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As Afghanistan Turns

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.

It wasn’t until a week after the terrorist attack on the United States that the staff of New Home, New Life realized that it needed to respond on the show. ”The shock of the attack paralyzed our brains here for a while,“ says Siddiqi. ”The only thing we discussed was: How many people? Who could have done this? What‘s next?“ Then came the evidence pointing to bin Laden, and people started to move. ”Only then,“ says Siddiqi, ”did I realize that we could do something.“

The task of introducing a new plot surrounding refugees and social crisis was not foreign to the show’s writers and actors. Many of them became refugees themselves when they fled the brutal warfare during the rule of the mujahideen in the early ‘90s. On September 19, Siddiqi wrote a memo to his staff in which he said the show had a ”vital role to play in [the] emergency. People are . . . anxious about their lives. They need us now more than ever.“ The memo asked everyone to use personal experiences to guide the show’s new turn. ”We [too] have left our villages and have taken refuge in ruins without thinking about land mines,“ it read. ”We have taken shelter in isolated places. We have seen pregnant women walking long distances, suffering miscarriage and often dying. We have had [the] nightmares.“

Can a radio drama really make a difference in the face of a looming humanitarian disaster? The reception of the new storyline remains to be seen. But the penetration of the show into Afghan society cannot be overstated. (When a very popular character was killed a few years ago, there were public displays of mourning.) And research in Afghanistan over the past seven years has shown that the program‘s instructive subtexts do find their way into people’s behavior. American soap operas generally do not have life-and-death consequences for their audiences. But New Home, New Life plays a crucial role in Afghans‘ lives, and Siddiqi wants his series to provide hope for a traumatized population undergoing yet another convulsion. That, after all, is what the show is all about.

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