Kabul's must-see TV heats up culture war in Afghanistan
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – A bearded man from the bazaar is whisked into a barber shop, where he's given a shave and a slick haircut. After a facial, he visits fashion boutiques.
In a few tightly edited minutes of television, the humble bricklayer is transformed into an Afghan metrosexual, complete with jeans, sweater, suede jacket, and sunglasses.
It may sound like standard reality TV fare in the West, but it's edgy in Afghanistan. Tolo TV aired the show only once.
But in a pop culture as barren as the mountains here, Tolo's mix of MTV-style shows and hard-hitting news programs has turned the up-and-coming network into an entertainment oasis.
Today, it's a kind of must-see TV that has government officials leaving work early to catch their favorite show. But it's also a lightning rod for Afghan critics who see the station as a threat to the country's Islamic values.
"We have to be a little bit careful, because people will start saying that we are trying to change people's culture," says Saad Mohseni, one of three Afghan brothers who started the station.
Tolo has already drawn significant criticism for airing Indian music videos and Western films, as well as presenting shows with young hipsters who wear baseball caps sideways, talk and laugh freely with the opposite sex, and otherwise break the mold of stiff public propriety here.
In March, the country's ulema shura, or council of Islamic scholars, criticized Tolo and other stations for transmitting "programs opposed to Islam and national values." The controversy may deepen after Tolo's launch last week of satellite broadcasting, which expands its reach outside of Kabul to rural, more conservative regions.
At issue is the direction of Afghanistan's next generation, those age 22 and under who make up the majority of the country. Analysts say that the show's obvious popularity as well as the US presence here have kept the censors at bay.