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Female contestants in Afghanistan’s X Factor are dicing with death

Plus: a harrowing but uplifting true story from Cambodia and the history of the corner shop

11 May 2019

9:00 AM

11 May 2019

9:00 AM

The cheering fans, the dramatic Hollywood-style drum rolls, the excitable host all sound just like The X Factor or The Voice. It’s hard to believe that beyond the lights and cameras there’s a huge security operation keeping the singers, TV staff and audience safe. But the Afghan version of the talent show is still under attack from the Taleban. In The Art of Now: Afghan Stars on Radio 4 (produced by Roger Short) we heard from Massood Sanjar, who set up the TV company that produces the programme, and Zahra Elham, this year’s winner, voted to the top spot by the audience, the first woman to win the show in its 14-year history.

Two generations have grown up in the 40 years that Afghanistan has been torn to shreds by war, fearing death while out buying bread or going to school. Even indoors listening to the radio, their lives were constantly under threat when the Taleban, at the height of their control from 1996 until 2001, decreed that all music was banned on penalty of death. Music is still regarded by some of the mullahs as sinful, promoting ‘sexual excitement’, and especially if it’s performed by women, whose voices are said to be ‘provocative and tempting for men’.

Of the 700 employees of the TV company, one third are security guards. Just three years ago a minibus shuttling staff to work was blown up, killing seven set-builders, cameramen and administrative staff and injuring more than 20 others. Inside the studio, though, all that is forgotten as music takes precedence. For the female contestants, singing in public could mean death, even though they always have their hair covered and barely move for fear of being accused of dancing. But they are determined to assert their talent: ‘This is my passion and I must see it through.’ They know that music brings people together, that it doesn’t matter whether you are singing in Dari, Pashto or Uzbek, you don’t have to understand the language, ‘you have to feel it’.


We can ‘bring back hope through music’ says Sanja. In My Cambodian Twin, a Radio 4 drama by Annie Caulfield and Martin McNamara (directed by Emma Harding), we heard the true story of Sophea, a ceremonial dancer, who is determined to use her passion and talent to bring hope back to her war-torn country. She wants to set up a school for dancers in Cambodia and hopes that the book Caulfield is writing about her will help to fund it.

Sophea was seven when the Khmer Rouge surged into Phnom Penh. She and her brother and parents were forced to leave their home immediately and spent the next four years in a remote district working as farm labourers. Her brother was kidnapped on the first day of their exile by a female guard and never seen again. Caulfield (played by Pippa Haywood) notices that Sophea never talks about the Khmer Rouge in the past tense. ‘The Khmer has no tenses. The past always is in the present.’

Meanwhile Caulfield herself is facing a race against time as she struggles to complete her book while battling lung cancer. It sounds depressing but what comes through is Sophea’s iron will to survive and Caulfield’s response — her need to tell that story, her self-scrutiny — and their shared belief in the ability of individual cultural endeavours to bring people together, to resurrect a shared history and save a community.

Babita Sharma’s book of the week for Radio 4 (produced by Eilidh McCreadie) tells the story of the corner shop in British social life, not just furnishing us with emergency milk and cat food but also helping to create a sense of neighbourhood, of community. Sharma’s father arrived in England from Delhi in January 1965, a 24-year-old with a return ticket. He never intended to stay but five years later his future wife also travelled to the UK to marry him and his return ticket was never used. By 1977 he and his wife and three children were installed in a flat above a shop in Reading. They were part of the wave of immigrant families who became shopkeepers, saving themselves from redundancy in the bleak 1970s when factory jobs were in short supply and overt racism against immigrants became commonplace.

At the same time they were responsible for saving the corner shop from extinction. The arrival of the first supermarket in Streatham in 1951 had soon killed off more than half of them; they were no competition for the speed and ease of picking out prepackaged goods from aisles of sparkling clean shelves. In The Corner Shop Sharma cleverly links her own memories of shop-bound life with the last 50 years of British history. She reminds us of the arrival of the East African Asians thrown out of their homeland by Idi Amin, the rise of the National Front (founded in 1967), the power cuts of the three-day week. And she finds connections with Margaret Thatcher, whose early years were also ruled by the shop counter and the ringing of the bell to announce a new customer. How much we found about you, says Sharma teasingly, as you dashed in for that last-minute bottle of wine.


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