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Afghan star fulfils his American dream

By Ashish Kumar Sen in Washington

Daoud Sediqi
Daoud Sediqi misses life in Afghanistan but wants to make a new start in the US

"When I tell people I am from Afghanistan the first words out of their mouth are 'Osama, Taliban, war'," says Daoud Sediqi, former presenter of Afghan Star, his country's version of the Pop Idol talent show.

The year 2009 has been momentous for Mr Sediqi.

In January, he attended the Sundance Film Festival in the US to promote a British documentary about Afghan Star, which won two awards. Worried about threats to his life from the Taliban, he sought asylum there and did not return to Kabul.

The show and documentary turned Mr Sediqi into an overnight celebrity, but his new-found fame also brought him numerous death threats.

'Good stories'

"In Afghanistan there are a lot of people who don't agree with women dancing, democracy and globalisation. They don't agree with modern culture... our show promoted all that," Mr Sediqi told me in an interview in Washington. "I was not safe in Afghanistan."

Performer Lima Sahar

His harrowing experiences have not stopped him from feeling offended by the negative impression many in the West seem to have of his homeland.

"I can't blame these people... this is what they see on TV all the time. But, believe me, there are a lot of good stories in Afghanistan, a lot of good people. Inside, Afghanistan is beautiful.

"Look at me," he burst out. "I'm not like [the Taliban]. I grew up in Kabul. I'm a pure Afghan."

It was through sheer persistence that Mr Sediqi obtained a job at Voice of America (VoA), where he hosts a call-in radio show in Pashto.

When he approached Beth Mendelson, VoA's Afghan service chief, she needed to be convinced before giving him a job.

"Just Google my name," he told her.

Ms Mendelson has no regrets about her decision to hire him.

"He's a bright young man," she said, adding that her station's audiences in Afghanistan "enjoy having one of their country's biggest stars back on the airwaves".

Hope rekindled

Scene from Afghan Star documentary
Afghan star was enormously popular among the younger generation

But Mr Sediqi is proud of what Afghan Star achieved.

"It wasn't just a regular reality show," he said. "It was a test of democracy, women's rights. There was unity between ethnic groups. It brought back hope to the country."

In its initial episodes, the show's audiences tended to support contestants because they belonged to the same ethnic group.

"We have a different kind of voting in Afghanistan," Mr Sediqi says.

But gradually, as contestants were whittled down to the top three, audiences began to acknowledge talent rather than ethnic background.

Younger people in particular began to look at the show differently. "But the ladies would still pick their stars because he is [male and] handsome," he said with a chuckle.

In four series, the former presenter believes the show brought about change. Its success also transformed its host.

'Left everything'

"I began to think about bigger things," Mr Sediqi said.

Security outside the Afghan Star studio
The Afghan show required heavy security

He misses everything about home - his six sisters and brother, his parents, all of whom still live in Kabul; his TV show and his audience.

"When I came to this country I left everything. I lost everything. I died. This is not the Afghan Star host you see before you," he says.

"In America, I was born again."

As a VoA presenter, he feels that he has found his voice again and discovered a way to reconnect with the people he misses the most.

On a recent show, he fielded calls from listeners concerned about the scarcity of jobs in Afghanistan.

Some of those fluent in English take jobs as interpreters with international forces at great risk to their own lives.

They see these jobs as a springboard to a life in America.

"All of them want to come to the US," said Amanullah Ghilzai, managing editor at Voice of America. "People don't see a future for themselves in Afghanistan."

For security reasons, Mr Sediqi's family in Afghanistan does not disclose its relationship with him.

That makes him appreciate all the more the freedom that people enjoy in America.

"Here you can talk about anything, you can do anything you want," he says. "It's a big change from Afghanistan."

He barely spoke a word of English when he arrived in America and cringes with embarrassment when recalling his first interview with a US channel. But he soon learned to pick up the new language.

Fond memories of home strengthen Mr Sediqi's desire to return to Afghanistan some day.

But he stresses that he will not do this before he has achieved something bigger in his adoptive country. "I want to be a movie director. I want to show a good picture of Afghanistan... that's my dream."



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