A taxi as a ve­hi­cle for satire

Pop­u­lar Afghan Face­book site lam­poons politi­cians by tak­ing them for a ride

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY SU­DARSAN RAGHA­VAN AND MO­HAM­MAD SHARIF su­darsan.ragha­van@wash­post.com

kabul — The Face­book pro­file photo shows the rear of a yel­low Toy­ota taxi, as if the ve­hi­cle is flash­ing, well, its be­hind.

In a way, it is — turn­ing a laser-like spotlight on Afghanistan’s bick­er­ing politi­cians and am­bi­tious war­lords, cor­rupt of­fi­cials and bu­reau­cratic aides.

And if the cre­ator’s dark mood weren’t al­ready ap­par­ent, the phrase scrawled in white on the rear wind­screen an­nounces it baldly: “Life is bit­ter and the fu­ture am­bigu­ous.”

Step in­side the Kabul Taxi, the Face­book page of the Afghan cap­i­tal’s latest po­lit­i­cal satirist. No one knows the iden­tity of its cre­ator, but in the past three months more than 13,000 peo­ple have “liked” the page— mak­ing it some­thing of a sound­ing board for Afghans’ col­lec­tive frus­tra­tion.

The gov­ern­ment is dys­func­tional. Cor­rup­tion is rife. The econ­omy is floun­der­ing. Prices are ris­ing, as is un­em­ploy­ment. And Kabul Taxi is tap­ping into the angst in a unique way.

On his page, he — we know it’s a man — writes in the lo­cal Dari lan­guage about pick­ing up prom­i­nent Afghan of­fi­cials in an imag­i­nary taxi. In his back seat, they dis­cuss pol­i­tics, the econ­omy, cul­ture — and their ri­val­ries. They are por­trayed as in­sin­cere, power-hun­gry and more con­cerned about pro­tect­ing their par­tic­u­lar eth­nic group than serv­ing the peo­ple of Afghanistan.

No one is spared. Kabul Taxi picks equally on of­fi­cials linked to Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani and those aligned with Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah, Ghani’s for­mer elec­toral ri­val and cur­rent part­ner in the pow­er­shar­ing gov­ern­ment bro­kered by the United States.

In one sce­nario, he writes about a group of Ghani loy­al­ists, all Pash­tuns, mak­ing dis­parag­ing re­marks about the Ta­jiks, the eth­nic­ity of Ab­dul­lah. They then go on to be­lit­tle Ab­dul­lah, ex­pos­ing rifts be­tween the leader’s camps.

“Now Ta­jiks can’t do any­thing, be­cause their hands are tied be­hind their backs,” says Hanif At­mar, Ghani’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, from the back seat.

“Ab­dul­lah had con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence of the fraud we com­mit­ted in the elec­tion, but he couldn’t do any­thing,” At­mar con­tin­ues. “We were lucky he was our ri­val. De­spite his diplo­matic ap­pear­ance, Ab­dul­lah just can’t ne­go­ti­ate.”

In another post, Kabul Taxi crit­i­cizes for­mer pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai — who is also rid­ing in the back seat — for ig­nor­ing the plight of the eth­nic Hazara mi­nor­ity. Then he uses Karzai to skewer both Ghani and Ab­dul­lah.

“While we were talk­ing, I heard break­ing news on my taxi’s ra­dio,” he writes. “Karzai asked me: ‘What’s wrong?’ I replied that there had been an at­tack in Mazar-e Sharif and a num­ber of peo­ple had been killed or wounded. He asked me, ‘Where are Ab­dul­lah and Ghani?’ I told him, ‘Mr. Pres­i­dent, that’s what the peo­ple are ask­ing.’ ” So who is Kabul Taxi? Reached through his Face­book page, Kabul Taxi agreed to an­swer a few ques­tions. On the per­sonal front, he was ret­i­cent. “I am around 31,” he wrote, “young, but my mind is old like Ab­dul­lah and Ghani.” It also seems he’s an eth­nic Hazara, judg­ing from his posts sup­port­ing the com­mu­nity and his le­gions of Face­book fol­low­ers, most of whom seem to have Hazara back­grounds.

Kabul Taxi said he launched his Face­book page be­cause of the “tu­mul­tuous sit­u­a­tion” em­broil­ing both gov­ern­ment and so­ci­ety, cit­ing prob­lems such as “un­em­ploy­ment, poverty and vi­o­lence.” In the ab­sence of ac­tion by the author­i­ties, he sug­gested, some­body had to do some­thing.

“The gov­ern­ment that is re­spon­si­ble for fix­ing the prob­lems has not done so,” he said. “The an­ar­chy and chaos are . . . why I cre­ated this Face­book page.”

Face­book is a grow­ing phe­nom­e­non in Afghanistan, he noted, adding that he was inspired by the role the net­work­ing ser­vice and other so­cial media played in bring­ing about so­cial and po­lit­i­cal change dur­ing the 2011 Arab Spring up­ris­ings.

“The goal of this page is to fol­low, re­view and crit­i­cize the sit­u­a­tion,” he wrote. “We con­sciously want to point out im­por­tant is­sues.” But why use a taxi? In­side a taxi, he wrote, “you face dif­fer­ent peo­ple, and di­verse con­ver­sa­tions take place about pol­i­tics, econ­omy, art, cul­ture and phi­los­o­phy. Some­times there are pas­sen­gers who talk about pol­i­tics from pickup point to des­ti­na­tion point. Taxi driv­ers are con­nected with the daily lives of the peo­ple.”

His fans agree. On his page, they give him sug­ges­tions on whom to pick up next. “When is the turn of Pres­i­dent Ghani’s le­gal ad­viser?” wrote one per­son.

And they want his mini-es­says to keep com­ing.

“I pray for your fuel tank to be al­ways full,” wrote another fan.

Many of his ad­mir­ers have asked to work with him, even sup­port him fi­nan­cially, he said, but he has re­fused all of­fers and re­quests.

“Kabul Taxi has one driver,” he ex­plained.

KABUL TAXI

Many prom­i­nent Afghan of­fi­cials have been spoofed by the “driver” of the Kabul Taxi, and fans have writ­ten in sug­gest­ing who they would like to hear next.

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