"Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready to find out who is the winner of this year's Afghan Star?" The television host pauses and surveys the thousand or so Afghan teenagers decked out in glitzy headscarves, or wide-lapeled white suits with even wider ties who have begun chanting the names of favorite performers. "Well, let's take a short break for commercials, and we will be right back." Ryan Seacrest he is not, but Daud Sediqi, host of the American Idol clone Afghan Star, knows how to work a crowd, reminding them that the reason they have spent a cramped three hours in the tattered theater of Kabul's once-plush Intercontinental Hotel is to be present for the conclusion of a contest that has dominated Afghan TV for the past 16 weeks.
The rewards for the winner are modest $5,000 cash and a one-album recording contract but for this war-ravaged nation of 35 million, more than a third of whom tune in every week, Afghan Star represents the promise of normalcy. Despite the American-influenced format, the performers see the show as rooted in Afghan tradition. "Only the name is new," says Lima Sahar, who rose to position number three before being voted out in the penultimate week. "Everything else in the program already existed in our culture. We have famous singers and musicians. Despite so many decades of crisis and war, Afghan Star proves that we used to have music culture, and we will have it again."
Now finishing its third season, Afghan Star is one of the country's most widely watched programs, and it has spawned such imitators as Laugh Bazaar, dedicated to standup comedy, and a competition to find the best male dancer. And Afghan democracy has reached a new level with the introduction of viewer voting, via mobile phones.
Nowhere is the revolutionary impact of the show more evident than in the success of Sahar, the first woman to have made it to the final five. That is quite an achievement for an ethnic Pashtun from Kandahar, a stronghold of the Taliban, where women are traditionally kept behind closed doors. Religious leaders have condemned Afghan Star for allowing women to perform in public, and some have demanded it be taken off the air. But the hundreds of thousands of votes that have poured in for Sahar suggest that many Afghans are ready for change. "It is no longer possible for one man to say that we can't have this music," says Murtaza Mohammadi, 24, a waiter in one of Kabul's restaurants. "Our votes prove that it's part of our culture, and no one can stop it."
Sahar had never sung before joining some 2,000 aspirants to compete for the title, and her performance, while it has improved over the past four months, remains wooden. What has struck a chord with voters is her raw courage in defying conservative strictures simply to be here. "Her singing skills are not as good as the guys, and the assumption was that she was going to fail fairly quickly," says Saad Mohseni, a director of the company that owns the show. "But I think people wanted her to win. They all realized how difficult it was for her to pick up from Kandahar, and we all want to root for the underdog. For her to get so much support is quite phenomenal. This season of Afghan Star will do more for women's rights than all the millions of dollars we have spent on public service announcements for women's rights on TV."
Still, there are limits on the openness of the voters: Sitara, from Herat, electrified audiences with her original compositions and strong voice, but her dancing and wardrobe malfunctions her headscarf slipped twice proved too much for some voters. She only made it to number eight.
The judges appeared to be aware of the wider stakes, however, awarding Sahar third place despite their reservations about her limited talent. As judge Monesa Shirzada Hassan handed Sahar her prize of $1000, plus another $700 for being the highest-placed woman performer and a recording contract, she hailed the singer from Kandahar as "the biggest achievement in the third season of Afghan Star."
After the cheers for Sahar died down, it was time to name this year's Afghan Star. Even though voting had closed hours before, host Sediqi called the two remaining contestants on stage for a final performance. Rafi Nabzada, a 19-year-old ethnic Tajik from Mazar-i-Sharif, launched into a classic song poem, whose chorus, "I am filled with sadness, bring me my wine," seemed at odds with its up-tempo beat. Sakhizada, 21, a Hazara from Bamiyan, countered with a traditional melody of national unity, sending shout-outs to every province and saying, "Wherever we are from, we are all brothers." Both performances brought the house down. But the voters from afar had already made their choice: Nabzada was named his year's Afghan star.
On the news, Sakhizada supporter Fatima Nazari, 17, burst into tears. Her friend, Sakina Paiman, 20, was also disappointed, calling the vote an injustice. "Sakhizada should have been the star," she said. "He had the most talent; he was excellent. I think that the fact that he didn't win means that people are voting according to their own tribes." (That is an unlikely explanation, however; Sakhizada's ethnic group, the Hazara, are a small minority, yet he was the second highest vote getter overall.) Still, she is philosophical. "This was just a show meant to uncover new talents and make more musicians for Afghanistan." By that standard, everyone was a winner.
With reporting by Farouq Samim / Kabul