Radio Free Kabul

Afghans can't get enough of the new stations on their dials: there's local music, news... and, of course, Kylie. Ed Caesar tunes into the revolution
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The Independent Online

Sanjar wears a Backstreet Boys T-shirt, but he likes The Beatles. Hugo's next- door neighbours hold a disco every night at five. Times are changing in Afghanistan: as the first democratic elections conclude and a new dawn is promised, Afghans from all over the country are tuning into free radio. On the streets of Kabul, one is just as likely to hear Guns N' Roses as gunfire, and in a culture that has long regarded females as chattels, now women host chat shows. Significantly, it is Afghanistan's youth which is leading the way in this youngest of all democracies. And, through reconstructing the nation's ability to express itself, promising a more stable future.

Sanjar wears a Backstreet Boys T-shirt, but he likes The Beatles. Hugo's next- door neighbours hold a disco every night at five. Times are changing in Afghanistan: as the first democratic elections conclude and a new dawn is promised, Afghans from all over the country are tuning into free radio. On the streets of Kabul, one is just as likely to hear Guns N' Roses as gunfire, and in a culture that has long regarded females as chattels, now women host chat shows. Significantly, it is Afghanistan's youth which is leading the way in this youngest of all democracies. And, through reconstructing the nation's ability to express itself, promising a more stable future.

Sanjar Qiam and Hugo MacPherson are two young men helping to foster this explosion in Afghanistan's radio. Both are university graduates, both were born in 1980, and both now work for Internews Afghanistan, a US-based international company establishing independent radio in the emerging democracy. But while MacPherson enjoyed a private education in Britain, and took a degree from a liberal university, Qiam's education was frequently interrupted by civil wars and the repression of the Taliban. He was not even born when Soviet tanks first rolled into Afghanistan, and has, like many other young Afghans, spent large parts of his life in exile.

"In situations like Afghanistan, you didn't have many choices," Qiam says. "In the West, you make a choice in your life based on two criteria: talent and interest. In Afghanistan, you make choices on what you could do, and what you can't do." Having come from a well-educated background, he was advised to attend the medical faculty in Kabul, but abandoned medicine to work in radio. So what has drawn a graduate of medicine on the one hand, and a graduate of Arabic on the other, to this path?

"Radio," MacPherson replies, "cuts through all that bad blood from the past 25 years." To reinforce this point, he says Afghans are a famously discursive bunch and that "Afghan" is an Old Persian slur meaning "chatty" or "restless". If ever a country were a potentially fertile ground for new independent radio stations, the evidence suggests it should be Afghanistan. With only 35 per cent of Afghan men and just 15 per cent of women able to read, as well as an almost defunct national printing press and poor transport infrastructure, the possibilities for the print media are limited.

Internews has recognised Afghanistan's potential, as it has done in other fledgling democracies, such as Tajikistan. While Internews's project seems to be inextricably bound up with the looser aims of US foreign policy - to "spread democracy" - it appears to be free of the more sinister aspects of the neo-cons' activities abroad. Its focus is to establish a network of radio stations, assist with some central programming, and then hand over the maintenance and content of the radio stations to the local population. In Afghanistan, free speech has been thrust upon a country keen to speak its mind. The success of the 24 radio stations Internews has help- ed to establish is testimony to Afghanistan's burgeoning creative desires.

"The true value [of independent radio] in Afghanistan is that it gives people a chance not just to listen to a national broadcast, but to participate in it too", says MacPherson. Both he and Qiam have been surprised by the enthusiasm of local people. Even in the more lawless rural areas, where warlords are still the unspoken leaders, hundreds of people have shown a desire to be involved. "Many Westerners thought these guys were so happy with a gun in their hands they'd never be able to swap it for a microphone, but it's happening."

So what are Afghans listening to? Internews distributes a package of programmes to all its stations, which range from music to current affairs. The unexpected hit has been a children's programme called Sharak Atfal, ( City of Children), which is recorded by children every Saturday morning in a studio in Kabul. The show consists of an imaginary dialogue featuring a talking parrot, a magic carpet, and an interactive radio, and is described as "a weird comic mix of Rainbow and Sesame Street". Adults and children tune into Sharak in huge numbers, and the programme has proved an imaginative format to deal with many of the issues of post-conflict Afghanistan.

In terms of music, radio stations in the rural areas still play traditional local artists, particularly Sufi singers, while in the relatively liberal cities such as Kabul, Western influences are creeping in. Qiam explains what he and his university friends listen to: "Kylie Minogue, Shakira, The Beatles." And his favourite? "The Beatles - they're quite good." There may be some hope for Afghanistan yet. MacPherson laughs when I ask him what influences he has introduced to his Afghan co-workers. "Well, they were already into Daft Punk. That was a bit of a surprise. But I did introduce a couple of guys to Snoop Doggy Dogg. They love it." For those questioning the wisdom of introducing gangsta rap to a gun-heavy culture, there are also some less controversial artists finding their way to Kabul. "I was in the office the other day," MacPherson recalls, "and these guys put on Ricky Martin and had a mental disco."

As eclectic as the small group of Western artists who have penetrated Afghan's youth consciousness may be, there does seem to be the seed of a youth movement appearing. Qiam himself has started a peace movement, simply called Sulf, or "Peace", which manifests itself primarily in graffiti-ing CND signs on to the thousands of burnt-out Russian tanks that are scattered next to almost every road in Afghanistan. "[Afghans] are starting to notice these signs around Kabul, and they're not sure what they mean, but they have a pretty good idea. We're trying to show the Americans that maybe Afghans don't want them there anymore." This seems an extraordinary development in a country where only two years ago, dissidents were regularly tortured by the Taliban for speaking out of turn. Another sea change has been the involvement of women in media life: there are now four women-only radio stations in Afghanistan.

The goal, of course, is to build the foundations for Afghans not only to run their own stations, but also to record all their own programmes. But the creative energy that some young Afghans like Qiam have shown needs to be replicated across the country. When I ask whether any programming is being done solely by Afghans at this point, the reply is defiant: "Of course. But in a country that has battered people around and told them what to do for the past 20 years, maybe people's creative side has been weakened."

History, it seems, is a nightmare from which Afghanistan is desperately trying to awake. But there are committed people willing it to do so through the pervasive power of radio. For the moment, the presence of Western forces in Afghanistan seems a tolerated evil, and, with the election results only two to three weeks away, there seems to be hope of a more stable future for this troubled country.

So much depends upon Afghanistan's under-thirties, and, from the evidence of listening to young Afghans, the future looks bright. MacPherson has noticed it, too: "People are starting to realise you can do what you like. You can listen to music, which you couldn't do under the Taliban. You can express yourself on the radio. You can put yourself up for election..."

In the background, I can hear Qiam shout his approval.

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