On the face of it, the taping of the The Mozhdah Show looks like that of any other U.S. talk show. Green lights dim as the house band—Afghanistan’s only known rock group—starts up. A white spotlight sweeps the audience. Whistles and cheers erupt as the host, Mozhdah Jamalzadah, emerges, hopping gracefully onto the bright-pink set. “Salaam!” says the charismatic, Canadian-raised star, whose nine-month-old TV program has taken Afghanistan by storm. “Salaam!” she says again, smiling, her adoring crowd refusing to return to their seats.
Mozhdah, who like Beyoncé is known by her first name, and is mobbed whenever she leaves her Kabul home, has been labelled the Oprah of Afghanistan. The comparison is of course imperfect. Oprah doesn’t sleep with a gun. She doesn’t ride in bulletproof cars or travel with guards armed with AK-47s. Death threats don’t flood her inbox. Mozhdah, whose first thought on entering a new building is how she might escape, is gutsy in a way Oprah doesn’t need to be. Her black leather leggings, six-inch heels and silver hoop earrings wouldn’t get a second glance in Vancouver, where she’s spent all but five of her 26 years, but this is Afghanistan. Until a few years ago, the bare ankles alone could have earned her a public whipping.
Her clothes aren’t the only thing raising eyebrows in the ultra-conservative country. There is the unapologetically frank content of the show. Should women have to wear the veil? Should the marriage of a 10-year-old girl be allowed? If a woman is willing to set herself alight to escape the violence of a marriage—a common form of suicide in much of Afghanistan—why aren’t we talking about divorce? Conversations like these, she says, are raised in hushed voices in Afghanistan, when at all. She’s taking them to the airwaves, and into the homes of millions of viewers, an astonishing change.
That Afghans are watching TV at all is a meaningful shift. Under the Taliban, watching television and listening to music was a crime; the Talib mouthpiece, Radio Shariat, was the country’s lone radio station. Dancing was punishable by execution. But with the lifting of these restrictions in 2004, some 20 networks have rushed to fill the void. In a country with an illiteracy rate as high as 80 per cent, the tube’s popularity is soaring. Afghan Star, the local take on American Idol, draws as many as a third of the country’s population of 32 million. The impact, especially in cities and on the new generation—the 60 per cent of Afghans under 25—is dramatic.
Women’s lives are being reimagined on television. Bollywood soaps, dubbed into Dari, are giving girls a new version of womanhood, where young women ditch the veil, and can marry for love. Recently, filming began on the country’s first soap, The Secrets of This House. By turning a mirror to Afghan society, the show, directed by female filmmaker Roya Sadaat, is a rare critique of Afghanistan’s failings: its treatment of women, the corruption, drugs. Yet Mozhdah, even in this changing landscape, is a revolutionary force. Simply by interviewing a male psychologist, she lends weight to the idea that women have ideas and intelligence and can speak with men as equals—radical thinking, after years of Taliban rule. Her barely-there head scarves and fashionable belts are being widely mimicked in a country known for its burkas and colourless, shapeless women’s attire. In a culture where even what a woman wears can be a freighted political choice, she’s subtly but surely transforming her world.
Mozhdah spent most of her life in a country where none of this would be out of the ordinary. Born in Kabul, she emigrated to Vancouver in 1990 with her parents, Nasrin and Bashir, and her baby brothers, Safee and Masee, when she was five. A year earlier, as the Soviet occupation was drawing to an end, Bashir, a professor and poet from Herat, a liberal fortress in the country’s western highlands, had learned that president Najibullah’s Communist regime had him in their sights. Having witnessed countless friends and colleagues vanish without a trace, he escaped, in the middle of a class, to a safe house; “stomach cramps,” he explained to his shocked students, who watched him go. Nasrin and the kids fled their Kabul home, leaving everything behind: money, clothes, toys. “In that situation, everything is material,” Nasrin explains. “You grab your children and you get out.”
The family, once reunited, crossed Afghanistan’s eastern border into Pakistan, and spent a year in Islamabad’s teeming refugee slums before making it to Canada, and a new beginning. Nasrin, who’d grown up among the elite in Kabul’s old city, became a hairdresser. Bashir found work at a career college in suburban Richmond. Eventually, they bought a bungalow in working-class south Vancouver, where the boys’ hockey trophies vie for attention with the ornate Persian rugs.
Mozhdah grew up with one eye firmly on the country’s worsening situation. “What women were facing,” she says on the phone from Kabul, “haunted me.” Music became an outlet in her teen years—the first stirrings of a life in the spotlight. She took vocal lessons with Dari singer Wahid Omid, and started getting gigs in Vancouver. After graduating from John Oliver Secondary, she enrolled in the British Columbia Institute of Training’s broadcasting program, and studied opera at the British Columbia Conservatory of Music: the perfect training, as it turned out, for what lay ahead. Often she sang in Dari, rebuilding a language she’d lost growing up with The Baby-Sitters Club. Mozhdah’s biggest fans were her mother’s clients from the salon. They made it to all her shows, though none was even Afghan.
Initially Mozhdah avoided politics in her music. But two years ago, a group of Kandahar schoolgirls was attacked with acid. Bashir, then working as an interpreter with the Canadian Forces, was devastated by the ugly assault, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility. On the return plane to Vancouver, he wrote a poem recalling the country’s female heroes, poets, politicians and warriors. Mozhdah, who remembers the emotion etched in his face when he handed her the poem, cloistered herself for days, putting those words to music.
The result, Afghan Girl, was a sensation, first among the sprawling diaspora community. A Vegas producer, another Afghan refugee, signed her. The music video they filmed for the song in Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon then broke into Afghanistan, where Afghan Girl won a series of awards, including 2009’s song of the year. With the nod, Mozhdah joined a rarefied club. The first female pop star to emerge in Afghanistan in decades, in March she performed for Barack and Michelle Obama at the White House, a far cry from her days at Vancouver’s Hellenic club.
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