Metal sheeting makes fine satellite dish in Kabul

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The metal sheeting was constructed for another time, another place -- to become cans of creamy dessert topping. But in Kabul, where raw materials are scarce and ingenuity abundant, entrepreneurs have given it a different identity.

Sheets stamped with the familiar "Reddi-Wip" logo so they could become whipped-topping canisters are instead being enlisted as metal for new satellite dishes, handing Kabul's people glimpses of a world long denied them.

On the streets of the Afghan capital, men with tools, metal scraps and customers who dream of a horn of entertainment plenty are building dishes at a frenetic pace, helping restore popular culture connections severed in 1996 by the draconian Taliban.

"All the people of Kabul are interested in these. They've suffered in the last five years and haven't been allowed to see such things," said Zalmay Horiakhail, a member of Kabul's new police force, admiring the freshly made dishes.

"I'd be really interested in a good cop movie," the officer said, smiling.

TV was barred

During their 1996-2001 rule, the Taliban barred television as un-Islamic and punished anyone caught with one. Those who wanted to watch TV had to hunker behind closed doors.

Two months after the Taliban quit Kabul, poverty is endemic, and many families lack electricity or running water. But dish manufacturers say demand has spiked even among those who can barely afford it.

In cramped one-room factories on Qalah Fatullah Street in central Kabul, hammers clank and blowtorches crackle as young men churn out dish after improvised dish, then line the sidewalk with their wares. On a recent afternoon, the dishes sported metal from Gerber baby food containers and Barbasol shaving cream -- the kind with aloe for sensitive skin.

Makeshift dishes cost from $15 to $50 depending on their size. "Bigger dish, more channels," said Mirwais Samandari, the grinning assistant manager of one factory. At home, he has three dishes -- bringing in a total 273 channels from Europe, Asia and America.

Indian movies popular

Some people tune to BBC news, others to Iranian TV or American programs. But the most popular reason to buy a dish is Indian movies, full of spectacle and emotion but without the risque elements of Western programming.

"For a family, India is the best," Samandari said. "Those others sometimes have people with no clothes. India is in the region and more like our culture."

Afghanistan's culture also is on the mind of the interim government's communications minister, Abdul Rahim Sayed Jan. He is charged with restitching the country's devastated communications network -- or in some cases, stitching it for the first time.

Abdul Rahim has been busy with work he considers more important than bringing entertainment to the people. He is brimming with talk of mobile GSM networks, fiber-optic connections, even basic phone service.

Will nothing get done?

But satellite dishes? He scoffs.

"If you keep people busy with satellite TV, how can you get them to reconstruct their country?" Abdul Rahim asks.

"With the TV, we can guide people, educate them, help them understand what effect the democratic system will have on their lives. That's what they need, not entertainment," he says. "People should not use this opportunity to invade our culture."

Still, with so little Afghan entertainment available, it's understandable that people would turn elsewhere after being denied for so long. That's what Qalah Fatullah Street's miniature factories are counting on.

Most of them build about five dishes a day and sell three -- down from late November, but brisk nonetheless. Some customers buy directly from builders, though most venture to Pashtunistan Street, an enclave of electronics shops about a mile east.

There they buy a receiver console-dish package from merchants like Omid Shirzai, proprietor of Omid's Electronics, where 14-inch Sony Trinitrons are stacked to the ceiling -- right next to a pile of "Sonex" TVs, which, not coincidentally, look quite similar.

During Taliban rule, Shirzai's main business was radios and teapots. Now, however, satellite packages are the No. 1 seller. He estimates that, after the buying run of recent weeks, 20 percent of Kabulis have satellite dishes.

That's probably an optimistic figure, but judging by the dishes perched atop even the most ramshackle of rooftops, he might be right. And as Kabul lets the world back in, however slowly, interest can only grow.

"Ninety-five percent of people are interested in getting one. They all tell me that. But they can't afford it yet," said Said Sarwal, building dishes on Qalah Fatullah Street "If the USA will help Afghanistan, we'll all be able to get satellite dishes one day."

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