Tue, May 27, 2008 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Steamy soap draws fire from Islamists

AFP , KABUL

A television salesman watches an Indian soap opera at his shop in Kabul, Afghanistan, last Wednesday.

PHOTO: EPA

“I’m not the father,” Mehir Verani exclaims, accusing his virtuous wife Tulsi of having their son with another man.

Shocked, the woman throws her husband a tearful glance.

The music peaks ... and an episode of the most popular soap opera in Afghanistan ends, millions of viewers left hanging on for the next installment in a tale many have followed since it first aired four years ago.

“I think this is another conspiracy against Tulsi,” 50-year-old car-part salesman Noor Agha said of the Indian drama. “I’m desperate to see how she will cope with it this time.”

But just as Tulsi’s honor was thrown into doubt, albeit only briefly, so has been the fate of the serial of the same name.

Islamic mullahs, backed by elements in the government, want it and others banned.

They say the serials and the hot topics they deal with are corrupting Afghans as they emerge from the strict conservatism of the Taliban regime.

Afghan culture has slunk toward a democracy comprising free media, pop music and fashion, they claim.

But the information and culture ministry has ordered at least five Indian serials off the air. Most stations have complied but Tolo television has firmly refused to drop Tulsi, which has been a ratings winner.

A showdown looms with the ministry referring the matter to the attorney general while the Mohseni family that runs the station says the ban is illegal.

The influential clerics are unhappy in particular with women in the show: Heavily made-up, they never cover their hair as Afghan women do and wear Indian saris that expose arms and waists, pixellated out for Afghanistan.

The clerics also complain about depictions of Hindu idols.

“In one scene a person bows to an idol. Don’t you think this would have a negative impact on a child?” Egypt-educated cleric Hayaz Niazi asked from his Kabul mosque.

They also “step on” the custom of wearing a veil and show too much violence, he said, calling for media “based on our own culture and beliefs.”

In a land scarred by decades of conflict, Tulsi offers Afghans an escape from their own hard lives.

The soaps portray romance and dating — a taboo in Afghanistan where almost all marriages are arranged — as well as heroism and the triumph of good over evil.

But some ordinary Afghans share the mullahs’ concerns.

“When my kids see a kid worshipping a Hindu idol, demanding something from it and getting it right away, my kids will believe that can happen,” educated Kabul resident Bahram Sarway said. “I don’t want them to forget the real God and go after stone-made gods.”

Tolo director Zaid Mohseni scoffs at such arguments.

“To suggest that somehow people will suddenly stop being Muslims because of the airing of foreign content is not only short-sighted, but it is actually offensive to Muslims as it suggests that their faith is so fickle,” he said.

He believes the ban — which is being pushed by Information and Culture Minister Abdul Karim Khoram — is partly politically motivated.

Pulling Tulsi from the schedules would mean a huge loss in advertising revenue, which is financing other programs, Mohseni said.

This includes hard-hitting and satirical news shows that are the only ones in the country that criticize officials, including Khoram.

The government should be concentrating on more weighty matters, Mohseni said.

“We wish that issues such as corruption, poppy eradication, rule of law, how to attract investment and other important matters could be pursued with the same vigor by the government as this matter was,” he said.

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