BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in:  World: From Our Own Correspondent
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Thursday, 16 May, 2002, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
Kabul's radio treasure trove
Mr Computer in the radio archive
50,000 archived tapes were saved
test hello test
william reeve
By William Reeve
BBC correspondent in Kabul

I was walking down a corridor at Afghanistan's Radio and Television Centre in Kabul with BBC colleagues also involved with the journalist training programme.

The walls looked as though they hadn't been painted for decades. Signs of decay were everywhere.

A pane of glass in a swing door was still missing, no doubt years after a nearby explosion had smashed much else besides.

We were being shown around the centre by one of the Afghan radio editors.

A big surprise

He politely motioned for us to enter yet another drab room. I really didn't want to bother, thinking there was little more to see in the centre.

But we were in for a big surprise - the beginning of a wonderful, unfolding tale of guile and sheer devotion.

We were introduced to Mohammad Siddiq, who's in charge of looking after Afghanistan's radio archive.

Mohammad Siddiq 'Mr Computer'
He's listened to the tapes so often he knows them all off by heart

With a broad smile, white beard and a brocaded scull cap, he was winding a pile of archive radio tapes forwards then back again on an ancient but sturdy reel-to-reel tape recorder.

"I've been doing this for 30 years," he said. "Even when all the bombs were landing in this area before the Taleban arrived, I still came every day."

He explained there were 50,000 radio tapes in the archive and that they all needed to be wound forwards and backwards once a year to prevent them from getting too brittle.

Treasure trove

His colleagues nodded in agreement, with expressions of awe. "We call him Mr Computer," said one. "He's listened to the tapes so often he knows them all off by heart."

I asked Mr Computer to show me his treasure trove - in a country where just about everything else of value has been destroyed in more than two decades of conflict: The ancient stone Buddhas of Bamiyan last year by the Taleban, and Kabul museum - one of the world's finest - by the warlords before them.

Mohammad Siddiq 'Mr Computer' in tape library
The Afghan radio archive needs preserving

In room after room there were endless shelves of radio tapes, all neatly catalogued on the spines of their boxes.

One section was the historical archive including speeches of former Afghan leaders - King Zahir Shah, who's just returned to Afghanistan, and his cousin President Mohammad Daoud, who deposed the monarchy in a coup in 1973, paving the way for the years of chaos that have followed.

Another large section had Afghan drama, and there were even more tapes of Afghan music, played and sung by favourite stars of the past.

Saved from the Taleban

Incongruously, there was one shelf of Mozart recordings. "But Mr Computer, how on earth did you save all these tapes from the Taleban?" I asked.

The Taleban had banned as un-Islamic all music with instruments, and they had no love for former secular leaders.

Mohammad Siddiq 'Mr Computer'
Mohammad Siddiq back at work

Mr Computer explained he'd removed all the markings from each box, covered the shelves with blankets, and firmly but very discreetly bolted all the doors.

When the Taleban arrived in Kabul they had indeed destroyed what they thought was the archive - one unlocked room full of Iranian and Indian music.

Thinking their job done, they never bothered again. After the Taleban fled Kabul in November last year, Mr Computer neatly stuck back all the markings on his 50,000 boxes, and got back to his work.

With me that day was Meena Bakhtash of the BBC World Service Persian Section.

She began her career in Kabul and became a well-known Afghan television and radio presenter, but fled Afghanistan a decade ago.

This was her first visit back to Kabul since then - and to the radio and television studios. For Meena it was an emotional trip back in time.

"Mr Computer, can you find any recordings of Meena," I asked. In a flash he found a tape not far away, and lovingly spooled it onto the tape recorder.

Before long we sat and listened to Meena's beautiful voice from a recording of 17 years ago in a programme about classical literature.


Most of the transmitters and much other equipment of Afghan Radio and Television around the country have been destroyed.

Film being edited
When they arrived in Kabul, the Taleban destoyed what they thought was the whole archive
American bombs at the end of last year caused much of the damage. It's not just the hardware that needs to be rebuilt.

Editors in Afghanistan are crying out for training of their journalists to put new life into the media, destroyed by Soviet ideology and followed by the anarchy of the warlords and the constrictions of the Taleban.

We were at the radio and television centre that day to discuss in detail what they really wanted, but Mr Computer somewhat stole the show.

It's clear the Afghan radio archive needs preserving. Indiana University in the United States saved Somalia's archive by recording it all on digital tape.

It paid for the recordings of two copies, one for itself and one for Somalia.

Hopefully another university will recognise the value of Afghanistan's archive. Mr Computer would be delighted. It would vindicate his life's work.

William Reeve
"We were in for a big surprise - the beginning of a wonderful, unfolding tale of guile and sheer devotion."
See also:

12 Feb 02 | South Asia
Training starts for Afghan journalists
09 Feb 02 | South Asia
Afghanistan gets new press law
Links to more From Our Own Correspondent stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more From Our Own Correspondent stories