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Afghan show brings down the hoots

October 23, 2009|Laura King

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — What to do about an election without a winner? As far as many Afghans are concerned, the answer is simple: Laugh.

"Alarm Bell," a popular weekly television satirical show, has been having a field day with Afghanistan's discredited presidential vote, which is headed for a runoff. After two months of wrangling, nearly 1 million ballots cast in August for President Hamid Karzai, together with smaller numbers for his rivals, were tossed out this week by international fraud auditors.

"It's the election, round two -- let's go to the video!" host Hanif Hangam crowed before cutting to a clip of a glum-looking Karzai standing before a thicket of microphones as he agreed to take part in the election do-over set for Nov. 7.

As comedic endeavors go, "Alarm Bell" -- "Zang-e Khatar" in the Dari language -- is far from subtle, featuring plenty of rude noises, broad puns and outlandish wigs. The studio is shabby, the technical crew is skeletal, and the set is rudimentary, consisting of a battered desk the four main actors sit behind. Props are unsophisticated, running to hand-lettered signs.

But even mildly edgy TV represents a dizzying cultural shift from the reign of the Taliban, which ended only eight years ago. Music and television, together with most forms of entertainment, were banned during the fundamentalist Islamic movement's five-year rule.

Drawing inspiration from news-centered comedy offerings such as "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," the program is determinedly topical -- so much so that the cast raced to tape new segments Tuesday when the election runoff was announced just hours after the week's episode had wrapped.

Many of the laugh lines on "Alarm Bell" are ad-libbed, but the slapstick carries a considerable satiric sting. "Whenever something sits too long, it spoils," one of the actors intoned, his recitation of a homely Afghan proverb clearly meant to poke fun at the lengthy delay between the Aug. 20 vote and the runoff decision.

Almost no one has come out of this election dispute looking good, and the show has mercilessly lampooned the main players. In one skit, actors clad in garish shirts and hats played the role of foreign election monitors, haranguing a hapless figure meant to represent Afghanistan's election commission. The panel, loyal to Karzai, refused for weeks to acknowledge that massive vote-rigging had taken place. The Afghan leader submitted to a partial recount -- and eventually the runoff -- only under unrelenting Western pressure.

In the "Alarm Bell" version, the target of the "foreign" tirade finally yells desperately in English: "Shut up!" "Now, now," his interlocutors respond soothingly. "It's just a suggestion. We're not imposing our views on you."

On the set, there are nods to the conventions of nighttime comedy shows, such as a glittering urban panorama as backdrop. Here, though, there's a distinctive Afghan twist. A view of the Kabul skyline, superimposed behind the host's desk, features faint lights emanating from the mud-brick homes of a mountainside slum overlooking the capital.

On the air for five years, "Alarm Bell" has at times aroused the ire of the political elite with swipes at corruption and inefficiency. After the show aired clips of lawmakers snoozing in their seats or picking their noses during debates, some angry legislators tried to get it yanked off the air.

Originally considered scandalous, the show has spawned a number of imitators, including one in Pashto, the language of Karzai's ethnic group.

The popularity of "Alarm Bell" has waned from its peak, but it still has a loyal following for its tweaking of the powerful. One recurring segment has the actors reading purported e-mails from fake addresses such as "governmentminister@bribe" or "failed.candidate@draggedoutelection."

Any show that plays off current events here is going to involve some anything-but-funny topics. This week's "Alarm Bell" featured references to a jailbreak, protection payoffs to the Taliban, a suicide bombing, looted aid supplies and the burning of toxic waste near a girls school.

"These are very painful things," said Hangam, taking a quick cigarette break between segments. "But we don't make fun of the pain. Our target is those who allow these things to happen."


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