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'Monty Python meets Afghanistan': New political satire skewers officials

A new Afghan television show, “The Ministry,” skewers the nepotism, payoffs and sheer incompetence that are commonplace in the Afghan government.
/ Source: The New York Times

In the decrepit buildings that house Afghanistan’s ministries, one office is always new: the minister’s. It is also often where corrupt deals are done, incompetence often reigns and favoritism is the primary currency.

It is just such a room that provides the setting for a new television show, “The Ministry,” that sends up the nepotism, payoffs and sheer incompetence that are commonplace in the Afghan government.

The Ministry of Waste in the imaginary country of Hechland, which means “nothing land,” is inhabited by a weak minister and his hapless entourage.

The show premieres on Tolo Television, the nation’s largest network, on Thursday. It is, according to the producers, a new kind of show for Afghanistan: a “mockumentary.”

It aims to make Afghans smile, not just because it is funny but because it is familiar, holding up a mirror to their lives but with just enough artistic distance to make them laugh.

“I have been working in the Afghan government for 42 years, so I have faced many problems,” said Ghulam Yahya Monis, who plays the role of the ministry’s administrative officer, and who like many of the actors holds several jobs to earn enough money. Most recently, he worked in marketing for a onetime government-owned bakery.

“The roles we are playing are very close to the experiences of people,” he said.

While frequently compared to the British hit “The Office,” the show has more in common with political satire — more “Monty Python meets Afghanistan.”

'React first, think later'
The characters are people most Afghans can easily recognize: the “react first, think later” minister of waste collection and his fawning and not terribly bright brother-in-law who works as the ministry’s administrative officer; his pretty young secretary; the butler who serves tea; the minister’s ambitious top adviser and his self-aggrandizing and not very efficient bodyguard.

In the final scenes of an episode being shot earlier this week, armed men burst into the minister’s office and seem about to kill him.

However, it emerges that the gunmen are angry not at the minister but at his bodyguard, who is their cousin. He has climbed the ladder to a profitable livelihood while leaving them behind. So, naturally, they are out for revenge.

The minister decides he has to fire the bodyguard to get the angry cousins to back off. But then he finds that the bodyguard’s brothers have a lock on providing security for all of Hechland’s ministries, so even if this bodyguard is fired the minister will soon find himself facing the same predicament. There is no way out.

Nepotism is a major theme in “The Ministry,” one that is well understood by every Afghan. Family, almost always, trumps merit.

People grumble about it, but they rarely feel they can question it publicly because hiring a family member is a form of loyalty, which is respected, and no one would want to be shunned by their own family because they were not up to the mark. And yet as the country modernizes, it is becoming increasingly clear that it can no longer afford such inefficiencies.

Alice-in-Wonderland rationales
Corruption and scams are also regular topics in the show, which tries to make its episodes topical. Raising them with humor is part of the show’s not-so-covert political agenda, which is to encourage Afghans to question the way their government works and to point out the Alice-in-Wonderland rationales that drive Afghan officialdom.

“The actor is the camera of society, watching the society with a different lens,” said Abdul Qadir Farouk, 65, a longtime actor who plays the minister. “It is to make people smile, but also to give people political knowledge.”

Television has an especially important role to play in Afghanistan because so few people read, Mr. Farouk said. “We need cinema and theater to teach them,” he said.

One of the scams deals with the minister cooking up a scheme to ensure that his ministry has plenty of jobs to give out. When the ministry becomes so good at garbage collection that there is no more garbage, he orders the garbage trucks to haul in refuse from other provinces to clog the streets.

The idea for the show originated with Saad Mohseni, the chairman of Moby Group, which owns Tolo, who worked briefly for a ministry before his television conglomerate got off the ground in the early days after the Taliban were driven from power. The young Afghan writers have all wrestled with ministries at one time or another, and several of the actors work in ministries or in government-owned industries, since acting here is a part-time profession.

Although they may have other jobs, it seems the actors have thrown themselves into the show, intent on illuminating for viewers the absurdity of the Afghan government. Mr. Monis, who plays the administrator, is so comfortable in his role that when he talks about his character it is hard to tell if he is acting or just talking about his life.

'Hypocrisy and flattering'
“The minister’s sister is married to me and my sister is married to the minister, and unless there is hypocrisy and flattering, there will be no job for me,” he said. “Generally, the minister gives contracts to his relatives and close friends, so since I am his brother-in-law, I am trying to get a contract.”

For all the humor and slapstick, gunmen jump the minister in one episode and people slam their hands on their desks in another, the show has a dark side, showing the odds that Afghans must confront day after day. For all that, it is not nearly as depressing as some of Afghanistan’s real government offices.

In one of the more minor ministries recently, the air was thick with lassitude, dust and a stale smell that was hard to pinpoint. The deputy minister, an energetic 30-year-old who wanted to make things work, was beside himself. At 4 p.m. he was the only person still in the building other than a few police guards and a man who makes tea for officials.

“We have 1,000 people who work one hour per day,” he said. “How can we make plans or have a strategy?”

Shaking his head, he continued. “Somebody called a meeting yesterday, all these director generals came and nobody had an agenda, nobody knew why it had been called. If it were up to me,” he said, “I would have dissolved this ministry.”

This story, "Skewering Afghan Officials by Holding Up a Mirror," originally appeared in The New York Times.