As soap operas go, it has all the right elements: a beautiful, tragic heroine; a gorgeous, cavalier male lead; and a plot sufficiently twisted to keep even the craftiest spectator guessing.
Premiered in February on Afghanistan’s most popular television station, TOLO, “Forbidden Love” already has a large following.
It tells the heart-rending tale of young Bihter, bullied by her mother into marrying a wealthy older man. She swiftly falls in love with his nephew, Behruz, who lives in the family manse like a son.
Her husband’s daughter Nehal is also in love with Behruz, as is one of the household staff, whose brother is in love with Nehal.
Behruz, a ne’er do well playboy, begins to succumb to his obsession with Bihter, but distracts himself by seducing his patron’s daughter.
You get the idea — plenty of unresolved conflict, unrequited love, and unsatisfied passion.
Girls by the thousand are mooning over Behruz, while young men strive for his too-cool-for-school charm. Bihter, with her soulful eyes and pained smile, is the new sex symbol for thousands of Afghan men.
For the most part, it is harmless, mindless entertainment — just what a weary Afghan needs at the end of the day to take his or her mind off a steady diet of suicide bombings, high-level corruption scandals. And dashed hopes for peace.
But ”Forbidden Love,” a Turkish soap opera that airs five times a week, is threatening to produce a very different kind of passion in this deeply conflicted society.
In a country just a decade away from the Taliban’s cheerless regime, where conservative values are deeply embedded in the mainstream culture, “Forbidden Love” is seen by some as dangerous subversion.
“This serial will have a very bad effect on the people of Afghanistan,” wrote one reluctant watcher, posting his comments on the website that TOLO has devoted to the serial, known in Afghanistan as “Eshq al Mamnou.”
This mild rebuke pales, however, beside a tirade posted on the controversial Benawa website, which mostly publishes pro-Pashtun elegies and rants against everybody else.
Now the website has seen fit to give space to a truly alarming tirade against “Forbidden Love,” calling on the Taliban to blow up TOLO TV.
“TOLO has started some activities that are far from Islamic and Afghan values,” says the writer, who identifies himself as Baktash Anush. “The Taliban, who call themselves defenders of Islam and the homeland, kill people without reason, kill Pashtun political figures, commit suicide attacks against police and the army, but are not paying any attention to TOLO … If you are men, come and attack TOLO. … send five to six explosive-laden vehicles and ten armed suicide bombers to destroy this center of moral corruption.”
This is not the first time that TOLO has been censured for its programming. A previous serial, “Tolsi,” also attracted bitter complaints that it was “un-Islamic.”
But the public was wild for it. In Helmand, a mostly Pashtun province in the Taliban-rich south, fans went to great lengths to catch the series. Electricity in Helmand can be sketchy at best, so resourceful "Tolsi” devotees would remove their car batteries to power their televisions.
In 2008 the Ministry of Information and Culture, then headed by the ultra-conservative Abdul Karim Khoram, tried to ban “Tolsi” and several others soaps, on the grounds that they were harmful to Afghan cultural traditions.
TOLO defied the ban, and kept on showing “Tolsi,” a major moneymaker for the independent station. Ultimately the Ministry backed down.
“Tolsi” portrayed the ups and downs of an Indian Hindu family, with various story elements that shocked the Afghan public. One of the characters had a child out of wedlock, and, as one young Afghan put it, “she wasn’t stoned to death or anything.”
But at least with “Tolsi” the moralizers could console themselves with the fact that this was a strange culture and an alien religion. Of course, the Indian style of dress presented some difficulties – bare arms and midriffs had to be pixellated to avoid undue titillation.
“Forbidden Love” is another story entirely.
Produced in Turkey, this soap opera purports to portray Muslims, although Afghans will find little that is familiar in this post-Ataturk, secularized society. Women are not veiled, they bare their arms and even wear strapless evening dresses.
But that is nothing compared to the constant bed-hopping necessary for a successful soap.
So far the criticism has stayed on the level of disturbing commentary. TOLO TV professes itself unruffled by the fuss.
Nevertheless, the controversy points to some very deep divides within Afghanistan: those who are eager for a glimpse of another culture, or who just like a good yarn, versus those who are so threatened by any alternative to their own worldview that they are willing to kill people who challenge them.
Cultural censorship is not unique to Afghanistan, of course. Many a book was burned during the Spanish Inquisition, and as a child I was not allowed to read “The Three Musketeers” because of some beef the Catholic Church had with Alexandre Dumas.
But Afghanistan is still in a phase where harsh words can often lead to violent action. In a nation where weapons are readily available, any crackpot with a gun or a hand grenade can easily become an assassin.
Chances are the Taliban will ignore the writer’s request — unless and until they acquire power.
But the advent of the fundamentalists would indeed be a tragedy. Then we might never find out what finally happens between Bihter and Behruz.