Karzai impersonator tests limits of Afghan free speech

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 23, 2009 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Everyone around the Afghan capital seems to recognize his voice, but almost no one knows his face.

His crass impersonation of Afghan President Hamid Karzai draws both gasps and chuckles as it bounces from cell phone to cell phone around the nation's capital.

In the weeks since Karzai secured his hold on a second term after a dubious election, this anonymous Karzai impersonator has become the newest voice of underground political dissent to test the limits of free speech in Afghanistan.

The satire isn't sophisticated.

For 150 seconds, Karzai hurls some startling insults — especially for a conservative Muslim country — at political challenger Ashraf Ghani.

The Karzai impersonator, known for his effete voice, responds by tossing graphic profanities back at the Afghan president.

"They say I rigged the election," said Ghani, who draws laughs for capturing Karzai's signature staccato speech as he curses his critics in one of the more family-friendly moments. "Mother------s."

Despite its simplistic humor, or perhaps because of it, the audio clip has boomeranged around Kabul, bopping from Bluetooth to Bluetooth.

Inside the presidential palace, it's caught the ears of Karzai aides, who privately scolded the would-be comedian for pushing the boundaries of the country's shaky free speech protections.

"President Karzai doesn't care if they make dramas, comedies or cartoons about him," said one presidential aide, who agreed to speak about the impersonation only if his name wasn't used.

"But freedom of speech should have its limits," the aide said. "I don't think cursing one's wife — or insulting someone's personality — should have a place in freedom of speech."

Afghanistan's free press has grown exponentially since Karzai assumed power after U.S.-backed forces routed the Taliban in 2001.

Afghanistan now has more than a dozen daily newspapers, at least 15 TV stations and scores of radio outlets, according to Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based free speech organization.

Although reporters in Afghanistan face government intimidation and abductions by anti-government forces, Reporters Without Borders has called the media explosion "unprecedented."

There's even a weekly comedy show that's been dubbed "The Daily Show of Afghanistan."

"In the last few years, Karzai's single achievement has been freedom of speech," said Hanif Hamgam, one of the stars of "Danger Bell," a political television show that's been compared to comedian Jon Stewart's popular Comedy Central faux news program.

"It's a success for Karzai," said Hamgam, whose show appears on Tolo TV, one of the country's private television stations that constantly tests Afghanistan's free speech protections. "He's failed in 90 percent of the things he's done, but there is freedom of speech."

Artistic freedoms only go so far in Afghanistan, however, and no one knows that better than Hamgam.

Before he joined "Danger Bell," Hamgam starred in "Kabul Express," a 2006 Bollywood film about three reporters who venture into Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.

Hamgam became the target of protests, a government investigation and personal threats because his character in the film disparaged Afghanistan's Hazara minority.

Under pressure, Hamgam and the film director apologized, but Afghanistan banned "Kabul Express" anyway.

A similar fate befell "The Kite Runner," the 2007 Hollywood movie based on the best-selling book about a friendship between two Afghan boys from different ethnic groups.

The Afghan government banned theaters from showing "The Kite Runner" because of concern that the movie's stark depiction of a Pashtun boy raping a Hazara boy would inflame ethnic tensions.

The Karzai impersonation on Afghan cell phones and YouTube may have been more widely distributed in Afghanistan than "The Kite Runner" was.

"Everyone has heard it, but it's not good," said Zaki, a 25-year-old Afghan interpreter for the U.S. military. "He's our president; we voted for him; he's our leader, so we shouldn't make fun of him this way."

When the clip started making the rounds, some people assumed that it was the latest work of Zabihullah, a scrawny 23-year-old who's well known for his Karzai impersonations.

A few years ago, Zabihullah said he was fired from his low-level tea-serving post in a government office after he grabbed a microphone before an office meeting and lampooned Karzai in front of the staff.

That public satire, said Zabihullah, led to a visit from an Afghan intelligence officer who gave the aspiring comedian a slap across the face as a warning.

Zabihullah boasts of fooling prominent Afghans by impersonating Karzai in crank phone calls, including one in which he befuddled Karzai's brother Mahmoud by scolding him for getting into the smuggling business.

Zabihullah agreed to meet to discuss the latest impersonation, but then the jittery comedian denied that it was his creation.

"I heard it was a guy at Kabul University who is keeping out of sight," Zabihullah said, sitting in a cramped movie production office in Kabul where he'd just finished recording his latest Karzai impersonation: a 45-second riff on rooting out corruption.

Since he lost his government post, Zabihullah has scraped together money by doing Karzai impersonations for 50 cents a shot, but his reputation for lampooning Karzai has cost Zabihullah at least one job delivering tea at an Afghan television station.

Shah Mohammed Noori, an Afghan actor, said he tried to get Zabihullah work with the government-run TV station, but the station decided not to hire the young man after learning of his Karzai impersonations.

Though he's friends with Zabihullah, Noori said the latest Karzai clip had gone too far.

"There is freedom of speech — with some exceptions," Noori said. "And this is an exception."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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