah, I think the thing they're particularly upset about, the Afghan clerical council, the ulema council, is the midriff, and that pokes out a bit in Indian saris. Now, it's completely covered up, obviously, in Afghan clothing. Obviously, in very conservative parts of Afghanistan, you wear a burka if you're a lady, and that covers every inch of you apart from your ankle.

The sight of a bit of flesh around the middle is quite shocking. They also show, actually, interestingly, Hindu deities sometimes. So, the ulema council is just generally very worried about the influx of Western influences.

This is one obvious target that they've settled on. These programs are hugely popular, and the main one of these shows is called "Because a Mother-in-Law was a Daughter-in-Law, Too," which is a quite odd title in translation, and yeah, it's enormously popular. I think they estimate the viewing figures around the 12-million mark, which, in a country with pretty limited electricity, is pretty extraordinary.

MARTIN: Hey, Tom, how are the television stations reacting? I understand a couple have acquiesced, taken the soaps off, but I know in particular at least ToloTV, one of the bigger stations in Afghanistan's national networks, has refused to do so. They say, no way, we're not budging. We're keeping them on.

Mr. COGHLAN: Yeah. Well, this is going to be a real fight. This battle between the liberal media and the conservative religious establishment has been building now for probably a couple of years. ToloTV are the flag wavers for the liberal establishments, putting out pretty liberal programs, but within the bounds of Afghan taste, they say.

So, for instance, they show a pop video maybe, but they'll black out some of the more revealing parts of the thing, that kind of stuff. But ToloTV has said this evening they're absolutely not going to drop these two soap operas that they show on their channel. They say that the ban is illegal. The government is now saying that they're going to take them to court.

MARTIN: What has President Hamid Karzai said about all of this? I mean, as people know, President Karzai was elected with the strong support and alliance of the United States, and has talked about the need for a free press. What's been his response to this?

Mr. COGHLAN: He's a reasonably conservative figure, though by no means as conservative as some within his government. Now, he has said that he supports this ban. He has an election campaign by next year, so he does have his eyes very much on that at the moment. He's not taking any risk, I don't think, with the clerical council, who can clearly make life pretty difficult for him if they want to.

MARTIN: And you say that this could be the sign of a larger crackdown. I understand there's also some legislation before parliament with some suggestions of some new laws that sound very reminiscent of what we saw under the Taliban. Men and women might not be allowed to speak in public anymore, strict fines for kind of obscure things like playing with pigeons, or playing a stereo out loud. Is this true?

Mr. COGHLAN: Yeah, this is true. Now, what's happening is that there's a committee within the lower House of the Afghan parliament, very heavily conservative dominated committee, and it's called the Anti-Social Behavior and Counter-Narcotics Committee, or juxtaposition that, but they have drawn some draft legislation that they are going to put before the lower house of parliament for debate, and these really are reminiscent of the old Taliban social edicts.

We'll really wait with interest to see first of all how the Afghan parliament takes to this, and also what the international community's response is. Because they can't really argue with a sovereign state and its democratically-elected government, but clearly these are things Western governments are pretty unhappy about seeing on the legislative books in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: Tom Coghlan is the Kabul correspondent for the Economist and the Daily Telegraph newspaper, a British newspaper. Hey, Tom, thanks very much. I appreciate it.

Mr. COGHLAN: Rachel, lovely to talk to you.

MARTIN: Take care of yourself, my friend.

Mr. COGHLAN: OK. See you soon.

MARTIN: If you want to hear more on this story, check out our blog. We'll post an interview with the owner of ToloTV, the privately-owned Afghan television network that has refused to take the controversial Indian soaps off the air. That's at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.