Political satire show has Afghans glued to their TVs

'Alarm Bell' creator has been threatened and beaten but jokes about Karzai go on

Julius Cavendish
Thursday 19 November 2009 01:00
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Today, President Hamid Karzai will be inaugurated in front of an audience of foreign dignitaries. But appearing on Afghan television, he is a little less statesmanlike. The incessant bickering, it seems, has grown too much, and Mr Karzai snaps: instead of calmly swearing an oath to his country, he is trying to strangle the US ambassador, jowl quivering next to spit-flecked jowl. A UN official gazes placidly at the unfolding chaos but luckily there's someone here with a little more nerve. "Shut up," screams a cross-dressing interpreter. It's not exactly The Daily Show, but this is political satire, Afghan style.

Zang-e-Khatar ("Alarm Bell"), is a popular TV show in Afghanistan that has been thriving on the country's political tribulations. It receives primetime billing – 9pm every Wednesday – and almost everyone with a TV seems to have seen an episode.

"It's good entertainment," said Ahmad Fawad, a shopkeeper. "It's our custom to watch it every week." His friend chimed in: "It's funny and it's informative. Our government is weak and Zang-e-Khatar tells people what's going on." The election debacle and subsequent speculation over who Mr Karzai will appoint to his cabinet have provided ample material; the visit of Hillary Clinton, David Miliband and a host of other foreign dignitaries to give their support to a man many foreign governments view as a disaster will doubtless provide plenty more. Host Hanif Hangam, whose silk scarf, dark glasses and turquoise rings lend him the swagger of a hip-hop star, is unlikely to be deferential.

In last night's episode, for example, the show's panellists lambasted the beleaguered President for failing to control his ministers, who they claimed went sex-trawling in Tajikistan instead of attending to the business of State. They wondered aloud how many positions Mr Karzai would give to the Taliban commanders who had delivered the pro-Karzai vote. And for good measure they derided the announcement that a new anti-corruption squad mentored by the British and Americans will clean up government. "Phew!" exclaimed Hangam, the show's creator and leading comic, in an expression of relief that was not entirely sincere.

Owing an inevitable debt to Jon Stewart's US current affairs review, The Daily Show, the show has a satiric sting that has enraged some of its targets. MPs tried to have it banned after it lampooned their opulent lifestyles and broadcast clips of them dozing through debates. Hangam says he has been threatened and beaten up since the show first broadcast five years ago. Now he says he is past the point of being scared – and, after all, he was once thrown in jail for pursuing his previous dream, acting, under the Taliban regime. He glows with pride when asked about his work. "The greatest thing is I made something out of nothing," he says.

On some occasions politicians have noted the criticism, apparently reining in a tendency to throw water bottles at each other during heated debates after the show called for bottling companies to make softer MP-proof receptacles. The Taliban, foreign agents and even hapless pilgrims trying to get to Mecca are all fair game. The only subjects Hangam avoids are those he thinks will inflame ethnic tensions.

"They talk about the lack of respect MPs and politicians [show ordinary people] and I think to a large extent that's true and that's why it's widely watched," Fowzia Kufi, a young female MP, said. "Politicians ignore the programme but they should pay more attention."

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