In Afghanistan, where no one is unaffected by dirty politics, corruption, economic woes and conflict, comic relief is as indispensable as bread and water.

Lately however, political satire, an increasingly desirable vehicle for venting aggravations and disappointments, is being closely watched by the powers that be.

The genre first become a daily staple of Kabul's publications in the 1960s, when after the promulgation of the 1964 constitution, freedom of expression became an unalienable right. Activists were quick to discover that caricatures and satirical poems were the most effective vehicle to disseminate their messages.

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Around the same period, an exclusively satirical and non-partisan monthly publication gained popularity among Afghans. Akin to the Lebanese satirical magazine "Ad-Dabbour", it was called "Shokhak" (naughty in colloquial Afghan Persian). Its caricatures and satirical poems spared no government official or politician, not even the king.

Suitable vehicle

Today, Afghan humour has found online social media as a more suitable vehicle for reaching a larger and younger audience.

Kabul Taxi is a Facebook page that often uses fictitious dialogue between the rather caustic taxi driver and his VIP passengers to highlight the government's flawed policies, corruption and inefficiencies. The site captured international attention in August, when its criticism sparked the fury of Mohammad Hanif Atmar, the country's national security adviser.


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Under the heading "Atmar's Choir Boys", Kabul Taxi described the National Security Council's advisers as inexperienced children of influential men who were receiving absurdly high salaries and privileges. The NSC reportedly detained a journalist suspected of being behind the anonymous post and blocked the page for more than a month.

Afghan satire may appear in bad taste, ill-informed on facts or one-sided, but it is remarkably sensitive to the nation's red lines.

 

The page had started with scathing humour but also serious statements.

"I am a Hazara," declares the writer in a July 5 status, referring to his minority ethnicity. "Being a Hazara is not a crime."

But, since resumption of activity in October, and after having received more than 64,000 Facebook "likes" mostly thanks to the NSC scandal, Kabul Taxi seems to be running on punctured humour. Recent posts are mostly humourless, anti-government statements.  

Cyberspace satire

A relative newcomer to the Afghan cyberspace satire is the Afghan Onion. Also anonymous, this site is rumoured to have been founded by young, Western-educated Afghans working at the presidential palace.

Clearly, Afghan Onion's intended audience is the international community as its posts are strictly in English and fraught with Western and particularly British cultural references.

References to the British-Irish pop boy band, One Direction, and to a 1960s British television show, Journey to the Unknown, reveal the cultural cradle of the Onion's authors.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai [Daylife]

A spoof on an interview of the former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, with Al Jazeera's Mehdi Hassan has Karzai saying that, "Al-Qaida chief [Ayman] al-Zawahiri is a robot voiced by the Simpsons creator" and that the terrorist organisation's "PR tapes are directed by Quentin Tarantino of Pulp Fiction".

Satirising the slain Afghan president and head of the High Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, is another giveaway. For most Afghans, the dead are not to be mocked.

On the occasion of the fourth anniversary of Rabbani's assassination on September 20, the Onion sarcastically compares him to Idris Elba, the British actor who played Nelson Mandela in a recent biographical movie about the South African leader and a drug lord in the HBO series, The Wire. 

'The vodka general'

The Afghan Onion mostly pokes fun at the politicians of the former Northern Alliance, a coalition of former mujahideen who fought against the Taliban from 1996-2001. It also refers to General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the vice president, known for his love of libation, as "the vodka general".


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The Onion writers have produced a few jokes about President Ashraf Ghani too, but curiously his national security adviser is, for the most part, spared. The exception is a post from the time that Kabul Taxi was "pulled over for DUI [drunk driving]".

In a show of solidarity with its fellow satire site, Afghan Onion sarcastically states that free media seems to be scarier than the snowballing of ISIL and Taliban across the country: "So for NSC it's a must to rein in satire because terrorists are going to die natural death anyways."

Kabul Taxi's satire may have been reined in, but its defiance bitterly persists in its latest post about another addition to the national security adviser's team, this time a woman. She is wrongly described as not speaking either of the two national languages and having been brought up on KFC, a taunting reference to Kentucky Fried Chicken and the fact that she grew up in the US.

A more indigenous brand of humour is purveyed by the popular print and online daily, 8AM. With more than a million "likes" on Facebook, it runs a daily satire column that is widely read domestically.

The column pokes fun at personalities in the government, parliament and opposition alike, but the country's president is a regular target. But, it is 8AM's satirical pieces on social issues that set it apart.

Red lines

This summer, the minister of public health announced that nearly 50 percent of Afghans suffered from mental problems. 8AM's anonymous satirist retorted the next day: "Your Excellency, you see the president, the CEO, cabinet ministers, MPs, NSC officials, the Ulama Council, opposition members, journalists and the general public on a daily basis. Haven't you realised that 92.5 percent of our nation is mentally sick?"

Occasionally, Afghan satire may appear in bad taste, ill-informed or one-sided, but it is remarkably sensitive to the nation's red lines. For example, religion and certain national heroes are inviolable even to the most free-spirited satirists. Superstition, corruption and current politicians are fair game. 

The public outrage at the government's treatment of Kabul Taxi illustrated that the tradition of political satire is well engrained in the Afghan national psyche and a return to the communist or Taliban era censorship won't be tolerated.    

Although far less sophisticated than the US Onion or the French Le Canard Enchaine, Afghan satire will continue to serve as a genre through which many thinkers and readers can vent frustrations and find momentary comic relief in a country marred by perpetual conflict, poverty and corruption.

Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera