The truth hurts — especially when delivered by Afghan comedians

Sketches lampooning incompetent officials, corrupt policemen and abusive warlords have earned Shabak-e-Khanda - or Laughter Network - an avid following.

In this photograph taken on March 6, 2017, Afghan comedian Ibrahim Abed (R) and Ahmad Siar Matin perform humourous songs while filming a scene on March 6, 2017 for the comedy television show Shabak-e-Khanda (Laughter Network ) in Kabul. Wakil Kohsar / AFP
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KABUL // Comedy can be a dangerous business in Afghanistan, but the stars of TV show “Shabak-e-Khanda” -- or Laughter Network — are unabashed even in the face of threats of violence.

Their sketches lampooning incompetent officials, corrupt policemen and abusive warlords have earned them an avid following since the series first launched on Tolo Television.

A recent episode took a swipe at a senior minister with a reputation for drifting off to sleep in official meetings.

“Wazir sahib, when should I wake you up to defend the country? You were sleeping when suicide bombers came to attack us,” crooned the presenter, accompanied by a broken harmonium, reflecting public frustration over growing insecurity in Afghanistan.

Another episode parodied a military commander who bet — and lost — a government Humvee in a gambling spree. And another lampooned a policeman who was dismissed for “bacha bazi”, the entrenched practice of keeping boys as sex slaves.

“Through comedy we show the reality of life in Afghanistan,” said Rafi Tabee, 27, producer of the show. “Comedy is funnier when there is truth to it. In a country full of tragedies, we make people laugh.”

The show is a rare uncensored voice that has built a reputation for speaking truth to power through satire. And it appears to be getting more daring with each episode.

A formidable former warlord known for his drunken misdemeanours is portrayed wearing a bandoleer belt filled not with bullets but alcohol bottles.

Another audience favourite was a sketch showing Afghanistan’s president trying to persuade another former warlord not to celebrate the signing of a government peace accord by firing shells.

“No celebratory fire is like making Kabuli pilaf without rice,” says the stubborn warlord, a rocket launcher at his side.

The line between satire and reality blurred when the show parodied a powerful member of parliament whose electricity was cut off for not paying his bill. He was shown threatening a power company official, saying, “If you don’t switch it back on, I will switch you off.” In reality, he got away with not paying, as influential strongmen in Afghanistan usually do.

But sometimes the humour cuts too close to the bone. In Afghanistan’s super-macho society, being laughed at is the cultural equivalent of emasculation, the ultimate humiliation that can easily devolve into violence.

“Two armed men came to my house and said ‘You make fun of our leaders? This should be the last time’,” said Siar Matin, one of the show’s comedians.

Another star of the show, Ibrahim Abed, was also warned against mocking the president, Ashraf Ghani. Abed is popular because of his near-perfect mimicry of the mercurial leader’s sudden finger-jabbing outbursts.

“Doing comedy is as dangerous as killing a cow in India,” joked comedian Nabi Roashan.

But such is the power of satire that ordinary Afghans have started asking Shabake Khanda’s crew to expose wrongdoings and shame inept officials.

“People come to us instead of going to MPs with their problems,” said Matin.

Humour is also a source of solace and escapism in a country where hope is fast receding, amid a worsening conflict, rising unemployment and political dysfunction.

“In Afghanistan they say laughing is a sin,” said Roashan. “But people tell us ‘you are doing the best job by making people laugh’.”

In post-Taliban Afghanistan, the programme’s rising popularity mirrors the evolution of the media into a feisty watchdog, in spite of despite funding pressures and the ever-growing threat of violence.

Most episodes feature improvised performances without proper scripts. There is no shortage of subjects worthy of ridicule, said Massood Sanjer, the head of Tolo TV, and through their comedy, the show-makers can make a few threats of their own. “People say ‘don’t do bad things or Shabak-e-Khanda will make a show on you’.”

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* Agence France-Presse