Civil war can't pull the plug on this soap opera
It's a long time since Americans dropped everything for a radio show, as an estimated third of them did for "Amos 'n' Andy" in the 1930s. But, in Afghanistan's capital, life stops at 7:45 p.m. three times a week as families tune their radios to the latest episode of "New Home, New Life."
Many people in the war-torn country bordered by Pakistan and Iran cannot afford to buy bread let alone batteries, but millions listen to the latest adventures of Nazir the slapstick night watchman, Ali Gul the aid worker, and Rabiya the cantankerous housewife. An estimated 83 percent of people in Kabul tune in at least once a week.
Soap operas and civil wars don't usually go together, especially when the dominant side in the conflict has banned entertainment other than listening to Koranic prayers. After years of civil war, the Islamist Taliban militia controls virtually all of the country.
But, from the high passes of the Hindu Kush to deserts that stretch south from Kandahar, "New Home, New Life" has succeeded in reaching out to Taliban clerics, Uzbek warlords, and peasant farmers - thanks often to old Russian-made shortwave radios.
The radio drama touches subjects as diverse as the evils of opium poppy cultivation and the need to educate girls.
"The soap opera format is very useful when you have a lot of themes and messages to address," says John Butt, the show's creator and now a consultant to the series. "It also allows us to inject humor into the series, which is very important as there is no other entertainment available to the vast majority of Afghans."
So far, the program has managed to avoid offending the hard-line Taliban leadership, despite its clear agenda on issues such as the right of women to work outside the home and attend school - both of which are forbidden by the Taliban.
"All the Taliban I have met have welcomed the program and are interested in it," says Mr. Butt. He leads evaluation teams from Peshawar, where the BBC program is produced, into Afghanistan every few months to get feedback from listeners and research new themes.
"We are not trying to emancipate. We are trying to educate in the context of Afghan culture and Islamic religion," adds Shirazuddin Siddiqui, the head of the BBC Afghan Education Project. He compares the program to the classic epic "A Thousand and One Nights."
Mr. Siddiqui heads a team of 170 in Peshawar, including actors and actresses who were household names on Afghan Radio in the halcyon days before the civil war.
If the program's aim is to raise awareness, it appears to be working. One series centered on the archaic tradition of a family giving a daughter to another family as compensation for an unlawful killing.
The "New Home, New Life" team claims the episodes led the Taliban leader Mullah Omar to issue a decree banning the practice.
"We know the Taliban leadership listens to the program and that some hard-liners don't like it because it is seen as imposing education by outsiders," says Butt. "But the majority opinion [of the Taliban] is that this is needs-based education, which is necessary for Afghanistan."
Since the first program aired on April 23, 1994, "New Home, New Life" has developed a national following on a modest budget of $450,000 a year, funded by the BBC and various United Nations agencies. Two versions of the 12-minute program are produced, one in Dari and one in Pashtu, the two most commonly spoken languages in Afghanistan.
Butt, who is fluent in both languages as well as Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, says the program fulfills an important need by keeping Afghans in touch with their past, giving them hope for the future, and helping them cope with the difficult present.
JUST how intensely many Afghans follow the dramas of daily life in the fictitious villages of Bar Killi and Kuz Killi (or Di-e-Bala and Di-e-Payan in the Dari version) became apparent when Ismael Aram, the actor who played Khair Mohammad, a village elder, migrated to Australia.
"As Ismael was leaving, we had to write Khair's death into the script," recalls Siddiqui. "The next thing we knew condolence meetings were being held all over Afghanistan because people thought he had died in real life."
Like the ancient epic that inspired it, "New Home, New Life" looks as if it will be going strong for a thousand and one nights and maybe more.
The radio drama's topics range from the evils of growing opium to the need to educate girls.