Wazhmah Osman talks about her book, Television and the Afghan Culture Wars

https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/29bgf5br9780252043550.html

Interview by Narges Bajoghli

Narges Bajoghli: What made you write this book and want to focus on the media in Afghanistan, particularly? 

Wazhmah Osman: In western discourse, from Rudyard Kipling to Winston Churchill, the prevailing image of Afghans has been a stereotypical, racist, and dehumanizing one. Afghans are portrayed as savages, militant, and barbaric. These colonial tropes took on new currency after the tragic events of 9/11. There was so much misinformation about Afghan people and Afghanistan in the news, documentaries, books, and by political pundits, which resulted in acts of violence and discrimmination against people from the Muslim world including my communities. I knew I wanted to redress and challenge these problematic dominant narratives by directing the global dialogue about Afghanistan to Afghans themselves. During my pre-research trips to Afghanistan, I noticed the rapid expansion of the Afghan media sector, largely thanks to the post 9/11 international donor community’s funding and training. I also noticed how the media is at the heart of the most important national debates about women’s rights, democracy, modernity, and Islam. For countries in the global south and east, like Afghanistan, who are described as stuck in time and incapable of modernizing, showing the dynamism of cultural contestations and social movements that occur in and around media is one of the best ways to dispel the immutability and failure discourses.

Narges Bajoghli: Your research for the book is very ethnographic and embedded and impressive in its scope and access. How did you go about the research of this book, especially given how fraught your fieldsites were/are, with active war, occupation, and violence?

Wazhmah Osman: Thank you. To be honest, initially I did not want to go back to Afghanistan for my dissertation research, which this book is based on. I needed a break from Afghanistan. Post 9/11 I had been going back and forth for journalistic assignments and documentary film work. Pre 9/11 I was also going back and forth to visit my father and other family and to maintain my cultural ties and connections. Afghanistan, just like its people, is a lively and beautiful place but it has been marked by over four decades of death and destruction and lawlessness, which makes everyday life there extremely difficult and dangerous. I partially grew up in Af-Pak during the height of the Cold War. So I’m no stranger to the chaos and violence of war but the extent and extremity of it never ceases to surprise me. Sadly for Afghans in Afghanistan, it has become mundane.

But I also knew that in-depth on the ground research with local Afghans was the best way to challenge elitist and problematic views from the top and disrupt their simplistic and imperialist narratives that drum up hate, violence, and war. Also in dialogue with Faye Ginsburh, our advisor, she encouraged me to work with Afghans in Afghanistan as opposed to the diaspora in Queens NY.  Going back there for my book research and fieldwork was my longest and hardest trip back. As you know, long term fieldwork and research is such a privilege but also arduous. It took a big personal toll on me. There’s the emotional challenges of returning as an expatriate to a former home that is a war-torn shell of what it used to be, being apart from loved ones, and the loss of that. More seriously and devastatingly though, I lost research subjects and interlocutors I had befriended to the violence of war. Brave media makers, human rights activists, reformers, and aid workers risk their lives on a daily basis to create a progressive and democratic society. They are regularly targeted by local and international warlords and conservative groups. I survived and have the privilege to leave and tell their stories. Many people don’t. 

Narges Bajoghli: In the book, you argue that television is at the center of violence in Afghanistan–“generating it and also being targeted by it.” Yet, you argue, television is also providing a semblance of justice, debate and healing. Can you expand more on this central argument in your book and how television becomes such a site of contention? 

Wazhmah Osman: Due to high illiteracy rates and limited access to computers and the internet, the dystopic state of the country, television (and radio to a lesser extent) have become a popular and powerful medium in Afghanistan. A lot of hopes, fears, and funding are funneled into it. I set out to study the impact and cultural contestations that the media is enabling. I mainly used two methodologies, content analysis of the most popular genres on Afghan television and my ethnographic research into their production and reception. While space won’t permit me to get into the details, I can say that Afghan media producers, at great risk to themselves, are providing a platform for local reform, activism, and indigenous modernities to challenge both local conservative groups and the international community that has Afghanistan in its sights. The media has opened up space crucial for private and public discussion around important national and cultural issues. I also discovered that Afghan peoples’ need for justice via more serious programming and entertainment via more fun and distracting programs are not mutually exclusive. We cannot underestimate the value of entertainment in war-torn countries like Afghanistan. The antidote to war and its atrocities is equal parts reflection and distraction. I mean look at how streaming services and media consumption have skyrocketed during the pandemic. This is not just because we were captive audiences at home. It’s because the media provides a semblance of calm and understanding of our chaotic, violent, and confusing world.

Narges Bajoghli: Although I think most American/American-based scholars and anthropologists should have an interest in this book given the decades-long American war and occupation of Afghanistan, we unfortunately know that not to be the case. We’ve talked a lot about this before, but it seems like the two places you and I study, Iran and Afghanistan, respectively, are always in the news, and have been for decades, yet all that ink spilled has not led to deeper knowledge in the Euro-American sphere, including, unfortunately in many corners of academia. How does this book speak to anthropological debates about media in general, and about media and democracy under occupation? What can this book teach us and our students who may not focus on Afghanistan as a main area of study? 

Wazhmah Osman: Like you said Afghanistan, like Iran, your site of research, has occupied the public and popular imagination of Americans for decades through the news and Hollywood films. Most of that has been in relation to wars and conflict like the Soviet Invasion and Occupation of Afghanistan, the events of 9/11, War on Terror, and the US Forever War in Afghanistan. The US government and therefore the American people have been entangled in over forty years of wars and military operations in the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia). I think many Americans are confused about what their taxpayer money has been funding for so long. I wrote this book with that in mind, to cross-over into the public sphere. While of course I engage with anthropological debates about media and academic theories of media and democracy under occupation, at the same time, I tried to make it as readable and engaging as possible to general audiences as well. Thanks to whistleblowers and investigative journalists, reports of extrajudicial torture, blacksites, and rendition programs are emerging, which are forcing people to reckon with US militarism abroad. Yet at the same time, many of the proponents of media independence and human rights in Afghanistan who train and support journalists and activists are NGOs funded by the United States. In Television and the Afghan Culture Wars, I tried to provide a complete blueprint and outline for understanding the complex geopolitical situation in Afghanistan. 

Narges Bajoghli: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sorts of impact do you hope it will have? 

Wazhmah Osman: In addition to academics and the public, I also wrote this book for politicians and policy makers. If the US truly wants an exit strategy out of its Forever War in Afghanistan with its ensuing global refugee crisis, it is time to start supporting and centering the voices and stories for self-determination, peace, and justice. Rehashing the same dangerous stereotypes of despotism and barbarism precludes the fundamental agency, creativity and intellect of people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Far beyond the archetypal Hollywood alignment of forces of good (the US military) versus bad (Islamic extremists and terrorists), there is a wide range of people. As I describe in my book, there are many Afghan human rights activists, journalists, and media makers who risk their lives everyday working to lay the foundations for democracy and human rights. They are subjected to threats, physical attacks, and death for challenging local and international warlords. In the book I highlighted their work and organizations in an effort to expose readers to the creativity and agency of Afghan reformers as well as their pain and suffering. These activists and reformers also offer the best solutions and hope for creating a more diverse, equitable, and violence free society.

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