Despite social mores, Afghanistan sketch comedy show ‘brings truth to the people’

“Of course it’s scary. We’ve all faced countless threats over the years, but they haven’t killed us yet.”

The Shabake Khanda crew shoots a massage scene for an episode, while adapting to social mores. (CREDIT: ALI M. LATIFI)
The Shabake Khanda crew shoots a massage scene for an episode, while adapting to social mores. (CREDIT: ALI M. LATIFI)

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — For many Afghans, daily life in the country can seem like a constant struggle against corruption, pollution, sexism, political infighting, and the ever-present threat of attack. 

Dealing with these frustrations and complications — watching an armored car speed past a group of school children like they were bowling pins or knowing a bureaucratic matter will be stuck in an endless loop of setbacks and excuses until you can pay a series of bribes — can leave any Afghan feeling hopeless and alone.

But for the last three years, Shabake Khanda (The Laughter Network), a weekly sketch comedy show in the vein of Saturday Night Live and In Living Color has helped millions of Afghans find humor in these absurd situations. Every Friday night at 8 p.m., families across the country tune in to TOLO TV, the nation’s largest private broadcaster, to watch Ibrahim Abed, Siar Matin, and Nabi Roshan take on everything from fraudulent blood donations to bickering between a man and his two wives.

“This show brings the truth to the people,” 17-year-old Mohammad Edris told ThinkProgress.

Earlier this week, Edris, who never misses an episode, was given a first-hand look at the show’s production when the pharmacy at which he works was used as the setting for one of Shakabe Khanda’s upcoming sketches.

For 10 minutes on a Sunday morning, Edris and his friends, smartphones in hand, watched as Abed, Matin, and Roshan acted out a humorous sendup of a photo of a pharmacy worker with a rifle on his back in eastern Jalalabad.

The photo was meant to be a startling illustration of the increasing insecurity in Jalalabad, a city three hours east of Kabul, but in Shabake Khanda’s hands, it became a multi-faceted statement. The sketch, which will be cut down to three minutes, highlighted the prevalence of guns in the country, the growing sense of alarmism that the deteriorating security situation has bred and the very real fact that, in Afghanistan, it’s not just suicide bombings and IEDs that kill.

The sketch, staged and shot in less than 35 minutes, is an example of the topical nature of the weekly program. The photo had only started the rounds on Afghanistan’s small, but vocal social media scene five days prior to the shoot.

“We have so many sources that call me and the cast directly to tell us of something strange or upsetting that happened in a high-level government meeting. Social media helps us a lot, too. We also have a 456 hotline that people call into,” Rafi Tabee, the show’s 27-year-old producer, told ThinkProgress.

Tabee recalls a recent meeting with elders from a southern province, where the elders complained of a meeting with a high-powered Afghan-European official.

“He invited us, Afghans, to his house, and it was a zoo. There were donkeys and horses and dogs, and he expected us to sit there with him,” he said.

Though comedy has a long history in the nation, the pharmacy sketch is an example of the challenges a satire show of Shabake Khanda’s ilk faces in the country. Without a proper sound stage, the program is, in many ways, the ultimate exercise in improv comedy.

Prior to arriving in the Daqiq Asri pharmacy, the cast and crew were turned away from another medical facility, scrambling to find another location, Abed placed a call to the owner of the pharmacy, a friend of his, who gave them a spot to shoot in his shop.

“As soon as we say we’re with Shabake Khanda, people will turn us away,” said the show’s sound engineer. Producing 13 to 14 sketches for each hour-long program often means many wasted hours looking for a suitable location.

But there are other problems, both social and political.

Another sketch involving a massage scene meant Abed had to go through many costume changes before settling on a suitable outfit that conformed to Afghan social mores, while still conveying the scene.

“Here, people go to the hamam, bath, for a massage, but we have to make sure his knees are covered,” said Roshan, who played one of the masseuses. 

Though Afghanistan is ranked higher than regional neighbors Iran, India, Turkey, and Pakistan in the Reporters Sans Frontières’ press freedom index, Afghan productions have to contend with unwritten social and political codes.

“We address politics, because politics is everywhere, but we still have to be cognizant of the society we live in,” Matin told ThinkProgress.

Tabee said there is only one former warlord turned politician, who has been critical of the Afghan media for un-Islamic practices, that they have yet to feature. His notable absence throughout the series’ run, said Tabee, highlights the limits of free speech in Afghanistan. Though the constitution allows for free expression, with some exceptions, the cast and crew know that far too many people operate with impunity in the country.

“We would be killed the next day,” he said.

“Of course it’s scary. We’ve all faced countless threats over the years, but they haven’t killed us yet,” Roshan said in a comedic tone, trying to mask the maudlin nature of his comment. Fear of retaliation is par for the course.

For his part, Matin finds solace in the comedy of the program, which addresses some of the most hard-pressing societal and political issues facing Afghan society.

“We address politics, but to be honest, everything here is political, so we try to do something different by bringing in humor,” he said. “It’s a comedy show, but it’s also a political satire.”

At a time when Hollywood has come under fire for the limited number of proper roles for women, as well as sexual harassment cases against some of the most powerful men in the industry, Shabake Khanda faces its own issues with a lack of a female lead.

TOLO’s airwaves may be full of women on game shows, panel discussions, and even an American Idol-style singing competition, but Abed and Roshan both said a woman would face too many societal challenges in taking part in their show. 

“There are things that we do that a woman would never be able to do on the air,” said Abed.

Beyond the social limitations, Tabee said the logistics of their show would also present a challenge to any female wanting to join their cast.

“All those other shows are shot in one secure sound stage, but imagine a woman coming into a house or an office with a crew of 13 men. How comfortable would she feel, and what would people in the community say?”

Matin prepares for a scene. (CREDIT:  Ali M. Latifi)
Matin prepares for a scene. (CREDIT: Ali M. Latifi)

Matin — who, in one scene, donned a dress and a wig to portray a singer telling the story of a corrupt ex-politician — said the importance of the topics they address assuages any ridicule he may face when he has to don drag for a sketch.

“People will make comments calling me ‘Auntie’ or saying, ‘Hey, girlie,’ or ‘what are you doing out of the house,’ when they see me. But it doesn’t bother me. In the end, I know it just means they watch the show and our messages are getting through to them,” he said.

Despite the numerous difficulties they may face, the cast and crew say the show has managed to leave a lasting mark on Afghan society.

“A lot of the social satires I base on my own experiences, things I have seen my friends and neighbors do,” said Tabee. “I have written scripts that are very obviously based on people I know personally, and believe me, right after the show airs, I’ve seen them change their ways.”

The show also has enormous political buy-in.

While waiting in one of the show’s production vans — cleverly disguised to throw off any would-be attackers — crew members recalls a recent conversation with an official in one of the nation’s security branches.

“What did you people air last week, you’ve completely ruined us,” the crew members recalled the official saying during the awkward, but amusing encounter.

Tabee said the program has even led to the dismissal of some of the most high-ranking political and security officials in the nation. He would not elaborate on exactly who was dismissed, but the dismissals, along with the willingness of government officials to directly provide the Shabake Khanda team with tips, is more proof that even those in the highest echelons of power are watching and listening.

One way they circumvent the threat of direct legal or physical attacks is the use of code words.

“We used to use generic names ‘Ahmad’ and ‘Mahmood,’ but we would get people named ‘Ahmad’ or ‘Mahmood’ calling and claiming a segment was about them. So, now we use far-fetched names,” said Tabee.

In a recent sketch, dawlat, or government, became do-lat, or two slaps, and wazir, or minister, became khamir, or flour.

“If we use fictitious names, even for departments and ministries, no one can come after us legally,” Tabee added.

Though the show is recorded uncensored, many of the sketches are shot in a single continuous take that will later be edited down to a three or four-minute segment. The crew uses strategically placed bleeps to avoid any potential controversy.

In an October 6 sketch meant to criticize a regional neighbor for sending vulnerable Afghan refugees to fight in a war in a Middle Eastern country, both nations’ names were bleeped.

Everyone knows who we meant,” Abed, Roshan, and Matin all said.

The sense of knowing functions like an inside joke, providing a sense of community and comfort for the cast, as well as the viewers. And for at least one hour each week, thanks to the antics of three men, the audience feels a little less alone in their daily struggles.