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Last Updated: Monday, 25 February 2008, 13:07 GMT
Afghanistan's Pop Idol breaks barriers
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

Lima Sahaar
Lima Sahaar - 'I'm not afraid'

In the corner of the kebab shop a small television with a crackly picture draws everyone's eye as they plunge their Afghan nan bread into oily sauce and slurp up a chunk of meat.

The cross-legged diners lean to one side as they peer around a sheep's carcass that momentarily blocks the screen as it's passed from the freezer to the hook from which it then hangs in the window.

It's nine o'clock on Friday night and Afghan Star is on the TV, with just a handful of wannabe singers left, competing for fame and fortune in the glitzy and glamorous Afghan version of the talent show Pop Idol.

It's a huge hit on one of the national private stations, Tolo TV, but it's controversial in a country that's still very conservative.

Liberal stance

Most of the contestants who've not yet been voted out are men, but there is still one woman left.

Lima Sahaar is from the southern province of Kandahar and each week she travels up to the studios in Kabul for the show with her mother.
A man performing in Afghan Star
'Now all the young generation can show their talents.'

Her hair is usually covered with a scarf, her face not. The fact that a young woman from the birthplace of the Taleban is on stage performing each week says a lot about the way Afghanistan has changed in six years.

Taking such an obvious liberal stance can be dangerous, and although she explained she had the support of her family, there are many people opposed to her.

"I'm not afraid," she told me. "Afghan people don't care about risks or dangers.

"I think all of Afghanistan is in danger, but if we worry about those dangers we can't move on and the country's not going to develop."

She's already got the precocious traits of a young star - the dismissive attitude, the mobile phone texting while we talk - and the hallmarks of a manager looming large in the shape of her forceful mother.

She's not just the only woman left, she's also the only Pashtun, and in a country where ethnicity still means so much, she's almost guaranteed to stay in the show a little longer at least.

Modern beat

At the rehearsals the night before the weekly studio recording it was good to see the mix of young Afghans, their sights set on a better future for themselves.

Security outside the Afghan Star studio
Barbed wire protects the audience as they enter the studios

They each stand up and perform this week's traditional song in front of their competitors - a modern beat accompanying them on the keyboard.

The presenter, Daud Sediqi, was a medical student when the Taleban were in power, but he also used to be an underground television and video repair man when TV was banned by the oppressive government.

"I always wanted to be in the music industry and now my life has totally turned around," he said.

And indeed it has - he's now one of the most famous people in Afghanistan with a huge crowd clamouring to get in to see his programme every week.

There's barbed wire around the entrance to the Afghan wedding hall that has been temporarily converted into a TV studio.

That, and the armed guards clutching their AK-47s and patting down those holding a golden ticket to the show, indicates how much further the country still has to go.

'Sleeping talent'

The women go straight upstairs and take their seats first and then the male majority push and shove, whistling and shouting excitedly and the men with guns and bodyguard style earpieces let them through one by one.

Singer in Afghan Star
The performers are a mix of young Afghans

"Afghan Star is very good as it shows all the sleeping talent across Afghanistan," one young man in the crowd told me in good English.

"The young generation before, during the decades of war, could not stand up and show what they had, but now all the young generation can show their talents. Their talent is therefore very important for everyone."

And another laughed when I asked if this would have been possible under the Taleban.

"Back then we couldn't even listen to music in our own homes," he said.

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