The singer clutches the wireless microphone to his lips and croons the words to a traditional Afghan love song. The house band struggles to keep the beat. Listeners beam, some furtively tap their feet. They shift in their folding chairs as television cameras pan the audience. By the time the song is over, the studio guests have loosened up a little. They applaud politely. It's only when the real star of the show steps on stage that everyone lets loose. Men whistle, women clap ferociously. Little girls, dressed in sequins and bows, rush the stage. Mozhdah Jamalzadah is in the house.
Part Oprah, part Hannah Montana, The Mozhdah Show is the latest sensation to hit Afghanistan's television screens. Airing every Thursday and Friday night (the Afghan weekend), the program is a lively mix of music, games, skits and pop psychology couched in the format of an American daytime talk show. It is also Jamalzadah's subversive stab at fixing the ills of Afghan society, one television show at a time. "Today, we will be talking about problems in the family," Jamalzadah informs the audience from her perch on a pink and yellow fake-leather sofa. Next to her is the day's guest speaker, a psychology professor from Kabul University. "Sometimes families have problems that they cannot solve, and when that happens, they have to separate. Today we will talk about divorce." The audience freezes. Divorce is a taboo subject in Afghanistan, one spoken of in whispers, if spoken of at all. Jamalzadah senses the mood and quickly ad-libs in her trademark no-nonsense style. "This is the truth. We should not run away from the truth."
Born in Afghanistan, and raised as a refugee in Canada, Jamalzadah, 26, is best known as one of Afghanistan's most famous pop singers. Her hit single "Afghan Girl" was recorded in Canada, but quickly spread throughout the Afghan diaspora, eventually reaching Afghanistan, where it was recently voted best song of the year. She cannot leave her house without getting mobbed by fans snapping photos on their mobile phones and demanding autographs. In March she performed "Afghan Girl" (See video here) at the White House in celebration of International Women's Day, fulfilling one of her life's goals of meeting President Barack Obama.
Jamalzadah never wanted to be a singer. She says she doesn't even like karaoke. What she wanted was to help Afghanistan, and singing, she says, was the best way to get her message out. "'Afghan Girl' is a song for the men of Afghanistan. It is about all the great female heroes in Afghan history, and I try to remind men that women too can be powerful."
The song struck a chord, and Jamalzadah, who had never had a singing lesson before she turned 18, went on to record several more. Her concerts in Canada were mobbed by expatriate and second-generation Afghans hungry for music in their own language. But not everyone was a fan. Her Facebook page and video posts on YouTube are often littered with threats and expletives. She has been called a "disgrace to Afghanistan" and "poison" by those who are offended by women singing.
Fan-site forums spend as much time discussing her outfits as they do her lyrics. The clothes she wears on TV could be described best as following the letter of the typical Afghan dress code rather than the spirit. At a taping last week she wore four-inch platform sandals, a full-length skirt, a tight long-sleeved shirt and a headscarf that did nothing to conceal her waist-length, highlighted hair. Not an inch of improper flesh was showing, but the effect was provocative nonetheless. She laughs when asked about a recent letter from the Ministry of Information and Culture warning her to dress more appropriately on the show. It's all part of her grand plan, she says, flirting with boundaries in order to expand them. "I want to bring in new things, new ideas, but I don't want to do it in a way that I alienate people."
Jamalzadah acknowledges that it's a delicate line to walk. For a while she engaged each of her Facebook detractors directly, taking on those with the worst threats first and seeking to get to the bottom of what, exactly, was so offensive about a woman singing. Many enemies she turned into fans. "Like Obama says, you change the world one person at a time," she says.
But Facebook evangelism could only go so far. That's where her TV show came in. When a start-up station in Kabul contacted her last year about hosting a music program she jumped at the chance. Not only did it give her an opportunity to go to Afghanistan, she thought it would give her a wider platform to spread her message of hope and change. Once in the country, she realized that she could do so much more. Armed with a boxed DVD set of Oprah episodes, she convinced her producers that a talk show focused on family issues was just what the market wanted and Afghanistan needed. "By securing the family, you can secure the nation." So many of Afghanistan's problems start at home, she says: poverty, a lack of education, child abuse, domestic violence, disrespect for women, an ignorance of basic human rights. "How we treat our children affects our future, so what I decided to do on the show is to focus on women and children."
The soft focus doesn't mean Jamalzadah shies away from tough themes. If anything, it allows her to tackle the controversial subject of women's rights without risking a backlash from Afghanistan's religious conservatives. "I don't go into it directly, because you can't just force it on people," she says. "What I am trying to do is introduce women's rights slowly, without people noticing." On one recent program she took on the practice of forced marriage. She didn't condemn it; rather, she aired the potential pitfalls and problems through a humorous skit acted out by studio actors. Then she opened up the floor to questions and comments by the audience. The goal is to start a discussion, to get people thinking. So far she is pleased with the results. "I see through my audience an opening up of Afghan society." In the beginning, she says, no one dared ask a question. Now she doesn't have time to get to all the audience members who raise their hand. "Even the women and girls, they feel like they can speak out. They are more confident."
Except of course, when it comes to divorce. Off camera, Jamalzadah admitted to being nervous about introducing such a potentially toxic subject. But under the studio lights, her TV personality came to the fore. When no one raised a hand to comment after the divorce segment, she directly challenged her audience. "Are you afraid?" she asked, daring a group of young men to speak up. Finally one raised his hand. Trembling with awe, and perhaps a little stage fright, he suggested that one problem leading to divorce might be the practice of newly married couples moving in with their in-laws. The audience erupted in laughter, and the ice was broken. Hands shot up. Jamalzadah was back on a roll.
Jamalzadah whose first name, roughly translated, means "good news" takes her inspiration from Oprah Winfrey, the woman next on the list of people she is dying to meet. When asked what she would say to her idol, she laughs. "Oh, my God, it's a total cliché. I'd tell her how much she changed my life." But then Jamalzadah pauses and corrects herself. "Oprah inspired me to come here and do what she has done in America: to fix families and through them change society. Because of Oprah, I have been able to change the life of my nation." That is hardly a cliché.
With reporting by Shah Barakzai / Kabul