December 6, 2010

'Karzai' appears on 'Saturday Night Live'

This weekend Saturday Night Live took a stab at imagining what things would be like if you fused WikiLeaks with the celebrity tabloid site TMZ. And the merger isn't pretty.

In the opening skit, SNL featured "Julian Assange" as TMZ's Harvey Levin pumping his celeb-chasing team for juicy details and video on world leaders.

After catching Lybian leader Moammar Qadaffi coming out of a restaurant with his "nurse" (who admits that she is a prostitute), the TMZ crew tracks down Afghan leader Hamid Karzai -- played by SNL host Robert De Niro -- on a city sidewalk where he rejects allegations that his government is corrupt.

"I do not take bribes," Karzai/De Niro says as the waiter rushes out to give Karzai the briefcase he left in the restaurant, which promptly falls open and dumps stacks of cash on the sidewalk...

You can also check the skit out here.

The final part of the segment catches Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a rather crude and embarrassing moment as she exits her vehicle while being filmed by a surprising prankster...

De Niro, it will be recalled, won an Oscar for playing a Mafia kingpin in "The Godfather, Part II."

November 6, 2010

The First Lady gets her groove on

It didn't take long for America's first lady to find her groove in South Asia.

On Day One of the First Couple's three-day visit to India, while her husband was off trying to prove to India that he is "swoon-worthy," First Lady Michelle Obama was off getting funky with disadvantaged kids in Mumbai.

During her visit to the University of Mumbai, Michelle Obama played hopscotch, joined in drumming and played the tambourine with the kids. But the highlight came when America's first lady took to the dance floor, in a moment captured on video.

The tune, "Rang De Basanti," or "Paint It Yellow," by Daler Mehndi, the "King of Punjabi pop," comes from a movie of the same name.

The film "Rang De Basanti," is widely viewed as being a catalyst for youth activism in India. It is sometimes known as "the RDB Effect," or "RDB Syndrome."

“The society will be ruined by these evil politicians. Its time to have a Rang De Basanti type resurgence,” one blogger wrote when the movie came out.

"The RDB Effect" was seen as a motivating force behind protests over the Jessica Lall murder case.

In 2006, the suspect, the son of an influential politician, was acquitted of murdering the model inside a restaurant packed with hundreds of witnesses.

Amid the public uproar over the acquital, the Indian legal system moved to convict the killer, Manu Sharma,10 months later. The case also became the foundation for the film "No One Killed Jessica."

So, was America's first lady sending a subtle, anti-corruption message with her dancing?


September 28, 2010

How to commit Afghan voter fraud: 101

No one expected Afghanistan's recent parliamentary election to be fraud-free.

But some people, especially those in the Western capitals looking for a dignified way to bring their troops home, were hoping that the election would be better than last year's fraud-riddled presidential race.

So far, the best thing that folks can point to as a success is the fact that there were no spectacular Election Day attacks to capture headlines.

Beyond that, however, there is little so far to suggest that the elections have produced a great leap forwards for Afghan democracy.

Afghan elections officials are looking into more than 3,600 complaints about the recent election, and more than half of them have the potential to alter the outcome in races for 249 seats in the elected house of Afghanistan's bicameral parliament.

There have already been serious reports of voter fraud that have raised questions about the legitimacy of the election in key Afghan provinces.

This week, new video emerged that adds to the evolving picture.

The most most damning video shows a man wearing an Afghan Border Police uniform standing watch while three men sit around a ballot box they keep stuffing with rigged ballots.

The video was obtained by an Afghan politician who asked not to be identified - and it could not be independently verified.

It was reportedly shot in Spin Boldak, the border town in Kandahar province that is basically run by Abdel Razek, the feared Border Police commander dubbed "the Master of Spin Boldak."

Razek has noted that anyone can buy an Afghan military uniform (a completely separate problem...) and dismissed the video.

But Afghan elections watchdogs say that the video is one of many to raise concerns about the election.

What remains to be determined is how widespread the fraud was in the race - and if the election process can be touted as a small step forward for Afghan democracy.

That is the challenge facing Afghan elections officials who are under intense pressure from many sides to tilt the races one way or another.

"If they leave the election the way it is, there is no place for democracy in Afghanistan," said Afghan lawmaker Khalid Pashtoon, a critic of Afghan President Hamid Karzai who is concerned that fraud will deny him a seat in the next parliament. "It is gone. It is history. It is under the debris."

September 25, 2010

Jihadi Gangster for parliament


(Aman Mojadidi as the Jihadi Gangster, his latest artistic incarnation.)

Last year, Kabul-based artist Aman Mojadidi transformed himself into an Afghan policeman and set up a fake checkpoint where he searched cars and then offered drivers $2, along with an apology for any bribes they had been forced to pay to policemen in the past.

This fall, Mojadidi's latest incarnation, the Jihadi Gangster took his bling, his gold-plated guns, and his bravado on the campaign trail to run for parliament.

While the Jihadi Gangster (shouldn't it really be Jihadi Gangsta?) didn't round up the necessary signatures or submit the proper paperwork to run as a legitimate candidate in the recent election, he did go so far as to produce campaign posters that were stuck up on walls around town.

DSC_0192 copy

 In the final weeks of the campaign season, Jihadi Gangster campaign posters began popping up alongside posters for legitimate politicians.

The JG's campaign slogan, emblazoned on the poster, is simple: Vote for me. I've done jihad. And I'm rich.

JG's face is blacked out by a box and the words: Your favorite jihadi face here. JG is wearing a black turban, suit and a gold plated handgun hanging around his neck from a large gold plated chain.

The backdrop is filled with dollar signs and AK-47s.

Because of the high illiteracy rate in Afghanistan, each candidate in an election has a small icon next to their name and face so voters can more easily identify their favorite politicians.

Sometimes it is cups or horseshoes. Other times it is a fish or key. The Jihadi Gangster's icon: Three diamonds.

Amid growing indications that power brokers engaged in widespread fraud in last Saturday's election, some might argue that the next parliament is likely to be filled with plenty of criminal minds, even if the Jihadi Gangster won't be joining them.

As things go in Kabul, the JG's upstart campaign almost never got off the ground. At least one printer refused to print the JG campaign posters because he said they were too inflammatory and insulting.

Since the JG won't be heading to parliament any time soon, he is set to make his true international debut.

Next month, Mojadidi's work, which you can see more of here and here, will be featured in Paris at the Gallery Nikki Diana Marquardt from Oct. 23 to Oct. 31.

(His work will also be part of the SLICK Art Fair in Paris from Oct. 21-24.)

In some ways, the JG is a manifestation of the two worlds Mojadidi inhabits as a native of Jacksonville, Florida with deep political roots in Afghanistan. (His uncle is Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, the former president who now leads Afghanistan's upper house of parliament.)

In a recent interview, the journalist asked Mojadidi if he considered himself Afghan or American.

"Afghan-American became the ‘nom du jour’ and so I was that for a while," he said. "But in the U.S., most Americans identify me on sight as a foreigner, and here in Afghanistan most Afghans identify me as a foreigner on sight as well. I was born in the U.S., my parents are Afghan, and I’m fluent in both English and Dari; it could end there. But I’ve started to think more about how one’s identity has become almost taken out of one’s own control, and is more and more defined by others. So I think about post-identity possibilities. In answer to your question using the options you’ve given me, I guess that would mean ‘neither.’ But beyond that I’m not sure."

Mojadidi said his life and art have largely been defined by the conflict in Afghanistan.

"For me, living with my own internal conflicts, be they issues of religion, identity, relationships, coupled with the global conflicts carried in the media, and tripled with living in a conflict zone has created a strange nexus where no conflict feels distant or separate from the reality within which I live," he said. "It all seems connected somehow, as if a state of conflict is simply what must be accepted; many of which are not conflicts that can or will be resolved but that just make up a part of the personal and global identity. At a certain point it becomes less that I feel as though as I’m in or at conflict with anything, but rather that I am conflict, as a state of being."

August 16, 2010

US Embassy warning: Alarming dangers ahead

Over the weekend, the US Embassy in Afghanistan issued an updated travel warning.

Chances are good that few people are considering a holiday in Afghanistan these days, but the latest travel warning offers some stark reflections on life in the war zone, especially in the wake of the brutal murder of eight Westerners and two of their Afghan colleagues taking part in a medical trek in Nuristan.

Here's some highlights:

"No part of Afghanistan should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, either targeted or random, against American and other Western nationals at any time."

"Afghan authorities have a limited ability to maintain order and ensure the security of Afghan citizens and visitors. Travel in all areas of Afghanistan is unsafe due to military combat operations, landmines, banditry, armed rivalry between political and tribal groups, and the possibility of terrorist attacks, including attacks using vehicular or other improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The security environment remains volatile and unpredictable."

"In Kandahar, the assassination of government officials, their associates, or anyone notably linked to the government has become alarming. The number of attacks throughout the south and southeastern areas of the country is growing as a result of insurgent and drug-related activity, and no part of Afghanistan is immune from violence."

"Ambushes, robberies, and violent crime remain a problem. U.S. citizens involved in property disputes -- a common legal problem -- have reported that their adversaries in the disputes have threatened their lives. U.S. citizens who find themselves in such situations cannot assume that either local law enforcement or the U.S. Embassy will be able to assist them."

"The U.S. Embassy's ability to provide emergency consular services to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is limited, particularly for those persons outside the capital."

July 18, 2010

Blissed out in Kabul


(Keith Shawe, front left, leads a yoga class at Kabul's Fig Health Centre.)

On one level, yoga and armpit waxing might seem a tad out of place in the middle of a war zone.

On the other hand, a Jacuzzi soak and Moroccan massage might just be the things one needs to relieve the stress of living in Afghanistan.

One of the strangest things about life in Kabul is how normal it can sometimes seem. Relatively speaking.

Social calendars fill up with salsa lessons and ballroom dancing, soaking by the pool at the local French restaurant and watching the World Cup on a big screen under the stars.

As Time Magazine's Tim McGirk noted earlier this year, "Kabul's expatriates go out and partake in the manic craziness of the city's bar and restaurant scene in houses reminiscent of America's Prohibition-era speakeasies, behind 20-ft.-tall blast walls and an outer perimeter of armed Afghan security guards."

(Some people in Kabul grumble about Tim's story and blame him for sparking a police raid that hit some of Kabul's most popular drinking holes a few days after his story came out.)

The unusual Kabul social scene draws regular media attention.

But there is an awkward subtext to life in what some call the "Kabubble." It is off-limits to most Afghans, save for the country's elite.

Afghan law bans the sale of booze to Afghans and Muslims.

In the post-Taliban era -- where petty corruption is commonplace and bribes are used to get things done -- Afghan officials look the other way when Kabul restaurants serve booze to expats.

To enforce the selective booze ban, many of the restaurants that serve alcohol simply bar Afghans from coming inside.

But there are no set rules. Private Afghan security guards act as bouncers, deciding who can come inside and who is sent home.

On a recent evening, the bouncer at the French restaurant (whose owner was arrested during the recent raids) turned away a respected Afghan journalist who was planning to join a group of expats for dinner.

As Aman Mojadidi (the Kabul-based artist behind the inventive "reverse bribe" police film) noted in a recent essay: "These private-run establishments cater largely to the international workers and Afghan expats living in Kabul (a de facto rule at any of these establishments, more particularly the ones serving alcohol, is that you must have a foreign passport to enter, hinting, if ever so faintly, back in history towards other segregation efforts from the United States to South Africa)."

Mojadidi's essay, "The Well-Intentioned Dog Washers," views the Kabul social scene through a sociological lens.

Afghans refer derisively to some political leaders as "dog washers," a term that may be the product of an urban legend, but has basis in reality.

According to Mojadidi, the derisive term dates back to the early days President Karzai's post-Taliban interim government, when scores of Afghan exiles returned to help rebuild their country.

As the story goes, one former pet store owner with little political acumen became a trusted aide to Karzai in the palace. Thus the term "dog washer" was born.

As Mojadidi sees it, unqualified Afghans who have returned to positions of power and prestige in their country may be doing more harm than good.

"By using their social wealth in the form of family connections to obtain positions they are unqualified for, they are perpetuating a corrupt system that determines a person’s worth based on who they are and who they know rather than their knowledge, skills, or even behavior; a system that seeks to keep power and control in the hands of a minority elite while refusing to empower Afghans so they may take an active role in their own country’s development and reconstruction," he wrote.

"The result, therefore," Mojadidi says, "is that Afghan society becomes a contemporary configuration of an old, dichotomous class system with the elite on one level and the masses on another. So rather than working towards a society that is more inclusive and pluralistic, Afghan expats can often be found to be actively working against this kind of society as it would mean giving up some things in return; the political, economic, and societal wealth upon which everything they have built stands."

"Unless the elitist breed of Afghan expats does not give up its belief in an inherent right to their status, position, and economic benefit, begin to take responsibility for the work that they do, and look ahead to what the country will look like if (when?) they and the international community leave or minimize their presence in Afghanistan, then all the positive results from the good work many Afghan expats have done, and that one can tangibly see across various development sectors, will be perceived as tragically irrelevant, if considered at all," he concludes. "And in the future, when Afghans still living in Afghanistan look back on Afghan expat participation in the “once upon a time” reconstruction of their country, it will at best be simply remembered as 'the Era of the Well-Intentioned Dog Washers.'"

July 9, 2010

Afghan election leaders: No complaints please!

Perhaps it seemed like a good idea at the start.

Earlier this year, Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, the electoral oversight body accused of bias in last year's fraud-tainted presidential election, hired an outside firm to produce commercials encouraging voters with problems to call a complaint line.

Well, according to the From Kabul With Love blog, the IEC put a quick halt to the ad campaign.


"Because they were getting TOO MANY COMPLAINTS!" writes the blogger, who works for the outside company hired to do the PR. "What in the f**k did they expect? Really? That no one would call? Uh? If I recall correctly, the last election was fraught with accusations of vote-rigging and intimidation. People are angry and they have lost faith in the process and the first thing that is initiated in an effort to combat this gets sacked before it even has a chance."

July 5, 2010

CNN looks at Afghan fake checkpoint caper

CNN's Atia Abawi has done a piece on Afghan-American artist Aman Mojadidi's unusual "reverse bribe" checkpoint.

When asked again this weekend about the open -- and illegal -- sale of police uniforms in Kabul markets, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said the problem was one for the Kabul police to tackle...

An American ambassador's wife in Kabul's court

Ching Eikenberry, the wife of US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, is as much a presence around Kabul as her husband.

While her husband tends to be reserved and cautious as the top American diplomat in a volatile country, Ching Eikenberry is more candid with her thoughts.

Today at The Daily Beast, Ching Eikenberry pens a piece about life in Kabul titled "Why I love Afghanistan." Eik

In one especially telling anecdote, Eikenberry lauds the Afghan staff, including Jawid, "a tall, slender 25-year-old man with dark eyes and a gentle demeanor."

"He always carries a wallet stuffed with five or ten dollar bills," she writes, "and one day, when I teased him he carries more money than I do, he looked at me quite seriously and said: 'I have to. There are so many places I need to bribe my way to get things done every day.'

"'What about people who don’t have the money?' I asked. He shrugged his shoulders and said, 'Well, either they will wait for a long time, or things just don’t get done!'"

(Photo: US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and his wife Ching, check out grapes in an Afghan market.)

June 21, 2010

Kabul's 'Jihadi gangster' takes on Afghan police corruption

Last summer, Kabul-based artist Aman Mojadidi came up with an intriguing idea. Anpblog

What would happen if he bought some Afghan police uniforms, set up a fake checkpoint and offered an apology - along with a little cash -- to drivers used to paying small bribes at checkpoints across the nation?

The result was "Payback," a 15-minute short film that documents the culture jamming experiment on the streets of Kabul.

For one afternoon, Mojadidi and director Walied Osman staked out a section of Kabul road, set up the road block and flagged down car after car.

The entire afternoon was captured on hidden camera. Most of the befuddled drivers he stopped eventually took the money -- about $2.

Mojadidi said he wanted to examine the roots of pervasive police corruption and see how drivers would respond when they were given a little reverse "baksheesh."

By the end, 16 of the 20 drivers offered money took the cash.

Remarkably, the whole reverse bribe project took place under the watch of a real policeman who, at the end of the day, without a hint of irony, asked for a little baksheesh of his own.

The experiment also exposed an ongoing problem in Afghanistan.

When it is illegal to sell police and military uniforms in Kabul, they are for sale on the open markets, where McClatchy reporters recently bought a police uniform for about $13.

The Afghan interior ministry seemed to be unaware of the shops selling uniforms in the central Kabul market. And it remains unclear if they will do anything about it.

Mojadidi turned the checkpoint experience into an installation shown in Kabul last year. He and Osman are working on the short film.

Mojadidi, a Jacksonville, Fla. native who now works in Kabul, has done a series of thought-provoking pieces while in Afghanistan. Jihadi

"We are all at conflict," Mojadidi writes on his website. "Whether with others or ourselves, with our own ideas, thoughts, desires, history, present, future. We are all at conflict as we try and navigate ourselves through a life we understand only through our experiences, through our confrontation both internal and external with social, political, cultural, and personal strife."

In his most recent work, "The Jihadi Gangster," Mojadidi takes a provocative look at Islamic militants in a bling culture where he wears a gold plated gun on a huge chain around his neck and has sexy women with a revealing burqa fawning over the Muslim gangsta as he watches TV.

You can see more of Mojadidi's work here.

(Photo: Buying a police uniform in the central Kabul market.)


Checkpoint Kabul is written by McClatchy journalists covering Afghanistan and south Asia.

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