Afghan Star is the American Idol of Afghanistan. Just like the American version, it too seeks to make dreams real--but that's where the similarities stop. You won't find a big inflated budget or smooth, rehearsed dance and song routines. You also won't find covers of famous Western singers. Afghans love Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, but behaving on stage in any way that resembles them is considered a deep and punishable insult.
Thousands of people audition for Afghan Star. Most all of them are men (there were 7 applicants for this year's Afghan Star; 3 made it on the show). They cram into their village center or line around buildings. Wherever you see people on screen you also see armed soldiers. Wherever you see a standing building, there is a street-full of crumbled structures.
Afghan Star brings tremendous hope to Afghanistan. It is the first and only show since the Taliban took over Afghanistan that allows ordinary people dream again. It allows people to play music without fearing death. On the night of the show rich and poor, young and old, Pashtuns and Hazaras gather around the village's single TV set or around a cell phone propped on a brick where they watch the streaming show. "It is more important than any politics," says one interviewee.
While the show has a website, the Afghani people have little to no internet service, no computers, no web 2.0, twitter, or facebook and yet, over a third of the population--or close to 10 million people--SMSed their choice of the Afghan Star in the second season.
Each contestant has a village behind him: Rafi--one of the two final contestants--has fans driving for hours around Afghanistan handing
out flayers. Children run after their car in the hope of snatching one
of the cherished papers carrying Rafi's image. The cars are donated by a used
car lot owner from the same village. One fan bought 10,000 SIM cards he'll use to vote for his favorite finalist. Another is selling his car to buy SIMs.
Using the show as a frame, the film's producers paint a poignant and vivid picture of Afghanistan today--a country trying to bridge the sharp contrasts within which its people live: A desire for freedom they once had mingles with habits that come from years of the Taliban's ruling, religious heritage mixes with unity and democracy, freedom of speech with fear of speaking out.
Availability of information and communication are going to become critical in the coming 5-10 years in Afghanistan. They are the lifeline of Afghanis--they are the weapons of freedom, democracy, and progress. Afghanis reference what they see on TV and what they remember from having once been free as a desired state, but in reality they have been so severely oppressed that small steps in Western terms can mean tremendous leaps.
Companies who enter Afghanistan will have an enormous and fresh customer base who is craving the power of technology and is well versed in human-propelled virality. These companies will need to honor current ethnic and infrastructure barriers and find ways to navigate the delicate balance between power haves and have nots. There's a lot that needs to be done in Afghanistan to help rebuild even the simplest of services (mobile micro solutions similar to the ones already available across India and China are one example). But to start, bringing back the joy of freedom to Afghanis seems to have as much importance: the ability to listen and create music, to pursue stardom and celebrity, to bring people together, and to express oneself freely are simple experiences not taken for granted. And with infrastructure development, Afghanistan will become a tremendous source of opportunities for both companies and the people of Afghanistan.