Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Radio Show Even the Taleban Like

IWPR’s Kabul editor doubles up as star on local equivalent of The Archers.
By IWPR Afghanistan
  • IWPR editor and radio actor Hafizullah Gardesh. (Photo: IWPR)
    IWPR editor and radio actor Hafizullah Gardesh. (Photo: IWPR)

An Afghan radio serial called New Home New Life has been running for the best part of 20 years, enjoying the kind of massive and loyal audiences that most shows can only dream of.

IWPR’s longstanding chief editor Hafizullah Gardesh is also an actor on the show. When not writing and editing stories about efforts to negotiate with the Taleban, or President Hamed Karzai’s battles with a fractious parliament, he is the voice of Sarwar Khan, a character in the drama series.

First produced and broadcast by the BBC World Service in 1994, New Home, New Life has remained true to its original concept – entertainment and drama, plus messages about health, dangers like landmines, and refugee issues. The inspiration came from the BBC’s long-running rural drama, The Archers.

A more recent radio show, On the Borderline, is modelled on New Home, Life but set on the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. An English-language version of On the Borderline, called An Everyday Story of Afghan Folk, has aired this month on BBC Radio 4.

In this interview, Hafizullah Gardesh talks about his involvement in a show that so many Afghans listen to that they often recognise his voice the first time they meet him.

How did you get into the acting business?

I joined the show 15 years ago. Before that, I had been an actor on Afghan National Radio.

Which character do you play?

I am the village head, Sarwar Khan, who has taken over in that role from his father, Jabar Khan. He has a positive outlook, and his role is to resolve problems as they arise in the village.

The programme is made in both Pashto and Dari versions. I do the Pashto version.

Can you describe New Home, New Life?

It’s an educational show. The subject-matter covers various aspects of life – health, education, war, landmines, culture and tradition.

There’s a board that selects the storylines, with topics generally suggested by funders and supporters. Once the storyline has been agreed, it is passed to writers who turn it into scripts for each episode.

Why is the serial so popular in Afghanistan?

When the Taleban were in power, there were no TVs. This drama served as a school for people throughout Afghanistan.

Under the mujahedin [1992-1996] and Taleban [1996-2001] regimes, around 95 per cent of people listened to the show. They wouldn’t go to bed unless they’d heard it. During the Taleban period, the show was recorded in Peshawar in Pakistan.

With so many people listening every week, your voice must have become instantly recognisable.

Once I was travelling from Torkham to Kabul, and when the driver heard me speak, he got another passenger to switch seats so I could sit up front next to him. All the way to Kabul, he kept asking me about the various actors on the show. He gave me food and wouldn’t let me pay for the trip.

Another time, I was in Nangarhar, and I asked a passer-by for an address. He invited me to his home for lunch, saying he recognised my voice.

In the Taleban era, I was once travelling back to Kabul after recording the show in Peshawar. When I crossed the border into Afghanistan, the Taleban arrested me for having a beard that was “too short”. They took me to their guardhouse to punish me, but once they realised I was one of the actors on the show, they embraced me and let me go.

Do listeners get very involved?

When a female character called Sabra cried during one scene, Afghan women wept along with her. Then there is Nazer, servant to my own character Sarwar Khan; he’s very famous. It took him years to get married, and there was an Afghan living in Pakistan who offered to let him marry one of his daughters.

Is the newer show, On the Borderline, seen as something of a rival?

It was actually conceived by the founder of our show, and we don’t see it as a competitor at all. It’s different from ours.

New Home, New Life has been on air for around two decades.

How do you manage to juggle so many commitments?

I am certainly busy, but not so busy as to be exhausted. I only do the recordings on [weekend days] Fridays and Saturdays.

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