March 24, 2012
By Matthew Green
A jovial gunman in khaki looks me up and down, discerns (correctly) that I am unarmed, and waves me through the gate into Sufi. Kabul is emerging from its coldest winter in 20 years and the last of the snow sparkles in the garden. I crunch my way into the restaurant and wait for Saad Mohseni, television impresario, multimillion-dollar dealmaker and chief protagonist in Afghanistan’s culture wars.
Our meeting, on March 8, came in the midst of a sea of troubles for the west’s Afghan campaign. A few weeks earlier, riots had swept the country after burned copies of the Koran were found in a rubbish pit at Bagram airbase – more than 25 Afghans died; six US soldiers were murdered by enraged members of the Afghan security forces. The day before our meeting, six British troops were killed by a roadside bomb in Helmand. Three days later, a US army sergeant would go on a rampage in Kandahar province, killing 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children.
The meteoric rise of Afghanistan’s first media mogul speaks of another, less reported conflict: a country’s struggle to define a new identity after decades of upheaval and oppression. In this other drama, Mohseni stands centre stage. In the past decade, he has built up a network of two radio stations and three television channels that produce 15 hours of in-house programmes a day – more than many stations in the US. Shows on his Tolo TV network have redefined Afghan sensibilities – thrilling a younger generation but prompting a backlash from traditionalists. Only a few weeks before our meeting, the government had ordered women presenters to wear headscarves and avoid heavy make-up – the latest in a running battle between a vibrant liberal media and conservatives.
Whatever finger-wagging clerics may say, it is clear that Mohseni has tapped into a yearning for something new. Afghan Star – Afghanistan’s answer to The X Factor – is into its seventh season. An Afghan version of Yes Minister, the British 1980s satire of civil service mandarins, has delighted viewers by lampooning the sycophancy and kowtowing around a fictional minister of garbage. Game show contestants compete in a battle of nerves to win boxes of cash in a local version of Deal or No Deal.
It is not just the Afghan public who have been won over. Mohseni’s passion for TV myth-making on the hoof has unleashed serious money. In January, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation announced it had taken a minority stake in Moby Group, the media company chaired by Mohseni. International expansion beckons – provided Afghanistan does not implode first.
When Mohseni, 45, steps into the restaurant, he has the demeanour of an advertising executive hurrying between meetings in London or Los Angeles, rather than somebody fresh from navigating the sludge-filled streets of Kabul. Wearing a khaki jacket, checked shirt and jeans, he also sports the heavy-rimmed glasses, stubble and shock of hair beloved of the global creative class. A soft Australian accent, acquired while studying as a teenager in Melbourne, seems to match his laconic look.
Yet Mohseni’s schemes are firmly anchored in Afghanistan, where the snow has triggered in him a pang of nostalgia. The weather reminds him of the city in 1979, before the Russians invaded, unleashing a chain of events that scattered his family and tipped his homeland into a downward spiral it has yet to unwind. “It brings back a lot of memories,” he says. “Snow creates a totally different atmosphere in the city.”
It is also an excellent excuse for a hearty winter soup. Popular with well-to-do Afghans and expatriates, Sufi offers a fusion menu that draws on traditions from across the country. Carved wooden furniture and plentiful cushions give the interior an antique feel. Waiters arrayed in red knitted skull caps, white shalwar kameez and waistcoats with mirrored sequins might, in another context, verge on camp, but piped strains from a haunting Afghan sitar lend Sufi a wistful vibe.
Though I am technically the host, I am relieved when Mohseni flags down one of the servers and orders for us in rapid-fire Dari. I can only catch his request for his Diet Pepsi and my pomegranate juice before he starts to lament the decline in his city’s culinary standards triggered by the descent into war in the 1980s.
“The food in Kabul became very simple – even to this day, you see it’s pretty much three, four dishes,” he says. “You go to a poor person’s house and you go to a minister’s house – they’ll prepare the same sort of thing for you.”
The reference to dining with the rich and powerful is not a boast, yet nor is it quite an accident. News is Mohseni’s passion and his programmes give him influence. The dozens of journalists, editors and producers at his Tolo news channel churn out bulletins that offend everyone from government officials to insurgent commanders and shady businessmen. “We have people trying to kill us – from all sides,” Mohseni says. “It just doesn’t stop.”
Our starter arrives in the form of a basket of warm, flat bread and pastry squares filled with a fine layer of potato and served with a tangy green chutney flavoured with cardamom. Mohseni explains his quest to push Afghan media into new territory – not just with hard-hitting news coverage but by reshaping tastes. A watershed arrived in 2005 with the launch of Afghan Star – where men and women singers compete and the audience votes via text messages. The show exploded taboos and became a runaway success. Mohseni estimates the final attracts up to 20m viewers.
“If you’d done a survey beforehand, most people would have probably said, ‘No, this doesn’t sound interesting.’ They wouldn’t have accepted it. But you take a chance, you push the boundaries,” he says.
For all Mohseni’s coups, the tug-of-war between modernity and tradition in Afghanistan is as intense as ever. A few days before we meet, the Ulema Council, a state-appointed body of 150 clerics, called on the government to place Saudi-style restrictions on women – including barring them from leaving the house without a male chaperone. To the dismay of human rights activists, Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, seemed to endorse the call – his palace carried it on its website.
“I don’t know how it’s going to end, I don’t think anyone does,” Mohseni says.
His choice of programmes has sometimes placed him on a collision course with the authorities. In 2008, the government banned Indian soaps after clerics deemed their scenes of men mixing with women and occasional glimpses of midriff too racy. One of the most popular aired on Tolo TV, featuring the tale of long-suffering Tulsi, a poor girl who married into a rich family. Mohseni defied the ban, telling Karzai that people could switch channels if they were offended.
“I said, ‘Listen, most people know they have a miserable existence, they have no hope. People turn on a television set, and for them that’s escape.’”
He recalls Karzai’s response: “Sometimes people don’t know any better,” and grins as he repeats his own retort: “I said, ‘Well, if they can choose you as their president, they can certainly choose their programme.’” It was the last time the two men spoke.
Soup arrives, puffing clouds of savoury steam. Mohseni explains that the mashawa – as the broth is known – is a concoction of mung beans and chickpeas. An island of yoghurt floats in the spicy lake.
Mohseni seems to share the sentiment I have encountered so often in conversations in Kabul: Afghanistan’s biggest problem is its own government. After 10 years in power, runs this argument, Karzai has yet to impress. “He’s a patriot, he loves the country, but he hasn’t really been able to take advantage of the goodwill of Afghans and the goodwill of the international community,” Mohseni says. “I’m afraid that we will look back at Afghanistan in 20 or 30 years time and see that one of the greatest opportunities has been squandered by an inept, corrupt government.”
Just as it seems the conversation might turn irretrievably gloomy, a waiter arrives with a giant tray bearing dishes suffused with cheer. Translucent dumplings of wafer-thin pastry filled with chopped leek appear, splashed with more yoghurt and seasoned with powdery dried mint and accompanied by pan-fried pumpkin. The meaty heart of the meal is kebab-e-daigi – boiled lamb on a bed of chopped onion. It is heavy enough to ensure I will want to curl up and fall asleep as soon as the meal is over.
It would, given Moby’s success, be easy to forgive Mohseni a little bombast. Yet he is realistic about the risks that lie ahead as the US and its allies sharply scale back their presence before handing over to Afghan forces in 2014. “Without the Americans, obviously things would be a lot more difficult,” Mohseni says. “The question is: how can we engage the Americans to stay here longer?”
His caution reflects a family history of upheaval. Mohseni’s father was a diplomat and he was born in London, before spending time in Kabul, Islamabad and then Tokyo – where the family was living when the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979. His father moved them to Australia, where Mohseni attended school in Melbourne, before pursuing a career in finance. He rose through the ranks of Bell Potter, an Australian stockbroker, and ended up heading its derivatives, commodities and foreign exchange desk.
The money was good, yet he still had an entrepreneurial itch he needed to scratch. Mohseni recalls with fondness that his great-uncle was the first trader to export Karakul wool – the lambskin Karzai favours for his triangular hats – from central Asia to England in the early 1900s. In 1995, Mohseni took a trip to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, and then went into business with his brother, Zaid, trading in everything from electronics to cooking oil. It was only when the Taliban was overthrown in 2001 that he saw his chance in Kabul.
Under the austere Taliban theocracy, television sets had been strung up from lampposts; the state radio broadcast little more than propaganda and the call to prayer. Working with his brother, Mohseni launched Arman FM in 2003 and began filling the city’s airwaves with western pop.
Afghanistan’s media revolution had begun. Fed up with the staid, formal delivery of newsreaders who seemed terrified of their own microphones, Mohseni would banter on air to help them relax. He hired female DJs who laughed and joked during programmes – an almost inconceivably risqué activity. Clerics and conservatives tut-tutted and audiences were left cold by much of the music – with the exception of Jennifer Lopez (Mohseni theorises that her Latin rhythms were closer to traditional Afghan beats).
Mohseni’s risk began to pay off, but he needed cash to expand. The initial capital to set up the radio had come from family money and some financing from Usaid, the US development agency, which was keen to support independent media. Working with Zaid and two other siblings, Mohseni mortgaged family properties and secured more US government funds to launch Tolo TV in 2004.
Moby has been growing ever since. There is a bedrock of dubbed shows – from the Indian soaps (with midriffs carefully pixellated) to American series such as Prison Break and Homeland (to which they have acquired the rights). But homegrown productions are also expanding. Eagle 4 is a police drama featuring officers with a commitment to fighting insurgents that might stretch credulity. In the action vein, a Pashtu-language programme called Salam features a drug addict turned vigilante who uses gunplay and martial arts to battle villainous warlords. “It’s extraordinary,” Mohseni says. “All these young people out there producing comedy and drama.”
I ask about the Murdoch deal. While the News Corporation empire has been foundering in the UK over the phone-hacking scandal, Murdoch has not given up scouting the world. In 2006, Mohseni was introduced to the tycoon in New York by Tom Freston, one of the founders of MTV who had worked in Afghanistan in the 1970s. The meeting gave birth to Farsi1, a satellite channel co-owned by Moby and News Corporation that beams dubbed shows into Iran and the Middle East. In January, News Corporation took a minority stake in Moby – providing cash to expand internationally.
“I’m not really into high-fiving myself, but there’s also a lot of pressures for this not to go wrong,” Mohseni says. He is reluctant to say too much about what comes next, although it is clear he will be looking at countries where few other television executives dare to tread. Stating the obvious for the first time in our 90-minute lunch, Mohseni says: “We’re specialists in difficult environments.”
“I’m seeing Moby Somalia,” I say, only half-joking.
“Somalia’s too small for us,” he shoots back. “The market has to be a certain size.”
For all his ambitions, Mohseni’s soul is in Kabul. “We are very emotionally involved with this place,” he says. “And it would break my heart for us not to be able to have breakfast in this restaurant.”
I am not, however, surprised to learn that he has no time for the traditional Afghan palate cleanser – green tea – but must rush to another appointment. After he has gone, a pair of Black Hawk helicopters thunder overhead, Sufi’s windows rattle, and then there is silence – broken only by the sitar’s mournful twang.