Kabul Makeover

Reality-TV shows like Afghan Model are rewiring Afghan culture—for better and for worse.

Anita Khalwat wears heavy makeup, fake eyelashes, and a green spangly head scarf, loose dress, and pants fit for an Afghan wedding. But she’s no bride. She’s a warrior in heels and metallic nail polish, preparing to appear on Afghan Model, a new TV show that aims to find the top fashion star in a war-torn nation where neither of the two main languages has a word for “model,” and where threats by the TV-hating, women-loathing Taliban have turned an appearance before the cameras on a rickety, rainbow-lit white stage into a political statement.

“Hide your hair today,” one judge, Hozair Amiri, tells Khalwat before a recent taping. “Please.”

Khalwat, her green head scarf showing off a good part of her highlighted brown hair, looks at Amiri almost fiercely. With less than perfectly white teeth, a generous nose, an average body, and a hip thrust more fitting for a hockey rink than for a runway, the 23-year-old Khalwat would never make the tryouts for America’s Next Top Model, the Tyra Banks vehicle that Afghan Model tries to emulate.

But she has a certain something—namely, two X chromosomes. She’s an Afghan woman willing to appear on a model show, a rarity here.

“I was 8 years old when I started following models,” Khalwat tells Amiri. “It’s my style to show my hair like this.”

One of the few bright spots on the bleak and beige Afghan horizon is the burgeoning media, especially the reality-TV shows that ape their cousins in the West—an explosion that has changed local culture. In the past eight years, at least 17 private TV stations have filled the post-Taliban vacuum in Kabul—and new ones pop up all the time.

Afghan Model is on the upstart Emrooz TV, a station launched almost two years ago by Najibullah Kabuli, a liberal member of parliament who made his fortune in cars and real estate and who passionately hates the Iranian government. In a country still testing how freedom of speech mixes with Islam, Emrooz TV—emrooz means “today” in Dari, one of the two major languages in Afghanistan—has broadcast that the elderly top Shiite cleric in the country was once married to a young teenage girl. In a November 2009 talk-show discussion between Kabuli and the former presidential candidate and anti-corruption crusader Ramazan Bashardost, Bashardost said that Hamid Karzai’s two new vice presidents should be handcuffed and hauled to prison—a statement that many other stations would have self-censored.

Always pushing, Kabuli started advertising for Afghan Model early last year. “We asked for whoever wants to show their clothes, their height, their bodies, their faces, they can come and try out,” Kabuli tells me. About 3,000 young people showed up for auditions. Of those, only 10 were women. Eighty contestants were picked—including all 10 women.

But all did not go smoothly. The number of women dropped to seven, after the families of three women forced them to step down. One of the 15 semifinalists, a man named Munir, was shot dead one night as he drove through an intersection. No one has been arrested, and his picture still sits in the middle of the roundabout where he was killed.

On the early November day I visit the set, the five finalists, including two women, are vying to be judged the best imaginary groom or bride in front of a podium covered in tinsel and topped with one doll dressed in a tuxedo and another in a white gown. A handpicked audience of 20 people, mostly men, lines a black-curtained wall and claps politely. At times, the scene feels more like a funeral than a wedding.

The music starts, played on a synthesizer by an Afghan whose repertoire seems to consist of polka-meets-“Chopsticks.” One by one, the models walk onstage. Each contestant has a story. One man, an ethnic Pashtun like most of the Taliban, sports a Salvador Dalí mustache, the long curls of a Talib, and the wedding outfit of his native Kandahar—a Taliban stronghold. Offstage, he tells me that he hopes the Taliban will be okay with TV if they return to power.

Another man tries to make the most of a Western suit—with hair resembling a young Al Pacino’s, his look is described by the announcer as “Kabul groom.” He looks uneasy, as if he knows something bad is about to happen. And maybe it is. A judge criticizes him because his corsage matches neither his suit nor his tie.

Obaid Zazi, 28, a tall pipe cleaner of a Pashtun with the hair of a Rambo-era Sylvester Stallone, glides onto the catwalk in a white outfit featuring a spray of faceted emerald-colored pieces of glass around the neck and a matching iridescent green turban. He all but stalks the catwalk, sucking in his cheeks and striking poses like a dancer in a Madonna video. His extended family from Paktia province, another Taliban bastion, cut him off as soon as he joined the show. In his day job, he runs a cosmetics shop.

Geeta Walizada, 18, one of the two finalist women, then tiptoes on. As pretty as a doll in a hot-pink dress with mirrors and enough metal jewelry to add five pounds, Walizada barely smiles under her blue, pink, and silver eye shadow and heavy blush. After she first appeared on TV, her uncle and his family stopped talking to her family.

Then Khalwat, who studied in a secret school during the Taliban’s reign, stutters onto the stage in her green outfit. She stops mid-stage and sways from foot to foot. She stares at the ceiling, biting her lip. She looks upset. One judge starts to laugh. “Her clothes are not good,” she says. “She doesn’t look like she’s getting married. Her clothes are ugly.”

At the end of the wedding program comes Judgment Day. (Viewers vote for their top picks by text message on their mobile phones, and contestants campaign to win by handing out fliers and cards in public.) Only three are called back: the Kabul groom, the man from Kandahar with the handlebar mustache, and Khalwat. One of them has won the most text-message votes. One has barely squeaked by. And one has been voted off. Samir Sharifi, the host, is handed a piece of folded-up notebook paper with the verdict.

Maseeh Rahman Popalzai, 23, the model with the handlebar mustache, went to Kandahar to press the flesh and hand out business cards featuring tiny head shots and a phrase in English: We Believed to Improve our Natural Artist. His efforts obviously paid off—he has won the highest number of votes from viewers.

That leaves Khalwat and the Kabul groom. When asked what they think will happen, both say: “I think I will be eliminated.” Ultimately, after a lot of suspense, grimaces from both contestants, and a commercial break, the groom is kicked off.

Despite this, he lingers onstage, smiling and making happy small talk with the judges. Khalwat just stands there, looking at the ceiling and wringing her hands. She looks so uncomfortable, I figure she has been eliminated until my translator tells me otherwise. I wonder why she is on the show, when she is so clearly miserable.

Offstage, Khalwat’s 11-year-old brother, Bashir, talks excitedly about how both he and his sister are recognized on the streets of Kabul because of Afghan Model. Yet no one in the studio ever approaches to ask for an autograph or speak to them—instead, everyone gives Khalwat and her family a wide berth, maybe out of respect, or maybe out of fear. Just like Khalwat’s dreams of being a model, this reality-TV show represents more what might be than what is. In a country where advertising in glossy magazines seems years away, and a swimsuit competition as unlikely as lasting peace, Khalwat is no more than a brave, awkward woman celebrating some distant ideal of beauty. But maybe that’s what Afghanistan needs more of: some hope, some dreams, some fake eyelashes, and a homegrown vogue or two.