The violent Turkish drama Afghan children love

By Bilal Sarwary
BBC News, Kabul

Media caption,
Valley of the Wolves is such a hit that the normally chaotic streets of the capital Kabul are deserted when it is on air

A spy opens fire and instantly kills his rival. Moments later an axe falls on a bystander's hand. There is blood everywhere. This is a scene from Valley of the Wolves, one of Afghanistan's most popular dramas - and a particular favourite with children.

The Turkish television series, known as Wadi Gurgha in Afghanistan, has gripped Afghan audiences with its gritty depiction of the murky underworld of drugs and arms-smuggling as mafia gangs and spy agencies struggle for power in Turkey.

But a tragedy in rural Afghanistan has led to calls to limit the access of children to the violence on screen.

On a sunny day last October in the remote Jaghori district of Ghazni province, 10-year-old Ali Seena was playing with friends, staging a scene from Valley of Wolves in which he took the role of a character who had been hanged.

Image source, PANA FLIM
Image caption,
Turkish dramas have eclipsed Hindi films in popularity in Afghanistan

Ali died of asphyxiation after his friends hanged him from a tree branch using a scarf. The boy had struggled to break free, his friends told his uncle Abdul Karim. They just thought he was playing along as they acted out the scene.

"It was too tragic to believe," Mr Karim says. "Afghans take suicide attacks, roadside bombs and air strikes in their stride. But Ali's death was avoidable."

The death of Ali forced Tolo TV, one of the several broadcasters of Wadi Gurgha, to insert a warning before every episode, saying that the content of the show is not suitable for children below the age of 14.

'Brings us together'

That certainly does not deter children in the house of Sher Ali in the capital Kabul.

"I have been watching this drama for the last two years," eight-year-old Sabrina tells me without taking her eyes off the television screen. "I love Valley of the Wolves."

Sabrina and 14 of her family members, including several children, remain glued to the TV while the programme is on air.

On the television set is spy Folad Alamadar, the charismatic main character of the show who tries to protect his country from threat. He has become an icon for children and adults in Afghanistan. One of Sabrina's cousins has even been named after him.

Image caption,
Sabrina's family are glued to the screen when Valley of the Wolves is on

"I said stop there," shouts Folad in the scene the family watch. Moments later he shoots, killing a man.

"The drama allows us to relax and forget about the fighting and war in the country," Sabir, a civil servant uncle of Sabrina tells me despite the events unfolding on the screen.

"This is normal," says Abid, one of Sabrina's uncles. "I can't stop my children. If I stop them now, they will watch the repeat show tomorrow morning when no adult is around."

"This brings our family together. If it was not for Valley of the Wolves, we wouldn't be together in one room," another uncle, Khalid, says.

Sabrina's father says the fighting, bombs and assassinations is something they have always lived with.

Message of hope

Nevertheless it has ignited debate with some experts saying that the warning displayed before the show begins is not sufficient to stop children viewing it.

"It is positive that media organisations are able to expose Afghan audiences to a variety of products from a variety of nations and cultures," says Shirazuddin Siddiqi, country director of BBC Media Action and an expert on Afghan media.

"However, it is not so positive when content is aired with less than sufficient regard to vulnerable groups within society, such as children. There is already concern about copycat action penetrating children's games... Care should be taken to ensure such programmes are aired at a time when children don't watch," he said.

But Massoud Sanjar, director of production at Tolo TV, says Afghans see a message of hope in the programme's hero Folad Alamdar.

Image source, PANA FILM
Image caption,
The show's main character Folad Alamdar is admired by Afghan audiences

"In a country like Afghanistan, where there has been war and violence for 30 years, a hero who promises to rid the people of all their problems is always welcome. Any hero who can help the country, who can bring change is an instant success," says Mr Sanjar.

He adds that: "It is for the parents to not allow their children: 8:00 is prime time, 9:00 is too late for children to be awake."

Image source, PANA FILM
Image caption,
The show depicts the murky world of drugs and arms-smuggling, mafia gangs and spy agencies in Turkey

Aspiring to Turkey

It used to be Hindi films that were all the rage in Afghanistan - but there are now about 200 Turkish dramas being aired on television.

The cultural closeness between Turkey and Afghanistan is one of the key reasons behind the popularity of Valley of the Wolves and for some Afghans it offers a livelihood as well.

Bazaars across Kabul are swamped with merchandise - T-shirts, pullovers, caps, posters - depicting scenes from the soap and its characters.

"I sell 400-500 of these T-shirts every day. In the past six months, I have sold 60,000 T-shirts," says stall-holder Yamma Kohistani.

Posters of its characters now adorn barber shops and rear windshields of cars and buses. There is more advertising on soaps, chewing gums, even cars, depicting the show's characters in some way.

Image caption,
Merchandise inspired by the programme is available all over Kabul

The popularity of this and other Turkish serials aired on Afghan TV channels has also created a market for Turkish food, furniture and other merchandise.

For Afghans, these Turkish TV dramas have allowed them to look beyond their borders and aspire to a lifestyle that has been absent for nearly 40 years.