Mozhdah Jamalzadah, late twenties, Kabul’s answer to Oprah, on dodging bombs, fending off death threats and inspiring young Afghans
Interview by Fariba Nawa
June 19, 2011
Sunday Times Magazine (UK)
I wake to the dewy scent of winter and the aroma of meat stew and cumin rice wafting from my kitchen. I’m not an early riser. My eyes open about 10 am some days and it takes me a while to roll out of bed. I have bad eyesight, so everything’s blurry at ﬁrst. I feel the soft fur of my three cats, Alex, Rambo and Noballs, who sleep with me. I search for my glasses then stumble out of bed. I take a shower, put my hair in rollers, do my make-up and dress. By then it’s noon. I live in a ﬁve-bedroom, two-storey house with my best friend, Toba, an Afghan-Canadian aid worker. If my cook has food ready, I eat the spiced rice and stew, with luscious fruit for dessert. My house has a majestic yard with apple and pomegranate trees and vines. But barbed wire surrounds the house and both ends of the block are manned by armed guards.
My family escaped from Kabul during the Soviet invasion, when I was ﬁve, and settled in Vancouver. They were liberal and open-minded. I could wear what I wanted, and I studied philosophy, politics, opera and broadcast journalism, then I struggled to become a singer. But in 2009 I got an offer to work in Kabul and now I’m co-hosting Afghan Star, which is like American Idol, and making the second series of The Mozhdah Show, a variety talk show like Oprah. We discuss topics such as domestic violence, women’s health and child abuse, and feature singers and artists too.
I have to choose conservative clothes — long shirts that cover my behind, a headscarf, not-so-ﬁtted pants. For one episode of Mozhdah I didn’t have a headscarf and my collarbone was showing. The government cancelled the show. I have a driver and an armed guard and I bought a low-proﬁle Toyota Corolla, rather than the loud SUVs the expats ride in here. In the car I cover up so only my eyes are showing and keep my head down. I carry a 9mm pistol, just in case.
Some days are scary in this city. Not long ago a suicide bomber blew up the Finest supermarket, right near my house. I’d just returned from a fundraiser in Los Angeles, opened my fridge and realised there was nothing left. I was feeling terribly lazy and jet-lagged, so I decided to have a coffee before going out to buy groceries. Then Toba called me, asking where I was. “I’m home,” I said. “Thank God!” she said. “They just attacked the supermarket!” I turned on the TV and — oh my God! — I was in shock. The supermarket was completely on ﬁre. There was ﬁre even coming out of the doors. There were a few dead, a few injured. A little boy looked around frantically, crying. And I was just about to go shopping for groceries there! I guess it wasn’t my time to go yet. I was so freaking sad. I believe hell can be found right here on Earth. If you want to see it for yourself, just come to Afghanistan.
We ﬁlm two Mozhdah shows in a day. At the studio I’ll meet with the director and producer, review the questions we’re covering, and begin taping. The subjects are controversial — issues like divorce that are usually left to the private domain here. But Afghans are into it. They travel across the country to join the audience. One woman on the show told us her husband stopped hitting their kids after he saw our programme on child abuse. Between shows we all have lunch prepared by the TV station cook. I’ll change my clothes and make-up for the second show and by 5 I have a headache — I’m pooped.
Some Afghans, here and abroad, don’t approve of my clothes and that I sing and dance in my videos. I receive threats — some religious, others just violent, from men and women — on YouTube and Facebook. One said: “Someone should put a bullet in her head. She’s a disgrace to Afghans. We should rape her.” My enemies even spread a rumour that I was kidnapped and killed, which was on the local Afghan news. That scared me enough to leave for Vancouver for a few weeks, but I returned, determined to continue my show. The Kabul police do nothing to protect women like me.
Ironically, Afghans here like me more than those abroad do. Young Afghans are sick of the conservatism and want to change, but in the West they’re trying so hard to hold onto their culture that they live in a bubble. When kids here see me they take photos and follow me around. I can see I’m making a difference.
After work I may go out to a foreign restaurant with my friends or relatives. That’s my only outing. As I’m locked in the house most of the time, I made it North American, so I can feel like I’m in Vancouver when I get homesick. My shelves are lined with English books — The Da Vinci Code, Committed… I use my satellite dish a lot — Friends, Two and a Half Men, American Idol.
It’s impossible to heat such a big house in the winter when there’s no reliable power or central heating. I wear several layers to keep warm and crawl into bed earlier than I’d like. I doze off around 2am.