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Tension at California Afghan radio station

Encino, Calif.

For the past year an attractive sign boldly proclaimed “Radio Afghanistan” to passing motorists on busy, six-lane Ventura Boulevard here.

Not anymore. The small staff of the little 50,000-listener station’s studio headquarters decided anonymity was a better policy and removed the sign from the window.

There’s plenty of controversy on their local airwaves, however, said senior correspondent P. Shahnavaz Khan, who for 10 years in Afghanistan as an Agence France Presse correspondent covered the Soviet-Afghan war.

Afghan-Americans calling in to the station’s talk shows range in opinion from “pro-Taliban, to pro-Northern Alliance, to people who oppose both,” he said. “But all the callers were grieving for the American lives lost, condemning the terrorism.”

The Sept. 11 terrorist attack has changed many lives, and this radio station in a modest two-story, 14-office block reflects how highly sensitive the Afghan-American community is to the current U.S. popular mood.

Radio Afghanistan founder Mina Karbassi and Khan, who each have daily talk shows with callers, stressed that the numbers of calls to the office from the general American community offering solidarity and support, outnumbered incidents of local harassment against Afghan-Americans.

Even so, as office manager Laila Possani said, there are incidents. Her 7-year-old daughter in public school was told by two of her classmates, “Don’t sit by us. You’re an Afghan.”

Possani told her daughter, “Those kids don’t understand what’s going on, and it’s not important. You’re an American and were born here same as them.”

Said Karbassi, “We don’t blame the kids. That’s the parents.”

A local Afghan restaurant has been gutted by fire, friends and relatives have been verbally harassed, and there have been reports, said Possani, of Afghan college students being verbally abused and one physically. But all three speakers gave examples of Americans calling in to say, as Khan said, “We’re with you. Keep up the good work.”

Radio Afghanistan is listener-supported. The subscribers pay $10 a month and receive a radio set directly tuned to the station. The broadcast area covers most of greater Los Angeles County, and parts of Ventura and Orange counties. The mix is daytime music, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news, with late afternoon and evening almost back-to-back talk shows until midnight. Throughout the night, the day’s live broadcasts are replayed.

Both Karbassi and Khan follow developments inside and immediately outside Afghanistan closely. Karbassi said the previous day she’d talked by telephone to her cousin in Pakistan. “My cousin had talked to her brother and father in Afghanistan. They had said goodbye, and asked for forgiveness, in case they are killed if there is a United States attack.

“The Afghan people have nothing to do with all this [terrorism],” insisted Karbassi. “Osama bin Laden is from an Arab country [Saudi Arabia], he was helping during the jihad against Russia. These terrorists they’re catching in New York and other places, they’re not from Afghanistan. They’re from everywhere else.”

Almost 20 percent of Afghanistan’s 22-million plus population lives outside its borders: 1.4 million in Pakistan, at least 2 million in Europe and the United States, and about 1 million in Iran and elsewhere. The bulk of Afghan-Americans have been in the United States almost two decades, since the time of the Soviet invasion.

“Look very deeply into this crisis,” said Khan, “and it’s really about the Middle East, about Israel and Palestine, about the peace process with the Palestinians and the action after Sharon went to the Haram Al-Sharif mosque.” He referred to Ariel Sharon’s going to the mosque with 1,000 Israeli soldiers on Sept. 28, 2000 -- a move the U.N. Security Council deplored as “provocation.”

“No doubt, an important reason this has happened,” he said, referring to the attacks on Sept. 11, “is because the Americans take sides with the Israeli community all the time -- and the Muslim community is not happy with this.”

None of which has much to do with the Afghans, said Karbassi, who was at pains to emphasize how remote, how cut off the Afghans are and have been from the wider world. And how the United States -- once the Soviet-Afghan war ended -- “walked away and forgot about Afghanistan.”

“The Afghan community in the United States has sent many letters for almost eight years to the Clinton administration,” she said. “We knew something was going on, something dangerous for Afghanistan and for the world. We wanted the U.S, the only superpower, to pay more attention to the country, to solve the civil war between the two groups. But nobody listened. There’s no oil in Afghanistan.”

Inside the country, all Afghans know about life today “is we live or die,” she said. “The Voice of America should be educating those Afghans, telling them, ‘Hey, you are human. As a human you have a right to more than the right to live or die. You have a right to a full life, to an education, to rights.’ ”

The Taliban, she said, are products of a theocratic education. “They’re educated in Islamic schools in Pakistan without knowing anything other than Islam, no experience of the world. And in Afghanistan,” said Karbassi, “the people have no news from outside. There are practically no telephone calls. The letters don’t get through much. No radio, no television, not many newspapers to teach them anything. They need sources to give them more information about the world, about freedom. You cannot bring democracy to Afghanistan in 24 hours. They have never experienced it. But they do know about self-freedom.”

Karbassi, a broadcaster for 15 years, said she founded Radio Afghanistan and has kept it going, “as a woman.”

She said, “Never in centuries have women had the right to do anything. Some men were against me in the community. They tried to shut down the radio -- because I’m a woman and because they were jealous.”

It is hard to keep it going, she said. The station, originally open for five years, then closed for two years for financial reasons, has been back on the air for 12 months.

But Karbassi said she senses community support is growing.

Karbassi also described how the local community has met in restaurants since Sept. 11 to raise funds for the victims’ families in New York. “We choose to be inside, not outdoors for these meetings because it might be dangerous,” she said. “We begin prayers for the victims … ”

At that moment there was angry shouting just outside the studio. Those inside momentarily stiffened. Someone checked. It was two California motorists railing at each other.

The radio station staff relaxed a little. Underneath, the tension remains.

National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2001