KABUL, Afghanistan—The four singers on the Afghan version of “American Idol” stood nervously on stage, waiting to hear who lost.
Lima Sahar was the only woman, the only singer from the conservative Pashtun ethnic group in southern Afghanistan—the stronghold of Taliban-led insurgents—and she had faced worse in her life. In her home of Kandahar, she wore a blue burqa whenever she left her house. But on stage, she wore blue glitter on her hair, a matching head scarf and fake eyelashes.
“Who is the person who should stay with us?” host Daoud Sediqi asked the audience, who shouted against Lima. Sediqi paused, dramatically holding back the judges’ decision. “I can tell you this time, something strange has happened.”
In many ways, Afghanistan seems stuck, unable to defeat militants or drugs or even figure out how to appoint qualified police chiefs. Radicals stage spectacular suicide attacks on government and Western targets, more than six years after a U.S.-led coalition forced the Taliban to flee for sheltering al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Yet for many young people, the TV show “Afghan Star” points a way forward, to a better future of peace and song, and for them, Sahar represents hope.
She is the story of the country’s tragedies—she was kept at home during the Taliban years, and although she is 18, she is only in 8th grade. She cannot speak one of the country’s two main languages, Dari, very well, and when she is in Kandahar, she still needs to completely cover her face and head when outside her home, like most other women.
“If I speak honestly, I don’t like her voice or her song,” said Lima Ahmed, 24, an audience member who is also a Pashtun woman from Kandahar. “But I like her courage, and I want to support her.”
On stage last Thursday, waiting for the judges’ verdict, Sahar, who sang a bit like a karaoke performer and moved with the enthusiasm of lumber, held her elbows in front of her chest and stared straight ahead. But when the vote came in, she had overcome the biased audience’s preference and made it to the final three. The winner will be decided in the next episode Thursday.
Sahar was the first woman to make it this far in “Afghan Star,” now in its third season, and the first Pashtun, an ethnic group that traditionally keeps women at home or requires them to wear the all-encompassing burqas. Kandahar is considered the birthplace of the Taliban, which banned music and TV until being driven from power in late 2001.
But here she was, standing on a TV stage in an electric blue outfit, a long tunic with gold sequin flowers and matching pants. She wore heavy makeup, and even sang coquettishly, having changed the words of a traditional Pashto song from a male perspective to a female one.
“If I blacken my eyes with eyeliner, it will kill you,” she sang. “Especially if I wear these bangles from Kandahar.”
Sahar and “Afghan Star” highlight a cultural fault line in Afghanistan between West and East, modern and conservative. As some young people push more toward the West, switching out traditional tunics and beards for jeans and hair gel, many have rebelled, calling such behavior un-Islamic and anti-Afghan.
The influential national council of clerics in January asked President Hamid Karzai to clamp down on the country’s burgeoning TV industry, citing “Afghan Star” as an example of immorality. One powerful warlord has tried to remove Tolo TV, which carries the singing show and other such entertainment, from his province.
“It’s completely rejected by Islam,” said Sayed-ur-Rahman Niazi, the cleric at Kabul’s central mosque, which attracts 50,000 worshipers during weekly Friday prayers. “Someone who goes to listen to music is guilty of adultery. It’s the same thing. And someone who enjoys it should be kicked out of Islam. He’s no longer a Muslim.”
Given such beliefs and the fact that Taliban rule is hardly a distant memory, just trying out for “Afghan Star” could be seen as an act of defiance, a political statement in song. Sediqi, the host, said he knew that clerics spoke against his show during Friday prayers.
The show is similar to “American Idol” but with an Afghan twist. It is filmed in the Afghan Markopolo Wedding Hall, which resembles a layered peach-and-cream wedding cake with mirrored icing, in front of a live audience of about 300 people.
There are flashing white lights, pumping music, and then Sediqi runs out on stage, announcing “in the name of God—hello.” The singers barely move, and most of the men wear ties and suit jackets or fake leather ones. They sing traditional Afghan songs with flowery poetry, such as, “Can I pick the flowers of rain from your beautiful hair?”
The judges are honest but kind, telling poor contestants that they have to try harder next time. There is no Simon Cowell here—all the judges sound nice like Paula Abdul. Still, losing contestants cry. The winner, chosen from 2,000 contestants, will get at least $4,000 cash and a deal to record an album.
Since “Afghan Star” premiered, it has quickly grown into one of the most popular shows in the country. Even Niazi, the Kabul cleric, admitted in an interview that he had watched it. The stars are debated in rural areas—wherever Tolo TV broadcasts—and many stars run campaigns, urging people to vote for them by mobile phone text message.
Each phone number can vote only twice, and each vote costs 10 cents.
Earlier this month, after a popular singer from Herat was voted off the show, several dozen people protested in the western Afghan city. Many of the man’s supporters even called Sahar, blaming her because he had lost. Such comments may not even be because she’s a woman—it may have been because Sahar is Pashtun.
Regardless, Sahar is used to such comments. In one recent show, after a judge said she was surprised Sahar had succeeded because she was the weakest contestant, Sahar confronted the judge and said she had faced many difficulties in her life, and that she was from Kandahar and survived dangers to come to Kabul and sing.
“I’ve come a long way,” Sahar said. “I will win.”
After the show last week, she seemed almost shy again. A male fan came up and told her, “Very good songs, your songs are killing me.” In the dusty alley behind the wedding hall, hundreds of boys and young men waited to catch a glimpse of Sahar.
The family appeared aware of the potential trouble Sahar’s TV appearances could cause them, but did not want to discuss it. Sahar said her family would move to Kabul because of the show, but said all of her six brothers supported her. “If I worry about security, I cannot be a star,” she said, shrugging.
But her mother, who said she would support her daughter to do whatever she wanted, said she did not want to be interviewed about the show.
“You can’t talk to me,” said Sahar’s mother, wrapping her tan scarf around her head. “She’s the sacrifice of our family. Don’t make me into another sacrifice.”