Farewell to an Afghan legend: A tribute to radio actor Mehrali Watandost

Farewell to an Afghan legend: A tribute to radio actor Mehrali Watandost

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Source : Afghanistan Analysts

Author: Shirazuddin Siddiqi

Afghanistan has lost one of its brightest cultural stars. The actor, Mehrali Watandost, was born around 1950 in Butkhak district, east of Kabul, and had a modest upbringing. After completing primary school in Butkhak and secondary school in Nangarhar where his family had moved to, he got a junior job with the Directorate of Information and Culture in the province.

[restored para:]  With the turn of events and arrival of Soviet forces in the country in 1979, Watandost and his family joined the wave of Afghans fleeing to Pakistan and settled in Peshawar. The overthrow of the Najibullah government in Kabul in 1992 led to the formation of a new administration made up of mujahedin leaders. While some refugees in Pakistan felt able to return to their homes under the new political order, others – mainly urban communities, including civil servants and the intelligentsia – were driven into exile by the factional fighting which engulfed Kabul and other cities. This was the context in which a group of around 30 actors, dramatists, poets and writers came together in 1993 in Peshawar to launch something new for Afghanistan, a radio soap opera.

The group included several nationally-recognised cultural personalities, already chosen to work on the new programme as writers and editors. Those wanting to act in the drama, however, had to undergo studio auditions. Many aspiring Afghan actors flocked to the casting venue, among them, Watandost. British drama expert, Dan Garrett, who led the audition and later the training of successful writers and actors, recalls his dilemma – how on earth was he going to chose from “so many hopefuls.”

A star is born

Scripts had been circulated before each applicant was summoned to the studio and it was late in the day, Garrett remembers, when a “craggy-faced man came up to the microphone and filled our ears with a distinctive sound that instantly made my ears prick up… the voice a producer listens out for.” It was Watandost. He was peering and moving the script around in an effort to read it and Garrett asked if he had perhaps forgotten his glasses. “No,” he explained, “I left them in Afghanistan and have been unable to replace them.” Garrett lent him a pair of glasses and when the green button was pressed ­­– the cue for the actor to speak – the man behind the microphone brought “the script to life.” It was clear to all those listening, Garrett said, “We had a star.”

On the basis of this audition, Watandost was offered a role in the new radio soap opera, “New Home, New Life”. Since 1994, it has been broadcast in Pashto and Dari on the BBC World Service. The programme is set in a typical Afghan village and makes use of popular drama to explore topical, practical issues that might enable listeners to manage and improve their daily lives: it might feature something as simple as using the water from the mill to not only grind wheat, but also generate electricity. Tougher issues have also featured. A particularly upsetting storyline involving a girl married to assuage a blood feud – she was married to her family’s enemies in what is called a baad marriage ­– was so compelling it persuaded the then ruler of Afghanistan, Taleban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, to ban the practice.

Watandost’s remarkable acting talent turned Nazir, the character he played for 23 years, into a personal friend for millions of Afghans. Photo: AEPO (2016)

Watandost’s remarkable acting talent turned Nazir, the character he played for 23 years, into a personal friend for millions of Afghans. Photo: AEPO (2016)

Watandost was chosen to play the role of Nazir (‘watchman’) who served the powerful village land-owner and chieftain, Jabar Khan. Watandost reportedly wept tears of joy when he was offered the role, not least because it meant he would work closely with the already well-known actor, Fazl Muhammad Fazli, who would play his on-air employer. Thus begun nearly 23 years of Watandost’s contribution to Afghan radio drama, a contribution that brought with it great admiration from Afghans of all walks of life.

Listeners propose marriage

Nazir was the most cunning person in the village. A simple village man with a very eccentric approach to everything, whatever he did would go wrong and made listeners laugh. Watandost knew the character as well as he knew his own self and how to play every nuance of every story he was involved in. He managed to develop the role in a way that reached the hearts of many Afghans, crossing social and cultural boundaries. Before long, many listeners to “New Home, New Life” described the watchman as being like a family member, with some even reporting difficulty in sleeping if they did not hear Watandost’s distinctive voice that touched young and old, men and women, rural and urban alike.

Although he only played Nazir in Pashto, the mix of common-sense and humour that Watandost brought to the role was appreciated by Afghans across the linguistic and ethnic divide that still besets the country. As his popularity grew, the production team even received messages from listeners offering their sisters and daughters in marriage to Nazir. In 1996, when rumours spread in Upper Village (where the “New Home, New Life” drama is based) that Jabar Khan might be making arrangements for Nazir’s marriage, the mailbox contained samples of cloth from fans for his and his wife-to-be’s wedding outfits. The relationship between Nazir and Jabar Khan was one of the key dramatic relationships in the soap opera. Yet, even after the actor playing Jabar Khan, Fazli died, in 2005, Nazir’s role survived because of the character’s popularity. New themes emerged in his relationship with Jabar Khan’s son, Sarwar Khan.

Walajan Rafiq (right) plays Baba Aslam, a village elder, with Watandost (left). Photo: AEPO (2016)

Walajan Rafiq (right) plays Baba Aslam, a village elder, with Watandost (left). Photo: AEPO (2016)

Former researcher for “New Home, New Life” Shireen Sultan remembers that during the evaluation trips she made to provinces across Afghanistan “everybody – old, young, religious, educated, uneducated, leaders, women,” listened to Nazir’s wisdom and humour with a keen interest. On one occasion, when a young girl in a remote village repeatedly asked questions about him, her friends explained to Shireen, laughing, that she wanted to “marry Nazir.”

After he heard that Watandost had died, the National Unity Government’s Chief Executive Dr Abdullah described how Watandost had brought a “smile on people’s lips” at a time of “conflict and killing,” adding that there was hardly an Afghan who was not familiar with Nazir’s character. He called the actor’s passing an “irrecoverable loss for Afghan culture.”

Watandost made a significant contribution to “New Home, New Life” becoming a formidable force in ensuring that Afghans across the country and in exile retained a sense of social and cultural identity. Before 2001, surveys showed the soap opera had near universal listenership among Afghans inside and outside the country; those who had access to radio either knew the show or listened to it. Even in today’s crowded media market, in which hundreds of TV, radio and print outlets compete for audiences, drama has retained its popularity; recent surveys indicate that 5.2 million adult Afghans (i.e. not including those under 15) still regularly tune in.

When the production of “New Home, New Life” moved to Kabul in October 2002, Watandost continued to live in Peshawar, explaining that he could not afford the cost of living in the Afghan capital. He would come up to Kabul at weekends to record his role, but stayed on in Peshawar where he was also able to maintain his cooperation with music production outfits for which he wrote lyrics and sometimes composed songs.

Watandost’s family said he had been watering flowers in his home in Peshawar when he fell down some stairs and died. He was given a modest funeral by family and friends in Behsud district in Nangarhar on 12 January 2017. He will rest in peace, no doubt, but he has left the “New Home, New Life” writers with an impossible dilemma: what to do with the role he played so successfully for 23 years? To millions of his fans, he will be irreplaceable.

Mehrali Watandost

Born: 1950 Butkhak, Kabul

Died: 8 January 2017, Peshawar, Pakistan

Buried: 12 January 2017, Behsud District, Nangarhar