DAVD IGNATIUS: Afghanistan’s learning to laugh at itself

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – We could all use a light-hearted story from Afghanistan, so indulge me while I explain the plot of a new series debuting this month on Tolo TV in Kabul. It’s a wicked comedy called “The Ministry,” about an imaginary Ministry of Garbage Collection in the fictitious country of Hechland (or in English, “Nothing-Land.”).
The minister is a dapper, balding, larcenous man in a three-piece suit who presides over a collection of deadbeats, thieves and petty bureaucrats. His security guard claims he’s stopping suicide bombers, but we see him sleeping on the butt of his AK-47. His secretary presents a list of 190 demands from Cabinet members: One wants 10 armored cars for his personal protection; another wants authorization for his drug-trafficking business; a third wants jobs for his brother, brother-in-law and cousins.
Welcome to Afghanistan, a country that is mired in real-life corruption but also has media organizations that can expose and laugh at the national mess.
Reading the news from Afghanistan, it’s easy to think that America has been pouring money down a sinkhole, trying to help a country that is forever primitive. Some of that gloom is deserved. But a look at Tolo TV reminds me that Afghanistan is actually modernizing quite rapidly, and that its reform-minded journalists and television producers are some of the smartest (and bravest) people I know.
I wrote about it back in December 2008, when the network was promoting a film version of its musical program called “Afghan Star.” It was modeled on “American Idol.” The difference was that this was Afghanistan, where 10 years earlier the Taliban were forbidding people even to sing. “Afghan Star” is now starting its seventh season.
Keeping this motley production company together is Saad Mohseni, the CEO of Moby Media Group, which owns Tolo TV. He’s young and brash. He returned home after the Taliban were expelled in 2001, and keeps expanding despite the chaos. He now has four networks and 1,000 employees.
Mohseni takes me on a tour of his 17 dubbing studios, spread out in a series of villas and bungalows in the middle of Kabul, surrounded by armed guards. It’s like a rabbit warren, up stairs and down, ducking into one studio that’s dubbing “Oprah” into Farsi for Persian-speaking markets, and then careening into another that’s dubbing “Sesame Street” into Dari, the Afghan national language.
Tolo has some very good news shows that break stories and do investigative reporting in a country where telling the truth can get you killed.
My favorite Tolo shows are the ones that mock the government.
A country that can poke fun at itself, after living through the nightmare that is Afghanistan’s modern history, isn’t entirely lost. The next time you read about the misery of this country, think, too, of the voice of Cookie Monster in Dari.
David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@ washpost.com. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.