I share my office at the company compound with the deputy president of the company. Between the two of us, we pretty much manage the entire operation. In addition, the office has three couches in it, so it does double-duty as a sort of ersatz conference room. This makes for a near constant stream of people coming in and out.
Part of the reason my office is so popular is that it has satellite TV. Admittedly, we only get one channel on the primary dish and that's BBC World. However, when the Boss is away, we've been known to switch to the secondary dish which allows us access to the full range of wondrous televisual excellence of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, UAE and occasionally Tajikistan.*
*If you haven't yet had the opportunity to watch a couple of hours of Tajik music videos, let me recommend that you avoid the experience.
This cornucopia of broadcast options means that much of the staff stops in at least once a day, just to check on what we're watching. This can lead to some rather interesting occurences.
For instance, our staff runs the theological gamut from secular nationalists to devout until-recently-Taliban fundamentalists. When one of the fundamentalists has the misfortune to wander in during a Tajik music video marathon, the reaction can be priceless. Sometimes, they simply refuse to watch scantily-dressed Tajik girls performing non-traditional dances, even going so far as to face the wall rather than leave and admit Koranic defeat. More often however, they will sit enraptured by images that, although tame by the standards of MTV, are light-years beyond what they're used to seeing.
*They usually act guilty for the next three days after this. I suspect they're doing whatever it is Muslims do as pennance for sins.
Or, sometimes they'll catch a report on the BBC or Al Jazeera about the latest American pronouncement or ISAF policy change. This inevitably triggers a discussion about what the news really means, a discussion that rapidly descends into farcical conspiracy theories. Afghans are great lovers of conspiracy theories, especially when they involve American plans for world domination, Afghan politicians in league with "foreign" interests or Pakistani spies influencing events in the highest circles. Eventually, every news story is explained by reference to one of these elements.
*I recently was witness to a long-winded, vocal debate about the building of schools by ISAF Provincial Reconstruction Teams. It took over half an hour, but eventually the conclusion was reached that the schools were 1) secret training facilities for Pakistani infiltrators 2) aiming to co-opt Afghan politicians so that 3) America could take over Afghanistan and steal their oil.** An Afghan conspiracy trifecta!
**This is another long-running conspiracy theory that is popular here, that Afghanistan has oil and the sole purpose of NATO and ISAF is to secure the wells and suck the country dry. Never mind the fact that Afghanistan has NEVER had significant oil reserves, and that the last geological survey was carried out by the Soviets in 1976, and even that failed to find anything worth stealing.
However, quite simply the oddest thing I've seen here in relation to Afghan TV happened the other day. I returned from a meeting at the Ministry of Interior to find four of our senior staff* sitting on the couches, mesmerized by TV. Not a word was being spoken by any of them, nor a single movement made. Even the cigarettes were being left to burn themselves out in the ashtrays.
*I should point out that this group included a former ANA general, two former colonels and a recently-retired district police commander. Even given how freely they pass out titles in this country, this was a pretty high-powered group.
And what, you might ask, would command this level of attention? What program could have positively riveted to the screen? It was nothing other than.......Bob the Builder. Complete with Dari-language voice-overs.
Now, I don't have any kids myself, but I've spent enough time with the children of friends and my nephew to be familiar with Bob the Builder. I'm pretty sure I'd even seen that episode before. As kids shows go, it's not bad viewing, mildly educational and just colorful enough to absorb their attention. I'll even admit to drifting into a inanity-induced coma the few times I've been required to sit through it. But I never would have guessed that friendly, handy Bob would mesmerize these guys like it had. They had the same slack-jawed, wide-eyed fascination that your average American three-year old would have.
But wait, it gets better. Bob the Builder ends and, without missing a beat, the next show starts and it's..........Thomas the Tank Engine. I shit you not. Once again, no one moves, no one speaks, except for myself sitting quietly behind my desk and chuckling.
I wonder if ISAF could use this type of programming in some sort of psychological warfare? Threaten to cut off broadcasts of American kids shows unless they stop blowing stuff up, or maybe provide free TVs and satellite dishes to all insurgents in an effort to pacify the countryside. Worth a try, since what we're doing now obviously isn't working.