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Don't leave us, an Afghan radio programmer tells U.S. audiences

The former anti-Soviet jihadi who later went to Harvard before returning home says a troop pullout could spark chaos in the whole region.

November 06, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

In Masood Farivar's life, the absurdly improbable has often come to look like the preordained. Once a teenage jihadi who went to the caves of Tora Bora to fight the Soviets, he also attracted the attention of a mentor, who paved the Afghan youth's way to Harvard.

Farivar lost his "big Osama bin Laden beard," frolicked in Harvard's social clubs, studied medieval European history and found his way to a news wire service, where he wrote about the oil business and, later, the United Nations.

Farivar, 40, might have stayed in the States or pursued a number of options available to someone who can write in and speak several languages. Instead, he returned to Afghanistan two years ago "to give something back to my country and to have an impact on people's lives." Now overseeing programming for a network of more than 42 radio stations, Farivar says, "I feel like I am making that impact every minute of the day."

His golden fortunes over the last two decades might help explain how Farivar, visiting Los Angeles this week, can look across the seemingly bleak canvas of present-day Afghanistan and call for Afghan optimism and American perseverance.

"We can't mask over the terrible realities of war, but it's also our moral responsibility to give people hope," Farivar said before a meeting Wednesday night at the Beverly Hills Hotel with a group of Hollywood activists who gather for regular discussions as the Foreign Policy Roundtable. "I call it the journalism of hope. And I think it's very important."

In two weeks traveling across the U.S., Farivar found his optimism and calls for patience repeatedly running into American fears about getting bogged down in an unwinnable war.

The Afghan journalist's presence raised a daunting question even for Americans sure they're ready to pull back: What obligation does America have to Afghanistan and the champions of a civil society, like Farivar, whose hopes we've helped to raise?

The journalist returned to his native land in 2007, hired by the international nonprofit organization Internews to help create programming for "Salam Watandar" ("Hello Countrymen"), a radio production outfit whose array of shows air on a network of 42 stations.

As general manager, Farivar is responsible for training fledgling journalists and filling six hours of programming a day. One children's show whisks the audience, by magic carpet, through lessons about Afghanistan's history and geography. Another show, called "Zilzilah" ("Earthquake"), satirizes the political class, including President Hamid Karzai.

Farivar expresses particular pride in a series of stories filed by a stringer that exposed malnutrition and deprivation in a distant province. Within months, the provincial governor began to build a school and a hospital.

Public affairs programs also have featured religious scholars encouraging moderate Islam and condemning suicide attacks. "That kind of powerful message could stop people from blowing themselves up and from blowing up civilians," said Farivar.

"Salam Watandar" programs go out by satellite from Kabul to dozens of stations that have sprouted since the fall of the Taliban eight years ago. Those independently owned outlets, in turn, add their own programs to fill out their schedules.

Music -- extremely popular after years in which the repressive fundamentalist regime banned it -- fills much of the day, along with storytelling and poetry, a proud tradition in the region since the time of Rumi in the 13th century.

"Afghans have taken to local media like fire to dry grass," said Kathleen Reen, a onetime journalist and vice president for Asia at Internews, an NGO that receives support from the U.S. State Department and numerous foundations. "Afghanistan has such a rich, vibrant, independently minded media that has spread across the country and continues to grow."

Although the Afghan regime still threatens and jails journalists who get too bold, Western reporters say the press has considerably more freedom there than in most of the surrounding nations.

Internews helped germinate many of the fledgling news operations, with the conviction that countries cannot thrive on crops and clean drinking water alone.

"In the developing world, the value of information is exponentially higher," said Reen, an Australian native who has also built local news outlets in Indonesia and the Balkans, among other places. "Information is important everywhere in the world, but in an environment of crisis it has much greater urgency."

Reen, who also spoke at the Beverly Hills event, described Farivar as part of a heroic class of journalists around the world who take extreme risks to hold their countries together.

"There is no shortage of people who think things won't work out in Afghanistan," Reen said. "But by undertaking the job he is, by building independent radio and by sheer force of will he is telling people he thinks it can work."

Farivar draws a picture of his country that is at odds with that put forth by many other journalists and observers. He sees more national pride, fewer ethnic and tribal divisions and far more tolerance for the American foothold there. "I read about anti-Americanism," he said, "and I don't see that much."

While President Obama has been contemplating not whether to send more troops to the country, but how many, Farivar cautions those Americans who hope for a wholesale pullout.

"It's not only going to lead to civil war in Afghanistan, I think it's going to lead to regional chaos," he told the audience in Beverly Hills. "You figure out the consequences of that for . . . . American security."


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