Mujib Mashal
Feb 9, 2015 · 18 min read

Critics call it “the radio of pimps and vagina-sellers.” But a popular new call-in show is helping a generation of Afghans navigate a battlefield full of strife and confusion and fear: modern love.

By Mujib Mashal
Photographs by Kiana Hayeri
Animation by Isabelle Aspin and Brian Smee

The host tames his otherwise playful voice into a soft, dreamy thrum: “You are listening to 98.1 Arman FM, Radio of the Hearts. This is The Night of the Lovers.”

At the end of every Friday, the second day of the Afghan weekend, Ajmal Noorzai sits behind the mic in a dimly lit studio to host a two-hour radio show that is part storytelling made possible by technology, and part unloading of hearts — the breaking of which was facilitated by the same technology. It’s not the kind of love call-in show you might expect. There is no banter with the host. There’s no advice given. Listeners just dial in and leave a long voicemail — or a post on the show’s Facebook page, which the host then plays or reads. Everyone, including the host, listens.

“I will be with you until 9 p.m. You can call 456 to record your stories, or if you have access to the internet, you can post on our Facebook page — my colleague Yalda Jan will read it anonymously in her warm voice.”

The Friday night I visited the Arman FM studio in the posh Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of Kabul, Ajmal was wearing a checkered shirt, its short sleeves rolled up further to reveal, on his right arm, a tattoo in a shape that is neither a scorpion nor a flame. He had three mobile phones — 68 unread text messages on one, eight on another — and two computer screens in front of him. A bright neon light on the blue ceiling lit the otherwise dark room. A small Persian rug covered the floor.

At the mic, he took a moment to do what he does every show: ask listeners who called in to talk naturally, in their normal, human voices, and not to do what everyone always seemed to, which is imitate, in monotone, monologues from the Bollywood movies we Afghans consume en masse. I am made of your love. Before, I was just alive. I have only been living since I met you.

Ajmal wanted specifics. Juicy bits. No matter how difficult that might be.

“Think of us as your bridge — with calm, with passion, tell us your stories of love, of separation. Don’t be quick and just say I was in love and that’s it. You have between one and 10 minutes — pretend you are standing in front of a mirror, or lying in bed. Tell us the details.”

When you’re examining the public expression of a condition — love — that is relatively new to an entire country, every detail matters. Until the beginning of the U.S. war and the fall of the Taliban, relationships — at least as the Western definition of relationships — hardly existed. Segregation was enforced. Marriages were arranged. Dating ran contrary to tradition. There was faith and families and slowly growing to love whoever it was you were told to be with. Then came liberation from the Taliban and more freedom for women to come out of the house and, soon enough, an explosion of dating—offline, but largely online and over the phone. With dating came a new kind of “love,” one that is much more familiar to the West, but one that has caused an understandable and not insignificant amount of confusion here because, while young people have started a slow, dicey exploration of modern relationships, the rest of society still clings to ultra-conservative values. So love invariably leads to some kind of heartache, which is what people call in to Arman FM to talk about: their doomed and broken hearts.

A story begins. Soft music, a Bollywood song, plays in the background, matching the nature of the story. A predictable progression: love at first sight, separation, unfaithfulness.

“Dear sweet Ajmal,” a young female voice, monotonous and sad, starts. A boy, she says, forced his number into her purse at a wedding. A brazen act. She hesitated to call him for a month. What should she do? She couldn’t ask her friends for advice, let alone her parents. She eventually dialed the number only to hang up, but the boy guessed the number as hers and called back relentlessly. She was annoyed at first, but when they spoke he seemed so dedicated, so nice. She fell in love with him without a face-to-face meeting. He must have sensed her heart opening to him because soon she felt a change in him, too. With his treasure won, he just wasn’t that into her. His number suddenly always seemed busy, she says. He never answered her calls. Clearly, she thought, he is talking to other girls.

The music in the background rises to a crescendo and pours from speakers all over the country — out of the radios of cab drivers braving the dangerous streets at night, out of the portable radios of weary soldiers patrolling in distant provinces, out of computer speakers and the radios of old men who still find looking at TV screens blasphemous. “Bewafa [Unfaithful],” cries the Bollywood singer. “Unfaithful!”

And that’s it. No commentary, no back and forth between caller and host. When the song ends, the show goes straight into a commercial break. Ajmal takes off his headphones and sits back in his chair, his body relaxing ever so slightly, like an orchestra conductor between arias.

“I just want to hear your voice once.”

An animated short film based on a call from The Night of the Lovers.

For the longest time, the 18-story building of the ministry of telecommunications in Kabul served as the lone symbol of modernity in Afghanistan. The tallest building in the country, and the closest thing we had to a skyscraper. It’s no longer the country’s tallest — many more have popped up since 2001, thanks to new barons created by the military spending of the past 10 years — but the ministry housed in that building has still managed one of the biggest success stories of the past decade: the telecom boom.

In the days before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan (I was a teenager then in Kabul), the Taliban ruled the country in a virtual blackout. Only one government radio station, The Voice of Sharia, broadcast from within the country. (In a particularly Afghan twist, the man who voiced Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s sayings, Sangar Niazai, now records announcements during The Night of the Lovers urging the Taliban to give up arms; “It turns off the mood,” Ajmal told me.) Back in the Taliban times, there was no television or internet. There were approximately 15,000 analog telephone lines for more than 20 million people. To speak to relatives abroad, and we had generated the largest refugee population in the world, Afghans had to cross the border into Pakistan, put up at another relative’s for a few nights, and wait for the call from the U.S., Europe, or even Iran. Calls were expensive, and conversations of those days were succinct. Still, half of the time was spent on formalities: “How are you, sister, how is your health? Are you well, is your health well? Yes, we are all well, thanks to God’s generosity.”

Thirteen years later, Afghanistan has seen massive growth in the telecom sector largely fueled by private investments — about $2.1 billion from foreign entities alone. Seventy percent of the country now has some kind of phone coverage. There are over 2 million new internet users, one million people with a 3G phone service, 89 television channels, and 232 FM radio stations. It’s hard to exaggerate just how much this growth has affected everything in Afghan life, maybe especially dating.

To illustrate, a story: In the old days, when a young man became restless at home — fighting with siblings, kicking dinner bowls, slamming doors — parents would smile and say he needed a wife, and the search would begin. A small delegation of women, usually the boy’s mother, an aunt, and an older sister, would start visiting the homes of potential brides under the guise of simply dropping in to catch up with the family. The girl’s family would always know what was going on, of course. The investigating family would evaluate their target girl along certain criteria: How neat was her home? How clean were the cups in which she brought tea? How well could she sew a seam? The reciprocity of the family’s interest could be gauged in how presentable the girl was, how courteous and hospitable she was instructed to act. If the girl did not come to the room to see the guests, it was a sign that they were probably not interested. After tea, or whatever, the women would come back home and discuss what they had seen with the men at home and sometimes bring it up with the groom-to-be. For the girl, well, she was a distant observer of her life being decided for her.

Today, the dating ritual, at least in urban areas, is much more familiar to most (the courtship of old continues in much of the country): Young people meet online or in person. Their relationship is cemented over the phone. They fumble with romance, with all its risks and sloppiness, and then, when it is all over, with hearts broken apart, they call into Arman FM.

The idea for The Night of the Lovers was born as Sameem Sadat, the manager of Arman FM, the first and most popular private station in the country, was making his way home in heavy traffic. Kabul, a city designed for only two million people, now has an estimated population of over four million and more than 650,000 vehicles for narrow streets designed for only 30,000. Roundabouts are chaotic: sweat, frustration, and screaming fights as drivers, crosscutting, curse each other’s mothers.

Sadat was sitting in his car letting his mind wander when he noticed “the guy in the car next to me was constantly texting,” he says. He looked mischievous, Sadat thought, as if he were flirting with his cell phone. He wasn’t the only one. Most of the young people around Sadat were lost in chat. “Right there I realized that all the young people in this city are in love, and we should do something about it!” he says. “We decided on something simple for the format. We wouldn’t be providing love advice or anything, just a platform for them to share their stories.” The decision was a pragmatic one: giving love-advice could have gotten Arman into potential trouble with the country’s National Council of Clerics and the attorney general’s office, who have repeatedly cracked down on Indian and Turkish TV shows that promote romantic love deemed “immoral.” (Still, soap operas have become so popular, the joke goes, that elders have asked the mosque imam to push back the evening prayer because it conflicted with Tulsi, the Indian soap opera.)

One of the reasons Sameem chose Fridays, he says, is because on the weekend young people’s “thoughts are gathered,” and they can tell stories. A more likely reason is that some mobile phone companies have free calling on Fridays; a call into The Night of the Lovers costs about 20 cents per minute, and heartbroken callers have sometimes run out of credit in the middle of a story. Another mood killer. (Since reporting this story, the show has moved from Friday to Wednesday nights and expanded from two hours to three.)

Sameem planned to launch Lovers on Valentine’s Day, an occasion marked only recently in Afghanistan, but one that local media now celebrates with reports of couples buying flowers and presents. Young people wish “you and your family a ‘Happy Valentine’s’” on Facebook and in text messages as if it’s a national holiday.

When the show first aired, callers were reticent to speak honestly. But slowly, with Ajmal’s guidance, they opened up — so much so that stories had to be debated before they were aired. In one, a young girl named Sameera sobbed as she recounted falling for a man other than her arranged spouse. Honor is everything in Afghan society; it is a highly shameful act for a female member of the family to engage in relations of any kind with a man before marriage. Producers had to be careful to safeguard Sameera’s identity.

Sameera had been engaged to a man for three years; he was a good man. But no matter how hard she tried “to send her heart his way,” she couldn’t. Her family — her sister, her brother — tried to help her forget the man she truly loved, without success. She felt trapped. “I just wanted to share this with the listeners. I am a very pained girl. Good night to you — and I pray that those who have not been united with each other, they meet again. God protect you.”

The music rose to a crescendo, the singer sang: In your city, it’s your air, but you are not there. The song of your laughter is there, but you are not there.

What struck Ajmal about Sameera’s story wasn’t just that she was speaking honestly, openly, about a taboo subject. It was that she was connecting to thousands of others united in pain and heartache. Afghanistan is a nation of suppressed pain, in its every color and form. A nation awash in PTSD. We have seen such extremes that what elsewhere would draw the attention of psychologists here is considered normal. Pain is something to be dealt with in solitude, to be “only shared with the mirrors,” as the poet Qahar Asi put it.

Ajmal remembers the Sameera broadcast well. “I had heard it preparing the show, but when it aired I just couldn’t help it. I was live, but tears kept coming down from one eye. She sounded as if someone had died,” he recalls. “The space, the air completely changed on me.”

Ajmal thought of his own life’s story, which had been read anonymously on air. He has been engaged for a year and half—a relationship his family had arranged after another love, his first, had failed. Ajmal had loved his cousin for more than seven years when her father saw the two sitting next to each other one day, playing cards. “He thought of it the wrong way — I swear our hands had not touched in lust, not even once,” Ajmal says. Without giving Ajmal a chance to explain himself, the uncle quickly arranged for his daughter to marry a relative abroad (an engagement that would go through hard times when the fiancé found out his bride-to-be had had feelings for Ajmal). Ajmal’s family, meanwhile, angry and ashamed about the rejection, quickly arranged another marriage.

Ajmal showed me a text message from the woman who had read his story on air. “Your story brought tears to my eyes, brother,” the colleague wrote. “I pray for you, and for your love.”

Ajmal still thinks of Sameera’s story as a dramatic rendition of his own pain. “That girl’s story just spontaneously brought tears to my eyes,” he recalls. “I thought God is aware of all our hearts, which loves are pure and which are not, and yet why don’t pure loves meet?”

The Night of the Lovers has given Afghan women like Sameera a voice, or at least their voice’s echo over the radio waves. But it’s asking a lot for a radio show to undo decades of deeply rooted sexism. While the technological pace of change in Afghanistan has been astounding, the conversation around women’s rights remains as superficial as the one our corrupt elite have about corruption. Lawmakers proclaim support for “women’s rights” on television screens, but as soon as legislation to safeguard those rights makes it to the parliament floor — like a recent law outlawing rape, child marriage, and other abuse — they are struck down without a debate. Misogyny is reflected in the language of the law itself. Hundreds of women have remained behind bars for “moral crimes” — engaging in love affairs, or, worse, being victims of rape. (On a new weekly segment, The Night of the Lovers sends a reporter to a prison to record the stories of such “love criminals.”)

What the radio show has done is bring hushed voices into the open and encourage conversation around their stories. The rest is slow and awkward work. Every week, for example, The Night of the Lovers puts its best story on Arman FM’s popular Facebook page, which has nearly half a million followers. In the female comments, one can sense a sisterhood developing. Here, at least, they can look after one another in the dangerous world, warning against boys who are simply there to prey. “My sweet sister — don’t cry,” wrote one user. “There are a lot of people in this world who say ‘I love you,’ but they move on as soon as they find someone richer or nicer.”

“May God give you patience, I pray for you,” wrote another.

“Believe me, I cried as much for you, my dear sister. Don’t cry anymore, please,” wrote a third. “My message for all Afghan brothers is that if you don’t love a girl, don’t give them fake promises. God is watching.”

Male users, meanwhile, sometimes chime in with their flowery vision of love. “I want to be a pomegranate, so when you walk around me like a knife, I will sacrifice every drop of my blood to you, and every drop will cry: I love you,” one young man commented. “I love you so much that if I sigh, the smell of kebab will come out of me,” lamented another.

But sooner or later, the reality of Afghan gender relations — that prevalent shadow of sexism — creeps into conversations.

“You spoke to him on the phone for four years and only saw him three times and you are in love?” wrote one listener of a young girl’s failed love from Kunduz. “I now know why the Taliban did not allow girls to go to school… You say you father is supportive. If I were your father, I would chop your head off.”

“Radio Arman, it is the radio of pimps, and vagina-sellers,” wrote another young Afghan living in Australia.

Afghan men’s predatory view of women has found an easy partner in the internet, which can sometimes reward a certain devious creativity. During the Taliban era, the rareness of hook-up opportunities—and the enormous risks that came with the opportunities that were there — meant men had to dig deep within for inventive ways to meet women, such as pretending to be an apprentice at a tailor friend’s shop, where women came for measurements. It was a great place to flirt and more. Now Afghan men online often pose as women, as sympathetic figures, mostly to lure women, but sometimes to prank friends who fall for any profile with a female name and picture. Or they put on polished looks — hand at the door of a fancy car, or jacket folded on arm in front of a skyscraper. The fastest, most devious minds usually win the race to the bottom.

Fewer are more devious than a man I met in Kabul named Rafiq (not his real name). In his late 20s and married, Rafiq wears his hair long — inspired by a now-obsolete look in Bollywood movies — and drives a black Toyota Land Cruiser. He is well off, from a political family that has private contracting businesses. He says he managed to meet over two dozen girls in person after finding them on Facebook. “I am a bastard at such things; I do a good job of warming them up online,” he told me over hookah at a Kabul cafe. “By the time we meet, it’s as if she has been in love with me for years.” His method: Begin with humorous comments or messages on Facebook and, after a few chats, ask for a phone number or Skype ID. Rafiq prefers Skype — a video chat confirms it is actually a girl, and not a friend pulling a prank. Rafiq told me that for several months when he did not have internet at home he would linger at a nearby café after it closed and convince the waiters to leave him with a hookah. During these late-night video chats, he says, he once “got a girl to belly dance” for him. After Skyping, Rafiq tries to convince the girl to meet in person. He is happy to meet the girls in Kabul, but he also invites them to places like Goa, in India, where on the charming beaches that still cling to their Portuguese influence, getaways involve heavy drinking, drugs, and — inevitably, when his attention falls on another woman and the cycle repeats itself — fights. To zero in on the next target, Rafiq doesn’t bother with any tricks at all: “I’ve kicked a girl out of bed right after sex.”

The Night of the Lovers is about every shade of heartache — the predatory and vulnerable, the doomed and forlorn. I met a young university student I will call Shaadkam on a reporting trip in the buzzing city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Shaadkam has sleek dark hair and intense almond eyes, and lives in the northern province of Balkh. His story also starts with a Facebook meeting. The two of them chatted for three months straight. He flirted with her, shared songs, talked movies, but he still didn’t know whether she was an actual girl or an impostor. Then he went offline for a couple weeks while traveling, and he got a call from a voice he’d never heard. It was his beloved, and she was real.

“We would speak at night. I would go outside, or go to my room and we would talk. But she refused to send me pictures,” Shaadkam told me. “She even sent [phone] credit a couple times when I was stuck. We chatted, joked — but no sex chat.” During the calls, Shaadkam would close his eyes and try to imagine what she looked like. Was she tall and wide-eyed, or just a beautiful voice?

They met a year later. Her family was going to the blue-domed shrine in Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, and she invited him to come. She told him what she would be wearing, and when Shaadkam saw her from afar, she was even prettier than he had imagined.

They met two more times before she demanded they get engaged. She couldn’t go on in secret. He urged her to be patient, and finally sent his aunts to her house to ask for her hand. Her family was conservative Pashtun; his was Tajik. Their families had no past together. Her parents rejected the offer. His beloved suggested they elope, but he said no, it was no use. They had no future. Shaadkam stopped answering her messages. Today, he says he continues to chat with a few girls online, but it’s not the same. “They are all peripheral,” he says.

Buried deep in Shaadkam’s story lies something rare in Afghanistan: progress. Yes, a radically conservative society prevents most online loves from becoming more. And yes, some argue that technology is eroding the society’s traditional beliefs. But in this new Afghanistan there is at least the opportunity to let your heart experiment, to develop feelings, and to learn as you fumble. And while the stories that air on The Night of the Lovers might seem melodramatic, depressing, and awkward at times, that is exactly how young love should feel, maybe especially in a society at a raw state of transformation. There is catharsis here, a platform to share love and heartache and to find silent support in thousands of others.

On air the night I visited Ajmal, he read some of the text messages he had received.

“Dear God,” read one, “all the seven billion people on this earth yours, just one mine.”

And as the program ended, he beckoned his listeners one last time. “Our friends with heavy hearts, this is your show to unload a bit. If you feel weak, if you feel alone, you have a mirror in us — tell us your story, your love, I am at your service.”

Then, with the same soft, dreamy voice, he signed off.

“Bye-bye, lovers.”

The story was written by Mujib Mashal. It was edited by Michael Benoist, fact-checked by Hilary Elkins, and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi. Photos by Kiana Hayeri for Matter. Animation by Isabelle Aspin and Brian Smee for Matter.

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Mujib Mashal

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