Putting the Laffs in Laffghanistan

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To say Afghanistan has had a rough go of it since the late 1970’s, is to guarantee an F on your Intro to International Relations term paper. Trust me. For as much as the name Afghanistan dominates the news here, I knew shockingly little about the country and its culture. Heroin and Taliban — those were my only parameters. Until recently, I just assumed Afghanistan did not even merit Comedy Tourism recognition. Surely, comedy could not possibly exist there. And then a couple weeks ago, the New York Times profiled a new show called The Ministry. Afghanistan was getting its version of The Office, and I was getting a new worldview. My previous doubt went from “surely, there’s no comedy” to “surely there must be more!” And while Afghanistan is probably not getting a Comedy Central anytime soon, there is, in fact, more comedy to be found there.

It would be safe to say that oppression, political and cultural, inspires some of the best comedy. Even #1 Buzzkill Poobah Oliver Cromwell couldn’t outrun parody, even if it did come centuries later. Whether Cromwellian, Napoleonic or Pol Pottish, brutal regimes can’t help but invite ridicule. If nothing else, comedy is a coping mechanism. In Afghanistan, comedy was actually quite popular from the 1800’s to the 1960’s. Television was even introduced there in 1974. But the invasion of the Soviet Union in the late 70’s sent the country into a tumult. When the Taliban rose to power in 1996, TV was completely banned.

And then the Taliban lost their power in 2001 (U-S-A, U-S-A, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED), and media and entertainment began to prosper again. I don’t mean to imply that television and theater are essential ingredients for comedy itself, but as many Afghanis do not read, they are fairly essential to its proliferation.

So in the past 10 years, how did Afghanistan go from virtually nothing, to a mockumentary show about the Ministry of Garbage in the fictional “Nothing Land?”

For starters, apparently satire is not a new phenomenon in Afghanistan — it’s a part of their culture. As the Times profile points out, one of the policies skewered on the Ministry that people really relate to is the idea of “react first, think later.” People want to laugh at this reality. Laughter is nothing, if not a coping mechanism after all.

Back in 2005, the Christian Science Monitor took a temperature check on comedy in Afghanistan. The article points out “Afghans have used humor to channel dissent, avoid aggression and let people separate themselves from the ruling group.” While Afghanis would not risk vocalizing their discontent with the Taliban during their brutal reign, they racked up quite the repository of jokes. The opening paragraph in the above article not only gives quite the ringing endorsement to stand-up comedian Mubariz Bidar, but also paints a picture of a free-speaking Afghanistan that may surprise some Americans. “Mubariz Bidar would give Robin Williams a run for his money. He’s an Afghan comic who has this city — once ruled by severe Taliban — howling at their former oppressors.”

Apparently, Bidar is a leader of the Khost Theater, located aptly in the city of Khost. This theater group is actually single-mindedly dedicated to the dissemination of comedy throughout Afghanistan. While the comedy in Afghani theater tends to skew slapstick, even institutions recognize the vital role it plays in rallying the people. The article also mentions that prior to elections, a nongovernmental organization actually hired theater troupes to educate those living in remote villages. But for the most part, the jokes do not pay for the Khost Theater players.

Over in Kabul, a community of artists is emerging, aided by the contribution of Afghani expats who have recently returned. There’s even an Oasis-inspired indie band gaining popularity. One Afghani-American has made quite the ruckus in the past year with his satirical graffiti and performance art. Back in April, the Wall Street Journal profiled the antics of Afghan-American artist Amam Mojadidi. He’s waging a war against current government corruption and he’s armed heavily with humor. The stunts mentioned in the article include sitting at a faux checkpoint dressed as a police officer and giving money to drivers normally used to paying off officers. Reverse bribery, if you will. Or, putting up fake campaign posters that read “Vote for me — I’m rich and I’ve done jihad.” His actions have yet to get him arrested or worse, killed, but one particular photo of his pushed the boundaries of controversy in Afghanistan.

In his “Jihadi Gangster” set, the above photo entitled “After a Long Day’s Work” was published in the English-language Kabul publication Afghan Scene. The censors forced the publisher to destroy every single copy. Which only helps Majdidis joke, if you think about it. They didn’t.

Wikipedia seems to think when it comes to “Afghanistan Comedians,” there’s only one — and that is Zalmai Araa. Born in Kabul, Araa now resides in Fremont, California a purported epicenter of the expat Afghani community. Also a musician, his humor waxes nostalgic for an Afghanistan of yore, while also dealing with the plight of the exiled Afghani.

Unfortunately, I have partially failed you. I was unable to find a stand-up routine is in English or with subtitles (if you know of one, please by all means share with the class in the comment sections below), but judging by the laughter, he kills it.

But Wikipedia, being the unreliable and highly-discouraged citation source that it is, missed the boat on Anif Amgam, who one television report calls “the only television comedian in Afghanistan.” Host of the show Zang e Khatar, or Alarm Bell, Amgam is Afghanistan’s answer to Jon Stewart. Alarm Bell incorporates news desk reports, sketches and songs to skewer and expose the Afghani government. Here’s one of their unique musical performances (sorry, no subtitles):

Aired on Tolo TV, the network responsible for The Ministry and Afghanistan’s largest, the show is surprisingly cavalier in its take on both local and international politics — Bush and Obama do not escape unscathed. Then again, neither does Alarm Bell.

Although the media has experience a sea change with free speech since the fall of the Taliban, the government is still rife with corruption and not too pleased with being the target of ridicule. In an NPR report on the show back in 2007, government officials expressed concern about comedians “swinging their hands so far they hit someone.” This eerie warning accompanied a government push to censor its critics. In fact, Tolo TV has seen its offices raided with little warning or reason. But at the time, that did not stop Amgam and his team. In addition to their show they also released an album called “Ouch” and a DVD called “A-Z,” both full of critical, satirical songs.

Here’s a report from Metropolis TV featuring subtitled clips from the show and an interview with Amgam himself.

And here’s a full episode in five parts, shared generously by ToloTV on their Youtube Channel: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.

It appears 2008 was the last year Alarm Bell released new episodes. Whether that means the government has cracked down or the team decided their work was done, Zang e Khatar still has a life on the internet, proving what the Arab Spring already did to some extent, that the Internet is the new protector of free speech.

One other show — on Tolo TV, where else? — that is so popular Afghanis supposedly pray early to catch contains more of the slapstick spirit of theater than the satirical bite of the aforementioned examples. Hey, comedy is comedy and it’s always good to see it thrive. I’ve said it a million times, a solid nutshot may be the most universal humor there is.

Lanza Ha, or Moments, is essentially a candid camera-esque prank show. There’s even a canned laugh track.

Here’s an episode in three parts — there may be no subtitles, but I think you’ll easily get the gist.

And then there’s this guy, a “singing old man” character named Motakhasis, appearing on a variety show.

After all my research, I feel like this is only the tip of the iceberg for comedy in Afghanistan. Though it seems shows like Alarm Bell went dark too soon, perhaps the premiere of The Ministry is ushering a whole new era for humor there. In making light of the dark, it’s putting light where there once was dark.

Either way, I think I provided you with enough info to at least get a solid C+ on your term paper. So go hit the bars, you rascal. Collllllllllleeegggge.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.