By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Everyone knows that the Taliban don‘t like TV. Along with ”Western“ leather jackets, and the so-called Titanic coif, named after Leonardo DiCaprio’s foppish cut in the movie, television has been banned since the Taliban became Afghanistan‘s de facto rulers in 1996. And there are no newspapers, films or music. The country’s last remaining mass medium is radio, but the Taliban‘s local station, Radio Shariat, is spotty and limited mainly to religious services.
All of this leaves the BBC world service as the sole reliable information source and the producer of the country’s primary entertainment, a soap opera called New Home, New Life, which has been running three times a week since 1994. The drama, which takes place in fictional villages and an urban city, is the country‘s most popular show. More than 70 percent of the population tunes in each week. New Home, New Life is so popular that the Taliban don’t try to shut it down, although they would have little recourse anyway, since the program is produced in Pakistan.
Still, the Taliban certainly don‘t like the show. The producers often weave messages to the Afghan public into the plot: how to avoid land mines; where to get medical care; how to resolve conflict. Now, as fears of an American military campaign have sent people out of their homes and to the borders of Iran and Pakistan, New Home, New Life is scrambling to address a new topic in its story: how to survive as a refugee.
”If people leave their homes, we want them to think about things like food, water and shelter,“ explains Shirazuddin Siddiqi, the producer of New Home, New Life. ”So, we will bring this up in the experiences of the characters and our storyline.“ Afghanistan is already burdened by the world’s worst refugee crisis, and as pressure began intensifying over the past two weeks, Siddiqi and his staff decided they had to address the situation. They rushed to rewrite narratives and record updated episodes, and Monday the first new program was broadcast.
The new segment opened with people streaming into the city from the countryside. Some of the villagers came into the shop of Jandad, one of the series‘ most popular characters. Jandad, despite losing a leg to a land mine because he was, in Siddiqi’s words, ”a boneheaded child who didn‘t listen,“ has managed to prosper as a tailor. There, in his tailor’s shop, the people tell Jandad that there are rumors of attacks, a coming war. They say they must flee for safety, but don‘t know where to go.
Siddiqi described the episode as a ”story about sudden movement, about people leaving things behind, about decisions based on rumors.“ He wants people to think rationally; pulling up stakes en masse, he says, is often more dangerous than staying put. Some 7.5 million people -- almost 30 percent of the population -- depend on aid to survive, and Siddiqi knows that aid distribution is severely hindered by the kind of mass migration that is gaining momentum inside Afghanistan. The problem has been made worse, of course, by the expulsion of all foreign-aid workers by the Taliban. Local staffers are still there, but they cannot re-supply. The U.N.’s World Food Program, whose workers were evacuated more than a week ago, estimated that three weeks of supplies remained at some of their facilities when they left.
Food is not the only concern. ”We are hearing about dehydration and maybe even cholera,“ says Siddiqi. ”There‘s also the problem of people sheltering in ruined buildings, where there are often still mines. So we show the consequences of these things by having our characters make those kinds of mistakes first.“ Over the coming weeks, the characters of New Home, New Life will confront the manifold dangers of a refugee crisis: mines, looting, psychological distress, illness and death. There will even be a storyline involving a pregnant woman who, after walking for days, gives birth on the road, with no medical attention. (This is indeed one of the many misfortunes suffered by refugees, and pregnant women on the verge of birth have already shown up on the Pakistan border.)
Although New Home, New Life is only a few years old, the instructional power of radio serials is not new to the BBC. One of the BBC’s longest-running programs, The Archers, was created in the 1950s to address Britain‘s flagging agricultural productivity; while listeners heard the pig-farming protagonist ply his trade to earn enough money to marry the woman he loved, they also learned how to raise fatter pigs. As Larry Rigbey, a British soap-opera writer, says: ”The whole of Britain was hooked on the romantic side of the storyline. It just so happened that at the same time, the whole of Britain became expert in pig rearing.“
The creators of New Home, New Life looked to The Archers as a model for its content and format. The program is 15 minutes long, with five scenes, in which two or three main storylines are developed. The installments air on the BBC’s Persian service in Dari (the Afghan dialect of Persian) and on the BBC Pashto service, which is the language of Aghanistan‘s Pushtun majority. To reach the several million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the BBC rebroadcasts the show on the Pashto service of Radio Pakistan.