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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Sphinx Bends Your Ear

“Forgive me sir, my pen… it does a strange trick. It will tell you all the secrets of my heart.” -Unknown


Just around the corner, around the steaming, clove–scented tea stalls and fly–pocked apricot pyramids lining Mandawi bazaar, Kabul’s largest open–air market, you’ll bump into chatter of Saad Mohseni, Afghanistan’s first media mogul. Well, not him per say, but one of his creations. Mohseni heads up Moby Group, an expanding media force that owns household Afghan names like Tolo TV, Arman Radio, and Afghan Scene magazine, among others. He is the maestro and muscle behind Farsi1, a satellite network that bundles and beams Malcolm in the Middle, Dharma and Greg, Oprah, 24, and How I Met Your Mother, as well as Turkish soaps like Bez Bebek and racy Latin American telenovelas like Eva Luna to Tehran and South Asia’s eager Farsi–speaking audience (Farsi was actually the official language of India’s courts until 1837). Empty calories, you might think. But, Mohseni takes pride in ruffling the Ayatollah’s feathers while plying a generation’s moral imagination.

The crown jewel is Tolo TV’s Afghan Star, an adaptation of American Idol now on its sixth season. An estimated one–third of Afghanistan’s people tune in each Thursday. When you think American, Coca Cola and Apple are the usual suspects. But, Idol may actually be America’s greatest export (the U.K.’s original Pop Idol never carried the same cache). Why? Afghan Star imbues a democratizing spirit that’s sorely lacking, bringing together Tajiks, Pashtuns, and Hazaras to compete on a single stage with their own voices. Equally, it’s a meritocracy. Lema Sahar, a Pashtun from Kandahar, became a finalist in 2008 by drawing millions of text messaged votes from Herat to Kunduz. The eighteen–year–old even campaigned the old fashioned way, knocking on doors and taping up flyers. In the same vein, Aydah al Jahani took home the grand prize in the UAE’s Million’s Poet, reciting traditional Bedouin Nabati poetry, navigating taboos of women and society. There’s an electricity in the air from Casablanca to Cairo to Kabul. Literally. Parag Khanna writes that in Turkey “when the mosque’s call to prayer sounds during a football match, restaurant patrons simply turn the television volume way up.” 

Today’s narrative, though, glamorizes this energy. It’s not about old media versus the “Twitter revolution” or Facebook graffiti on corrugated doors or Twitter–fed missile coordinates for NATO airstrikes in Libya or Women2Drive in Saudi Arabia or even the fact that Farsi is the second most popular language in the blogosphere. It’s true that social technologies have been indespensible. The April 6th Movement is real and organic. But, today’s banter has reduced them to glitter. Even Egyptian pro–democracy activist and software developer Alaa Abd Al Fattah quipped that the most widely used technologies in Tahrir were rocks and clubs.

The reality is far more delicious and basic. It’s about the fantastical liberation of having your own voice. It’s about how your voice, on ink, air, or byte, has permanence. It’s so taken–for–granted that for most of us it’s cheesy, power ballad–Home Alone cheesy. For a nation cast anew by voice, it’s an intoxicating feeling— knowing that what you say can never be taken back, that sliver of giddiness knowing you’ve turned the earth just the tiniest bit.

Democratic transformation typically conjures new laws and free and fair ballots. But, far richer and more enduring is a nation’s new, forming psychology. Think again of the conventionally “tough” reforms of a full–blown modern, liberal, market–based, pluralist democracy— multi–party elections, term limits, minority rights, transparency, trade liberalization, currency convertibility, inflation and deficit goals, privatization, land grant ease, capital market liberalization, effective tax collection, contract enforcement, modernized labor laws, and ease of doing business. Of course, the checklist is overwhelming, but in reality it might be the easiest part. The longer slog is the subtler task of transforming a nation’s imagination, it’s habits, civil interactions, professional practices, self–awareness, dialogue, empowerment, culture of transparency, and ideas of freedom, class, family, and future.

While economic reforms need to overcome short–term political frictions, renovating a country’s psyche requires careful marination for a generation or more. As with anything worth a damn, there ‘s no fast track, just time and self–toil, stumbles and leaps. America’s social apparatus, political institutions, and signature ethos of self–invention, have been relentlessly debated, cultivated, and curated, progressively and with little interference, for nearly 250 years. Even before 1776, America had a century’s practice with elections (though unfair), habeas corpus, and trial by jury, as well as an English bill of rights.  

Measuring the distance between narrative and reality sheds more light. Take India, for example, a poster child of successful democratic liberalization and soaring growth. Modern India was born in 1991 when it extinguished its “License Raj,” liberalized, and opened its doors to the world. But, only in the past few years has India begun to broadly manifest, as Anand Giridharadas puts it, “a psychological revolution, a revolution in expectations.” He catalogues the ideas shaping India— the subtle use of “sir” and “sahib,” fluidity of class, pulling away from the old senses of family, swiping of a credit card in place of stashing gold, and emerging “situational modernity.” And there’s still a long way to go.  

In Egypt, a voice entombed for four decades has come alive. The political breeze that swept the cobwebs and Mubarak out now leaves a vast desert reality of charting, excavating, and building a new country. Although Mubarak’s National Democratic Party has been dissolved and the notorious security police defanged, tourism has withered and investment has trucked out as quickly as it came in. From downtown Alexandria to Ramses Square, a mid–August–Sunday evening melancholy mixes with a Bosc pear–ferris wheel hope. The tour guide’s call has grown a bit gruffer.

But, Egypt’s media offers good news. Media is central to a robust civil society—that sturdy, formless mesh of daily life. It’s when the Red Cross, Republican National Convention, and Screen Actor’s Guild along with a craft beer collective, gay rights group, soccer club, and farmer’s market and Oprah’s book club, UCLA’s history department, and Brookings Institution gather in a room for coffee. It’s the buffer between you and the state. 

Stitching together Egypt’s strands of civil society, media will guide a new consciousness. Take a look. Under the gaze of the Sphinx you’ll find the world’s third largest film industry, right below Hollywood and Bollywood. Today, an unsteady political transition crawls along, but Egypts’s media, once a steady diet of dull, shackled, fabricated state gruel, has swiftly adopted a bold, new life. During the revolution in Cairo, as legions took to Tahrir Square, TV 1 panned over to an empty street. Today, newspapers like Al Masry and Al Ahram, as well as broadcasts on TV 1 and 25 TV voice true stories of military injustice and corruption for which they were jailed just one year ago. Egypt now boasts its own Jon Stewart, Bassem Youssef, poking fun at the media and letting the air out of a lifetime of political oppression.

The “demubarakization” of Egypt is well underway as his namesake (Mubarak is Arabic for “blessed”) and likeness are pulled from billboards, hospitals, libraries, bridges, public squares, metro stations, and street corners. 388 “Hosni Mubarak” schools will need to be renamed and textbooks rewritten. Today, newborn parties vie over premium political real estate while the Muslim Brotherhood splinters and a constitution is crafted. A vibrant debate spills out everywhere over uncertain sand. Life seems seems clumsy and uneven. The hope is that 80 million voices will cast a mythic February into a future of grace, dare, and measure. For now, roam the headlines at the café and cybercafé, turn on the TV, and type in your wireless password— they’re the binding, the eggs, in this new democratic confection. Sweet.