A 22-year-old barber and a 16-year-old girl are among the top three remaining contestants in the show “Afghan Star” which is modeled after “American Idol” and provides much-needed entertainment to the Afghans on weekend nights. The show is televised by Tolo TV and is set to end on the Persian New Year’s Eve in mid-March.
Though Zulala Hashemi never took formal music lessons, dazzling in a vivid green head scarf and silver-trimmed dress, she surprisingly stole the show with her unique voice which brought her to Kabul.
“She has a voice that is very particular to Afghanistan’s geography,” said Waheed Qasemi, a revered Afghan artist who is the show’s music director. “It’s a mountainous voice.”
But the recognition of her voice was possible only because of her widowed mother, Mermen Hashemi, who has a degree in economics and has raised nine children on her own since her husband died of an illness 16 years ago, and she said she would not tolerate any interference from relatives.
“I have earned with my own hands, and I have defended myself and my children,” Mrs. Hashemi said. “No one has given me anything, and I have not given anyone time to say anything about my children.”
“Mrs. Hashemi has been with her daughter in Kabul over the last three months, following her ‘like a shadow’. She waits for Zulala in the green room when she performs on stage and follows her into the dressing room when Zulala needs to change between performances,” said Massoud Sanjer, the head of Tolo’s entertainment wing.
And on the occasions, when the mother and daughter return home between recordings, they hide behind their burqas and disappear into anonymity.
However, coming from the conservative eastern city of Jalalabad, where women are rarely seen on the streets, Zulala had to face tough resistance from all her relatives, including her own brother who is a police officer. She is also afraid of going back to school and facing her teachers and classmates as “they might be mad” at her.
“I knew they wouldn’t give me permission, and until this day they haven’t given me permission,” Zulala said about her relatives. “But I wanted to show my talent to the people; I didn’t want my talent to go in vain.”
In its 12th season, the show, “Afghan Star,” is purely about entertainment. Young artists, dressed in local and Western wardrobes by a young local designer, perform onstage, accompanied by an orchestra of Afghan and Western instruments. And people can vote by text for their contestants.
However, extremism has a way to disrupt even art and entertainment, especially when the extremists look down on music as a “vulgar” form of art. And the one that includes women? Well, that’s totally unacceptable for them. In their words, haram!
The show’s judges drive around in armored vehicles. The contestants are provided with safe housing inside a compound for the duration of the show. Audience members go through multiple security checks.
In previous seasons, Tolo TV would rent spaces in the city itself to hold the show. However, after threats to its staff increased and a Taliban car bomb killed their seven staffs last year, the network decided to move the studios for this season inside a gated street in Kabul’s protected diplomatic enclave.
The favorite, however, for this season is the 22-year-old barber from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Sayed Jamal Mubarez, who has been on the top since last 2-3 weeks.
Jamal realised that he can express the angst of a generation that has known nothing but violence through his passionate rhymes. He finds solace in his raps.
However, unlike Zulala, Jamal’s family has not been that supportive. His religious mother disapproves of music, switching the channel when a song comes on. Though his rising fame has made her a bit relent now. She is ready to watch him perform, but only if he stays away from vulgarities and there are no women featuring in his video clips.
Mubarez discovered rap just four years ago when he would rap along the Iranian artists playing on his sound system at his barbershop as he styled people’s hair. He could relate to their words of protest.
It was about two years ago when he started writing his own verses. He has since then stopped listening to other raps to make sure that his words come straight from the heart. He writes at night, and doesn’t get up till he’s done.
“If I get up from writing it and say I will complete it another time, that rap cannot be written later,” Mubarez said.
He has gained a large number of followers in just four months on the show, which is a remarkable rise in a country that has just begun to discover rap music. His USP? He sticks to the subjects that speak to the people.
Many of his raps are inspired by his personal stories, like the one he wrote about his lack of education. Mubarez had a cousin as a classmate in school who later went on to university, while Mubarez, the oldest son in the family, worked between jobs since the age of 12 to bring money home to his father.
Years later, the cousin with the university diploma stayed with Mubarez’s family. Mubarez said he was nervous around him, feeling backward and ashamed. And after he dropped off the cousin at the bus station one evening, he put his feelings to verse.
“From the earth to the sky is the difference between us/Don’t say why I didn’t study — just go, let us be.” He posted this rap on YouTube and shared it on social media platforms like Facebook so that people, especially his “educated” cousin, could realise “that if Jamal didn’t study, it was because his life was different than yours.”
However, even male stars like Mubarez face the consequences of being an artist in a war-torn country. The recent example was this during a recent episode where he performed a duet with Aryana Sayeed, the Afghan pop sensation who is a judge on the show.
Ms. Sayeed, who has lived abroad mostly, is known as much for her bold style as for her music. On the day of the performance, she was wearing a body-fitting blue dress that highlighted her curves and Mubarez, in a red New York Yankees cap over a white bandanna, was wearing red shoes, white pants and his signature black leather jacket.
Midway through the performance, much to the pleasure of the audience, the two singers broke into a little dance. However, when the viewers tuned into the show after the taping, they found no trace of the performance much to their surprise. The producers had cut it out as Sayeed’s appearance was apparently too provocative.
But going against all odds, they did put the video online, and Mubarez’s family got to watch it.
“They are a little uncomfortable,” Mr. Mubarez said. “My mother is unhappy.”