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.