Afghan show brings down the hoots
Bare-bones 'Alarm Bell' spares no one as
its satire hits home amid election shenanigans.
By Laura King
October 23, 2009
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan
What to do about an election without a
winner? As far as many Afghans are concerned, the answer is simple:
"Alarm Bell," a popular weekly television satirical show, has been
having a field day with Afghanistan's discredited presidential vote,
which is headed for a runoff. After two months of wrangling, nearly 1
million ballots cast in August for President Hamid Karzai, together
with smaller numbers for his opponents, were tossed out this week by
international fraud auditors.
"It's the election, round two -- let's go to the video!" host
Hanif Hangam crowed before cutting to a clip of a glum-looking Karzai
standing before a thicket of microphones as he agreed to take part in
the election do-over set for Nov. 7.
As comedic endeavors go, "Alarm Bell" -- "Zang-e Khatar" in the
Dari language -- is far from subtle, featuring plenty of rude noises,
broad puns and outlandish wigs. The studio is shabby, the technical
crew is skeletal, and the set is rudimentary, consisting of a battered
desk the four main actors sit behind. Props are unsophisticated,
running to hand-lettered cardboard signs.
But even mildly edgy TV represents a dizzying cultural shift from the
reign of the Taliban, which ended only eight years ago. Music and
television, together with most forms of entertainment, were banned
during the fundamentalist movement's five-year rule.
Drawing inspiration from news-centered comedy offerings such as
"The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," the program is determinedly topical
-- so much so that the cast raced to tape new segments Tuesday when the
election runoff was announced just hours after the week's episode had
Many of the laugh lines on "Alarm Bell" are ad-libbed, but the
slapstick carries a considerable satiric sting. "Whenever something
sits too long, it spoils," one of the actors intoned, his recitation of
a homely Afghan proverb clearly meant to poke fun at the lengthy delay
between the Aug. 20 vote and the runoff decision.
Almost no one has come out of this election dispute looking good,
and the show has mercilessly lampooned the main players. In one skit,
actors clad in garish shirts and hats played the role of foreign
election monitors, haranguing a hapless figure meant to represent
Afghanistan's election commission. The panel, loyal to Karzai, refused
for weeks to acknowledge that massive vote-rigging had taken place. The
Afghan leader submitted to a partial recount -- and eventually the
runoff -- only under unrelenting Western pressure.
In the "Alarm Bell" version, the target of the "foreign" tirade
finally yells desperately in English: "Shut up!" "Now, now," his
interlocutors respond soothingly. "It's just a suggestion. We're not
imposing our views on you."
On the set, there are nods to the conventions of nighttime comedy
shows, such as a glittering urban panorama as backdrop. Here, though,
there's a distinctive Afghan twist. A view of the Kabul skyline,
superimposed behind the host's desk, features faint lights emanating
from the mud-brick homes of a mountainside slum overlooking the capital.
On the air for five years, "Alarm Bell" has at times aroused the
ire of the political elite with swipes at corruption and inefficiency.
After the show aired clips of lawmakers snoozing in their seats or
picking their noses during debates, some angry legislators tried to get
it yanked off the air.
Originally considered scandalous, the show has spawned a number of
imitators, including one in Pashto, the language of Karzai's ethnic
The popularity of "Alarm Bell" has waned from its peak, but it
still has a loyal following for its tweaking of the powerful. One
recurring segment has the actors reading purported e-mails from fake
addresses such as "governmentminister@bribe" or
Any show that plays off current events here is going to involve some
anything-but-funny topics. This week's "Alarm Bell" featured references
to a jailbreak, protection payoffs to the Taliban, a suicide bombing,
looted aid supplies and the burning of toxic waste near a girls school.
"These are very painful things," said Hangam, taking a quick
cigarette break between segments. "But we don't make fun of the pain.
Our target is those who allow these things to happen."
2009 Los Angeles Times