March 12, 2008 / 1:26 AM / 9 years ago

Fans embrace, clerics condemn TV's "Afghan Star"

<p>Lima Sahar (R), Hameed Sakhizada (C) and Rafay Nabzada, the three finalists in Afghan Star, Afghanistan's answer to American Idol, talk during a news conference in Kabul March 11, 2008.Omar Sobhani</p>

KABUL, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Hundreds of fans clamored on Tuesday to catch a glimpse of their favorite finalists from the TV show "Afghan Star," Afghanistan's version of "American Idol," which is watched by millions but condemned by Islamic clerics as immoral.

The finalists, two men and for the first time a woman, will appear in Friday's competition, where one will be eliminated before the last show to decide the winner a week later.

Kabul's Islamic council of clerics has branded the show un-Islamic and demanded it be taken off the air.

"'Afghan Star' encourages immorality among the people and is against Sharia law," the council said earlier this year.

But the few hundred young Afghan men and women seemed to care little as they banged on the gates of an office in Kabul where the three finalists gave a short news conference before signing autographs.

"I am dying to see and get the signature of my favorite star," said Natasha, a young girl waiting to get in. "It is a golden chance for fans, especially girls to meet their beloved stars."

Groups of fans competed with one another to chant the names of their favorites.

Such scenes would have been impossible a few years ago in the conservative and devoutly Islamic country. The Taliban, ousted in 2001 for failing to hand over al Qaeda leaders behind the September 11 attacks, banned both music and television.

ETHNIC SPLIT

Most controversial is the appearance of a woman in the final three of "Afghan Star," now in its third season.

Contestant Lima Sahar is a Pashtun, the ethnic group which forms the backbone of Taliban support, and she is also from the southern city of Kandahar, the movement's main former stronghold.

Most women in the south of Afghanistan seldom venture outdoors, and when they dare, they do so dressed only in the all-enveloping blue burqa.

The raunchy dance routines of would-be Western stars are absent in her act. Instead, Sahar sways only imperceptibly as she sings Pashtun oldies, her face under heavy make-up and headscarf loosely hung over a bundle of glittered hair.

But even appearing on the show can cause problems.

"Singing brought changes and recognition to my life," Sahar told the news conference. Asked if she feared returning to Kandahar, she said: "I represent national unity and don't see any problem."

Many have questioned how Sahar could have gotten so far given her less-than-perfect singing voice. Viewers vote by text message and have eliminated hundreds of hopefuls from around the war-torn country to get to the final three.

Voting appears to have followed ethnic lines with the finalists representing Afghanistan's three biggest ethnic groups; Sahar the majority Pashtuns, Rafi Nabzada the Tajiks of the north and Hamed Sakhizada, the Shi'ite Hazara minority.

Opinion is divided on whether Sahar is picking up votes from fellow Pahstuns, women or young men.

"There were many other eliminated stars who sing much better than Lima Sahar," said a young man outside the news conference.

Reuters/Nielsen

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