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Af-Pak focus: There's drama in the air

Ataullah Khan and Fareedoone Aryan
While music still accounts for most content of radio broadcasters, Pashtun dramas have come into their own on both sides of the border, pushing the limits and shaping public and private debate. In the last of our…
10.05.2013  |  Peshawar/Kabul
Pakistani actress Shazma Haleem recording a drama in Peshawar. (This and main photo: Ataullah Khan)
Pakistani actress Shazma Haleem recording a drama in Peshawar. (This and main photo: Ataullah Khan)

“There is no place for Pashtun girls to work outside society and do jobs among strangers,” thunders Sanobar Khan’s patriarchal character, mid-recording for a new radio drama at a studio in Dean Plaza, Peshawar.

Sanobar Khan and his daughter Farah are locked in a heated exchange. Farah, having completed her education against her family’s wishes, must now lobby her conservative father for the right to pursue a career.

As tensions reach bursting point, Khan slams the door and Farah is left crying, whispering: “If every man becomes like my father, what will Pashtun girls do when they complete their education and just sit at home?”

Farah is played by Samina Naz, 27, while her father is played by veteran actor Imran Khan. Both star in This world is our world (‘Da Dunya Zamung Dunya’), a popular Pashtu-language drama made and broadcast in Pakistan and beyond the border by local radio channel Buraq - as well as PBC and four other FM radio stations.

Sole vein of information

The steady growth over the past decade of Buraq and dozens more stations in the rugged frontier region in particular should not be underestimated. They bring vital information and entertainment to communities which would otherwise have limited contact to the outside world. And push the limits on social and political discourse that might otherwise be left unbroached.  .

“Radio drama is an extremely effective and useful tool influencing the lives of people and it does not require high education and comprehensive knowledge to understand,” says the director of Pakhtunkhwa Radio Mardan, Nisar Mohammad Khan. A renowned producer, Khan lays claim to being the author of the first-ever Pashtun radio drama, Chalice of Blood, in 1972.

Today, some of the most popular drama series are produced both by local radios and by international media houses with Pashtu-language services. Almost all of them tackle the sensitive issue of the changing role of women in Pashtun society, on both sides of the border, where the dramatic tradition in radio dates back several decades.

Airwaves and attitudes

Eyes on the script: A drama rehearsal at Afghan state radioEyes on the script: A drama rehearsal at Afghan state radio. (Photo: Fareedoone Aryan)

"Our dramas were very educational, especially for women who live in remote areas in Afghanistan,” says Sabera Maqsoodi, an actress and producer with Afghanistan National Television and Radio since the 1960s.

“They [women in rural areas] have no access to schools, universities and TVs," says Maqsoodi, who has worked for the BBC Pashtu Service's groundbreaking drama series New home, new life

"We even went to talk to mullahs and village elders and asked them to tell people not to marry their daughters at young ages, not to take a lot of dowry, and to send their children, particularly girls, to schools and universities and let them work," says Maqsoodi.

And because both presenter and audience can remain faceless on radio, broadcasts have particular appeal to women, who otherwise have limited access to media in remote areas.

Boshra Sediqi is a teenage Afghan actress who has been working on Listen and Learn, produced by Deutsche Welle (DW), German national radio. After the fall of the Taliban regime, when radios were banned, Sediqi started doing voiceovers for commercials in kindergarten and progressed to protagonist roles in feature dramas.

“All the dramas we have produced are educational. All of them have been to help people deal with their problems in some ways,” Sediqi, an 11th Grader, told Afghanistan Today. The teenage actress says she has played roles of “good and bad girls”, with content mainly reflecting challenges of women in their families.

Too much for some

A sound engineer at a radio studio in PakistanWhile technical expertise in studios has leapt forward in the last decade, some themes remain taboo. (Photo: Ataullah Khan)

Some of the toughest issues, such as rape or HIV prevention, remain hard to broach on the airwaves. Insiders say it is tough to table such sensitive topics during family-orientated slots.

“Most people in our community don’t like dramas about topics such as AIDS and rape,” says actress Samina Naz, who works for DW.

“It is difficult to listen to these dramas as a family,” adds Bakt Zaman Yusafzai, a Pakistani director producing a US-funded drama in Peshawar.   

But despite any uncomfortable moments, “Radio drama is the most effective and useful way of solving social issues," believes Yusafzai, who names the BBC’s New home, new life as the benchmark for modern Pashtun drama.

Anonymous stars

And since some themes may provoke much more than a wince or blush in reaction, actors personal security is an issue. While many actors and actresses are widely known and respected for their performances, others are careful to keep their thespian activities private.

Izhar Mohmoud, an actor and resident of a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, says he has not told his neighbours that he acts for fear of recriminations. “My culture and environment are huge hindrances to this art,” Mohmoud told Afghanistan Today.

Despite some cultural antipathy to the genre, dozens of dramas are still produced annually in Pashtun-speaking areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Projects that take in both countries include the Pak-Afghan Cross border Radio Training Project (PACT radio), set up at Peshawar University in 2005.

Any religious scholars for a role?

“Radio drama is the most effective and useful way of solving social issues." Bakt Zaman Yusafzai, Peshawar-based radio producer.

The actress Naz says roles she has played have had a visible impact on audiences. “Radio can play a very constructive role in putting an end to the ongoing opposition to the anti-polio campaign,” she says.

This alone is a vital accomplishment following the murder of several polio immunization workers in recent months, and the dissemination of false information by anti-government factions about effects of the vaccinations on the health of recipients, including fertility. And, ventures Naz, messages can perhaps be very effectively communicated “if religious scholars play roles in the dramas.”

The following they could command would help further the drama's impact and message, she believes. As yet though, none are known to have taken a role. But actors have still played Islamic leaders in order to tackle deeper political issues.

"We have dramas about the suicide bomb issue," says Naz, although drones, "because of policy matters," also so far went unfeatured. 

Talking heads: producers at a radio station brainstorm ideas for new drama concepts.Talking heads: producers at a radio station brainstorm ideas for new drama concepts. (Photo: Ataullah Khan)

Current affairs and the larger political dilemmas feature strongly in the dramas. Those dealing with cross-border themes also have their own appeal. Da Poly Pory (Across the border), a drama about a madrasa student who rises to be a positive religious leader in the local jirga council was broadcast on both sides of the frontier by Pact Radio. The drama ran for 250 episodes between 2009 and 2012. 

"We also have radio dramas about the Pak-India border tension,' says Asif Khan Mohmand, a 28-year-old radio drama writer. For example, Nwar pa Chinarono (The sun sets over the Chinarono tree), tackled extremism in Kashmir.

...To utility bills and beyond 

But topics do not always have to be 'edgy'. In Kabul, the veteran actress Maqsoodi says the message iimparted can be as simple as explaining how electricity bills work. 

“Five years ago, we explained these utility bills that people receive,” she said. “And the result is that people now receive their electricity bills at home.”

A. Zia contributed to the editing of this story