Afghan Star: A Conversation with Tamim Ansary


Pop Idol has been widely imitated throughout the world [American Idol here in the states] , but Afghanistan is possibly the only place where the mere existence of a televised, Western-style talent show amounts to a political statement. Although the Taliban is out of Kabul, the powerful conservative elements that remain have reservations about television, music, and dancing, and Afghan Star, as the program is called, is in many ways an act of defiance against those elements.

The program was the eponymous subject of a documentary film currently showing throughout the US, which follows four contestants — two men and two women — as they vie for the top prize, and the contest becomes a way to explore politics, ethnic rivalries, and the status of women in the country.

It reveals much about Afghanistan; or so I thought, until I mentioned the movie to Tamim Ansary. He seemed ambivalent, so I went to watch it; it impressed me, but then again, I knew very little about Afghanistan apart from what I’d learned from the film. So I thought it’d be interesting to sit down with Tamim and subject my naive reactions to his expertise. The result was a fascinating, wide-ranging conversation nominally about the film, but really about Afghanistan in general, touching upon music, the country’s ethnic diversity, the status of women, democracy, the pariah status of artistic truth-tellers like Khaled Hosseini, the successive waves of modernization and backlash that have convulsed the country since 1918, “old men with beards saying horrible things,” and — as a weird bonus — a popular but creepy overweight singer who, in his heyday, walked upon women’s hair on his way to the stage.

The Rumpus: So I just wanted to ask first: Was there anything in the film that actually surprised you?

Ansary: No, nothing that actually surprised me. I had kind of a funny reaction to the film, actually, after it steeped for a little bit. I’d been following Afghan Star before this movie came out, and in retrospect it struck me that the movie never really showed any complete performances by these people, that they didn’t respect the fact that these people are doing something they consider to be art. They did spend a whole lot of time on that suspenseful moment when the singers stood there and one of them was eliminated. Now I can perhaps say that, maybe to an American audience, it all sounds kind of the same.

The Rumpus: Well, you said that when we were talking about this last week, and I still don’t agree! To me, anyway, there was clear diversity to the songs, at least as much as we heard of them.

Ansary: Okay. But then I also realized that she mostly just hit all the themes you already hear about Afghanistan: there’s a lot of ethnic conflict and they can’t get together, they hate women, they’ve got old men with beards saying awful things, you know? There’s something about it that made me feel like the director kind of found what she was looking for. She found what she already thought was there.

The Rumpus: Wow. That reaction is really interesting. What I’m hearing from you is that the film reinforced preconceptions, but because I came to this without really knowing the first thing about Afghanistan, almost everything in it was a surprise to me. I actually found it educational.

Ansary: So in what sense did it educate you?

The Rumpus: Well, I’ll put it this way. Previously, when I thought of Afghanistan, I thought of a desolate place with no infrastructure, with children toting Kalashnikovs, with caves and terrorists mixed somewhere in there. But within ten minutes I got to know an Afghanistan, and a Kabul in particular, that seemed to be a very modern place despite all the war and earthquake damage — I loved that saying they quoted, “in Afghanistan, if there’s not war, there’s earthquake.”

Ansary: It’s true!

The Rumpus: Anyway, the film gave me a much more complex idea, compared to what I started with. Maybe it’s kind of pathetic, but I knew so little that what seem preconceptions to you, were revelations to me. Now I’d feel naive, but everybody that I talked to about this, and I like to think I have smart, well-informed friends, were just as surprised to hear this as I was to see it.

Ansary: Well, I have encountered this before. And you know, when I went back in 2002, I myself was surprised at how much there was of the old Afghanistan. The Afghanistan I remembered was pretty much all there. Like a third of the city was completely destroyed, true, but there were shops and stores, restaurants, kabob, cheese, good food, so many cars, and so many people could put together computers out of anything.

And when I went outside the city, into the countryside, into places like the Panchir Valley, which I thought would have been completely isolated, it turned out that the war itself had exposed these small villagers to sophisticated technology. I’d go to places where you’d see scenes from another time, people threshing wheat with pitchforks, and little boys would come running up and say “how are you sir? hello, hello!” And I would say, “how do you know any English?” Not only had the war not prevented the spread of technology, it had promoted it. It was so weird. So we don’t know much about them, but they know all about us.

The thing is, they’re alarmed by the young woman who dances in the sinuous manner onstage, but they have internet access there, and whatever you see on the internet, they can see it too.

The Rumpus: One of the producers alluded to that when he said “Afghanis see J.Lo on TV.”

Ansary: They see more than J.Lo, they see everything, including total porno. So I think that contributes to an even more dehumanized, weird idea about women. When you can see women on the screen like this, but in real life they’re like that, you have no idea what a woman is really like.

The Rumpus: Let me pick up on that. Two of the contestants they follow to the end were women. Inevitably, a lot of the film was about the status of women in Afghan society, and the restrictions they have to live under, and the risks they run by pursuing music. What did you think of the portrayal of that? Did you find it accurate or was it too heavy?

Ansary: I don’t think it was too heavy. But I’ll tell you something: I think Afghan women are really tough. It’s easy to assume that they’re pitifully crouched down and hiding, but that’s not the case. They’re tough, they have their world, and they’re in charge of that world, which outsiders never see. And in that environment, there’s a lot of activity of women pushing back against these structures. I would say 200 years ago, it was like that here. Women couldn’t go to school, they were disenfranchised, they couldn’t own property, in fact they were considered property for a time. And they fought for their rights, each little inch being the next they could conceive of getting.

That’s how it happened here, but it can’t happen that way there, because the most extreme advancement of women’s rights already exists in the world. So for those women, every time they want an inch further than what the culture gives them, the battle is not for that inch but potentially for the whole distance.

What I see is that conservative old men believe that the world will end if women are allowed to come out and do the same things as men. Aside from anything else, the one thing that would help, is if they could have an experience of how it really is when women are liberated, and know that the world doesn’t end. But they can’t get to that because they’re busy making certain that it never happens, and making certain that every step towards its happening ends up creating violence and catastrophe, so they can point to that and say, “see what happens to society when women are liberated?”

It’s not because women are liberated, it’s because men don’t know how to handle it. And this is the other thing about the question of women in Afghan culture, which can be traced back to the legacy of colonialism. Many men have this attitude that “if my woman is independent, I’m less of a man, if my woman is strong, I’m a weaker man.”

The Rumpus: Well, that mentality was widespread here just a few decades ago.

Ansary: Yes, and it still exists in a lot of the country. So when that idea is present in someone’s mind, he will have this psychic reaction to women having strength and making decisions. He’ll feel emasculated by that.

So now, look at a context where an entire society has been imperially overtaken by another society, and their cultures are distinctly different, so it’s not just a power relationship, it’s a form of cultural imperialism too. The powerful other culture is there and it has social mores that are in argument with your social mores, and the most obvious, distinctive, and frightening one is that in the other culture, women are independent.

You see? There’s already a situation of cultural humiliation and impotence, and then the imperial culture comes in and says “you know, there’s just one little thing we want to change in your world: we want to emasculate you men, you have to let your women be free.”

This is catastrophic for the women, because it just exacerbates the idea that in the oppression of women, we can find our strength. And ordinary women then bear the brunt of men’s frustration.

The Rumpus: I want to talk a little about one of the key moments in this regard, which you alluded to earlier: when one of the women, Setara, is voted out, she impulsively dances and uncovers her hair during her performance. This causes an enormous scandal and there’s a lot of fallout: the TV show comes under pressure from the authorities, Setara has to go into hiding, there are threats on her life, she lies low for months in Kabul before attempting to return home, and there’s a clip of men in the street saying that she should be killed. All this in reaction to a dance that, to Western eyes, looks pretty innocuous.

Ansary: You know, I read several reviews of this, and I don’t think a single reviewer talked about that woman dancing without saying something like, “she barely even moved her hands! They call that dancing?”

The Rumpus: Well, I wouldn’t say that, exactly, but it was pretty tame.

Ansary: Sure, but here’s the thing: she didn’t just move her body, she did pelvic thrusts! When I saw it I thought, “gosh, she really didn’t have to do that.” It was so un-Afghan. There’s a kind of traditional dance, and it’s also provocative; they move their hands in this sinuous way and there’s a kind of flirtation with the eyes. But this was genital-centered dancing.

The Rumpus: No, you’re right, that’s an accurate description.

Ansary: And I thought, why did she do that? That was a deliberate move. She could not have really been surprised by the reaction. Now, did you see those six clips I sent you of Maryam Elaha in the fourth season?

The Rumpus: Yes.

Ansary: Well, in those you see that originally, that at the auditions, that girl is wearing a hijab and she’s standing stiffly, but by the end she’s got her fancy little Italian hat, and she is dancing and moving around. It’s not the kind of dancing that Setara did, but she’s loosened up a lot. If you only saw this movie, I think you’d come away with the impression that man, these guys are in danger, this show is going to fail, and people are going to get killed. It’d be interesting for people to know that now we’ve had another whole season, and I don’t know how many women were among the contestants, but to me Maryam Elaha is a superstar. She’s really good, even though she got voted out. These women in the movie, not so good! It’s like they made it to the finals only on some kind of rule.

The Rumpus: Unfortunately, I have to agree with that. Neither of them were that great. What’d you think of the two men?

Ansary: They were both good. I didn’t believe the one guy who said he was “classically trained.” I’m not sure what he means by that, and somehow I felt he was talking it up. Because in Afghanistan, “classical music” means Indian classical, like ragas. And he might mean “classical music”: what they used to do on Kabul radio ten years ago. Who knows what he meant.

The Rumpus: There was another aspect of Setara doing a Western-style dance that I wanted to talk about. It seemed like there was a double standard, in that Westerners can do whatever, but an Afghan woman on stage —

Ansary: That’s always been the case. If she’s ours, she has to represent our culture. They can do what they want.

The Rumpus: Are performers held to a harsher standard than ordinary women, or is it just that more attention is on them?

Ansary: More attention is on them, and I think that Afghans tend to have a very sensitive antenna out for what you’re telling the world, much more so than we are. There’s this hyper-consciousness of, whatever is done publicly represents us, and so we have to be careful about what we show the world. But then, pathetically enough, they kind of don’t understand what they’re actually showing the world.

You know, Kahled Hosseini was telling me he’s had a lot of trouble because of The Kite Runner. He’s persona non grata there, and that’s because he portrayed something that’s not at all uncommon: some bully kids raped a boy, and that happens. I lived in fear of that growing up myself, as a delicate little boy. And so, in some gathering or other, a bunch of Afghans told Kahled, You’ve dishonored our country. You’ve brought shame on us. And he said, What about ourselves killing each other by the truckload? I think that’s what has brought dishonor on our country, not this novel revealing some bit of truth about Afghan culture.

The Rumpus: Absolutely. I guess that any artist who writes about something kept tacit inside their culture exposes themselves to that kind of reaction.

Ansary: Yeah. His book is much more courageous in the Afghan context than anybody can see in the American context.

The Rumpus: Here it’s a summer read.

Ansary: Yeah, here people say, “Ah, I finally see Afghanistan. This is good.” But there, they say “Gah! Now they’re seeing Afghanistan! How could you do this to us?”

The Rumpus: One of the few things most people seem to have heard about Afghanistan is that music was banned there for a certain period of time. To me that’s almost like the idea of banning love: it just doesn’t make sense, and I can’t figure out how to get to where it makes sense. But I’ve read that there has been controversy in Islam over music from the beginning. Could you enlighten me a little bit about that debate? What’s the reasoning that gets one to banning music, if you know?

Ansary: I do know. First of all, I just want to emphasize that nothing like this had ever happened in Afghanistan before. The idea that you would ban music, it just would never happen. The fact that it did happen for five years only reflected the fact that something had arisen in the world of Islamic fundamentalism that had reached this point, and the Taliban were an expression of that. And this radical Islamic fundamentalism has emerged in a colonial context, in reaction to Western culture, and the place where fundamentalism finally gravitates to most intensely has to do with sexuality and women. And that’s everywhere. I think the Taliban were the most extreme version of it, but it is throughout this whole world. And you see it in fundamentalism generally, but in Islamic fundamentalism in particular. From there, I think there’s a tendency for Muslim extremism to take the position that anything that is pleasurable must be wrong, including music.

The Rumpus: So it starts from a puritanical sensibility, and justifications are found afterward?

Ansary: Right. But there are two more things I want to say about this. One is that, it’s possible to look at this ban superficially and think “this is what Afghans are like, look what they did.” And in fact, we’re talking about a five-year period. On the other hand, I saw something in that movie that I’ve seen many other places, where they say: “here’s how Afghanistan used to be,” and then they show video of a rock and roll concert.

But that wasn’t what Afghanistan was either. That was a tiny part of the country. It is fundamentally a very conservative, socially conservative place. And these old men with beards saying these horrible things, that’s more like what most of Afghanistan has been all along.

But I would also say that, up until everything broke thirty years ago, the conservatism that you saw in rural Afghanistan, was nested in a stable social structure that had not broken. It was tribal, and it was a world divided between private and public. There was this fairly rich kind of private world where there were men and women, whereas the public world was family to family, and the men were the public face of that. So that was a complicated social structure that had a stability, and it worked then, and this war completely shattered all of it.

Just think for a minute about the fact that 8 million people ended up as refugees, and virtually all of them were women and children. This was like a third of the population, and the men were in the country fighting, so that these eight million refugees represented an even larger number of internally displaced persons.

Facing a catastrophe on this scale, when people want to restore something from the past, the first thing they look to is sexuality and women. And watching that movie really brought up for me again how difficult this question of women is. That’s where the rubber meets the road, and the music question emerges from that.

The Rumpus: A moment ago you referred to the archival photos and footage they showed of a more liberal Kabul — I’m assuming all that was from Kabul.

Ansary: Yeah.

The Rumpus: If you had shown me that without any context, I would have guessed they were taken in India, or Beirut, Turkey, some place like that. But you’re saying that was just a tiny slice of the country. They paint a picture of a very liberal place. Do you remember any of that?

Ansary: It was 1964 when I left, and it was around ’62 or so when that started. Afghanistan has always been a place that has both things going on. It has a deeply conservative countryside, but there’s always been a sophisticated urban elite, because in the course of history, it’s been the crossroads: people come from everywhere and go to everywhere.

So let me go back a little earlier. In the 1920s, some Afghans who had been involved in all the modernization that happened in Turkey moved back to Afghanistan during the 1910s, and brought the whole Young Turk movement with them. And one of the people that heartily joined into it was the prince, the heir apparent. His father died in 1918, he became the king, and he immediately launched this huge modernization campaign. They have ten years of it, and it was extreme for the context. Schools opened up to girls, the veil was abolished —

The Rumpus: Aren’t you talking about overturning more than a thousand years of tradition?

Ansary: Yes, you are. They did it once in the 1920s, tried to overturn a thousand years of tradition, and there was a backlash in the 30s. That guy was chased out, and the restoration was this heavy-duty authoritarian monarchy. They were also interested in progress, but they thought they had better go slow.

So they moved in that direction, and by the time I was young, in the 50s, it was very much the case that within the compound walls, it was very modern and lots of stuff went on. People had record players and we’d listen to Elvis Presley. But it was understood that you don’t show anything like that out in the streets.

So as I said, there were really two worlds, and you knew about that other whole world, because you’d go to people’s houses and once you were inside the walls, it was like that. And then, during the period when the communists took over, the push was to have it not within the walls. They wanted this world to go public. And so that’s the period in which women were dancing on TV, they had TV for the first time, so there was a lot of progress in that way.

But honestly, it was too much progress for the context. They had bars, they had nightclubs, all that stuff. And it was so extremely disjunctive, between what was in Kabul and what was ten miles out of Kabul — how could that work?

And then when I went back in ’02, it was within three months after the Taliban had been driven out, and I went to somebody’s party. There were a lot of cars coming from all these different places, and when you got inside the walls of that place, there was whiskey on the tables, there was dancing, there was rock and roll music, women and men were mingling freely — this is two months after the Taliban and it’s happening right there.

You see, there’s a fast, modern, young urban culture that has had continuity right on through that period. And now they’re struggling. Those guys, like the promoter of Afghan Star, they’re entering the struggle against those old guys, and they’re saying “we’re going to do this.” And there are also a lot of people who have come back from abroad, and they’re trying to reclaim the country for that more modern idea.

The Rumpus: Do you think they have a chance at avoiding another backlash?

Ansary: Well, the backlash is here, now. It is happening. The awful thing is, I don’t know if another terrible period can be avoided now. I wonder if there’s anything the US could do now; we’ve made bad mistakes and it might be too late.

The Rumpus: What about this idea the producer was pushing, that perhaps music could be a tool to help unify this incredibly diverse country, that they could trade guns for music?

Ansary: Wouldn’t that be nice? They’re always saying “maybe this thing” — fill in the blank — “will be a tool to unify the country.” The last one was a national army.

But I doubt that music per se could be a tool for that, because politically it signifies too much. Let me step over and discuss education for a moment. People say “well, you can just put a school in every place, and that will unify the country, people will stop being so ignorant. But a school is a statement about what culture is better and what culture is worse. So putting a school in there is already an assaultive act, saying “you guys are ignorant, and we’re going to teach you.” So that’s not a tool for unifying the country, it’s a tool for creating a line of scrimmage. And then that’s where the battle is joined. Not that schools are bad, but that’s what happens.

So with music, there’s always been music in Afghan culture, and it has a certain place in traditional society, music is a certain thing, but now this Afghan Star kind of music is something completely different from that. So it’s an extreme version of, when rock and roll first hit here, all the old folks said it was just noise, and the kids thought it was the greatest thing. Music was not a tool for unifying the generations. It was a tool for marking the line between the generations. That’s what music is doing in this context now. Everybody’s got music, but whose music you’ve got is a way to mark out the lines.

In the long run, perhaps yes, but other kinds of relaxations have to take place before people can start to say “well, let me try this, what kind of music have you got?” The culture as a whole has to become more integrated, more easy with itself.

The Rumpus: I was thinking about your article the other day, Real Choice in Afghan Election, and I wanted to get your perspective on the claim that when participants voted using their cell phones, for many of them it was their first experience of democracy. What’s your reaction to that?

Ansary: Mixed. On the one hand, it’s an interesting thought, that because of cell phones, everyone can vote in something. So I think as far as that goes, that’s true. On the other hand, people really did vote in 2004. They didn’t really vote for anything in particular, they just kind of voted. But they did vote, and they were delighted —

The Rumpus: Yeah, it’s not like they were unfamiliar with the concept.

Ansary: Yeah, and I think that something like three-quarters of the coutry voted. I don’t think that’s fake, I think that’s a real number. But let me tell you a story. My cousin who was on the election commission, she helped organize those elections, and being a woman, she was the one who went into the compounds and registered the women to vote in these distant places. One woman said to her “I’m so excited about voting, when that day comes I’m going to have my husband bring me a hundred ballots, I’m just going to spend the whole day voting!”

The Rumpus: You know, voting used to be very like that here, especially in the late 18th to early 19th centuries. At that time the political parties were in charge of printing ballots, and already you can imagine what comes of that. The more ballots you could get printed up and marked, the more votes you could bring to the polling place. People would gather up huge bundles of ballots and send some unfortunate person to deliver them, and they’d be attacked and sometimes even killed along the way. So it’s not like elections have always been an easy thing even here.

Ansary: Some places that are coming to voting new — India is an example — they have very sophisticated electronic voting technology that works there. Much more so than ours. For some reason, ours never seem to work. The ATMs work, but the voting machines…

The Rumpus: To finish up, I want to return to one of the first points you made, which was that the film didn’t seem to respect the singers as artists. That made me wonder if you’d like to recommend some Afghan artists to us.

Ansary: Well, the artists that I like are mostly dead, unfortunately. There is one Afghan singer that every Afghan knows about and all Afghans love, and he was a popular singer from my day in Afghanistan and continued until ’79 when the communists knocked the country over. His name was Ahmad Zahir (AHK-med Zoy-eh). Everybody you hear singing popular music is basically singing in his style. We knew this guy when I was a teenager, he was also a teenager, and he came to our town, his uncle was my father’s friend, and even as a teenager, man, that guy walked into a room and nothing else was happening but him. He was just volcanically charismatic.

There was another guy who came to our town, Ustad Shaida (oos-TAHD shay-ah-DAH) to play music, and I couldn’t believe how good the guy was. I was twelve years old and standing by the stage, just lost in that music. And I recently discovered that there are two clips of this guy on YouTube. They’re audio clips with still shots. But the minute I saw the still shots, I said “there he is!” Then the music started and I was like, “man, I’m there, baby!”

The Rumpus: Can you recommend anybody from a younger generation?

Ansary: Today, there’s a young Afghan-American woman named Meghan Kabir (kah-BEE) and she plays this really kickass pop rock. But it turns out, she also plays Afghan traditional music. And when I see her playing rock and roll, I just wouldn’t even believe she’s an Afghan. Talk about moving!

One more old guy. There was a guy named Sarahang (sar-ah-RANG) who eventually became very famous after he left Afghanistan, but in my day he was a guy that, at the big weeklong independence festival in Kabul, he was usually hired to sing at one of these tea gardens they set up. Everybody loved him, but I remember that my mother really hated him and never really knew why. Then I saw clips of him on YouTube recently, and I realized why my mother disliked him. It’s because he was a big fat guy, and he was very flirtatious. He would sing and kind of eye the women.

The Rumpus: Well, that’s gross!

Ansary: It was pretty creepy! In fact, I was just talking about this guy the other day with an Afghan friend of mine, and he said “yes, he became so famous that when he went to India, they lined the street with women who came out to greet him, and the women bowed down and put their hair on the path so that he could walk to the stage without stepping on the ground.

The Rumpus: I don’t even know what to make of that. I can only hope he had a light step.

Ansary: Now I’m even revealing new things to you about Afghanistan!

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →