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In Afghanistan, comedians joke their way to civic renewal

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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.

His spot-on impressions of everyone from a Taliban soldier to an Afghan drug addict would have even Mullah Omar giggling into his turban.

At a recent impromptu performance, Mubariz wraps on a long black turban - a favorite Taliban accessory - and twists his face into a scowl. He grabs a Kalashnikov to complete the look.

Then he screams at the men to go to the mosque, physically prodding them with his rifle. He grabs one long-haired man and berates him for letting his locks grow - a Taliban pet peeve. His imitation is so precise that the audience can't stop laughing.

It's a disturbing sight for outsiders, but for Afghans who remember the hard-line regime and can finally laugh at it, it's a welcome release.

In a country that had been stung by successive violent regimes, humor has long been a trusted coping mechanism.

Even when in power, the Taliban were the butt of jokes - behind closed doors - that targeted everything from their spot checks for shaved armpits (a rule in Islam) to the radio call-in show where people dedicated songs by mullahs (minus the music, of course). Like others, Afghans have used humor to channel dissent, avoid aggression, and let people separate themselves from the ruling group, experts say.

From youth using humor to cope with - and eventually bring down - Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, to comedian Jay Leno's post 9/11 monologues of Osama bin Laden jokes, comedy is gaining legitimacy as a post-conflict healer.

In fact, stand-up comedians from the Arab world, Israel, and the Palestinian territories plan to travel to both Palestinian and Israeli locations this year to give comedy performances promoting peace.

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