Afghan Star

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So, I’m a little late in jumping on the bandwagon with this one, but I just saw the excellent British documentary Afghan Star (2009) on Tuesday. Sponsored by the American Embassy in Ljubljana, it played at Kino Dvor for free. One of my favorite things to do in Ljubljana is find things to do for free. So, off I went with my roommate and another friend to the showing.

I first got hooked on American Idol during its third season back in 2004, when I was still in high school. My favorite season by far was the one where Carrie Underwood won (2005), and I will admit I’ve been to two of the concerts (’05 and ’06). In fact, my Slovenian cousin was visiting at the time of the American Idol concert… and she came with us to good old Hartford, Conn. to see the Idols live. I didn’t watch the season that Jordin Sparks won (2007), but got really into the ’08 and ’09 seasons– even having an office pool (which I lost miserably) during my first year of grad. school, where a few of us watched the show. Then, last year, Siobhan Magnus was on (who is my father’s cousin’s daughter) so of course I had to watch! I have to say I was not impressed by the season as a whole, but Siobhan was great!

This is my first year sans Idol, but I am kind of glad. It takes up too much time to watch, even if it is the only T.V. show I watch consistently. And with Simon and Paula gone now, it’s probably not even going to be any good.

But I digress.

The real topic of conversation here is Afghan Idol. For obvious reasons I was interested in seeing this documentary, which followed four contestants in the third season of the show. The style of singing–in Arabic, with limited vocal range–is very different from a lot of Western pop music. And the translations of the lyrics were quite different, too. One song, at the end of the season, for example, spoke about how no matter which part of Afghanistan people were from (it named several cities in its lyrics), they are all brothers.

The show–which brought music to the forefront of a culture that hadn’t embraced music for years–brought people together. They could be united on one front, even if cultural or political ideologies separated them otherwise. One man was willing to sell his car–so that he could use the money he gained to promote his favorite candidate. For some, the documentary reported, this was their first real encounter with democracy: the simple text message vote that could advance their favorite candidate.

But like the song I quoted earlier mentioned, it was a brotherhood. Only three women tried out for the show, and two made it to the top ten. But one of them received death threats for accidentally uncovering her hair during her farewell performance–and for dancing a little bit, in what most Westerners would consider a very modest outfit, with an incredibly modest foot shuffle. The other contestant–who made it a few places further in the line-up–did not dance and told interviewers that she would never do such a thing because she thought it was inappropriate. She got death threats, too.

That’s quite a stark contrast to American Idol, Pop Idol, or any number of the versions of Idol that have sprung up around the world.

In most countries, though, Idol is dismissed as a silly cultural phenomenon: a mindlessly fun T.V. spectacular, which gets made fun of frequently.

It obviously has a very different impact in Afghanistan.

I’d recommend Afghan Star for anyone who is interested in Idol, Afghanistan, or the way that music–and the absence of it–can profoundly affect a culture.

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