A bunch of ninth-grade girls got in touch with their favorite radio station, making a song request for a tune by one of their favorite artists. But they couldn’t resist the chance to raise that universal complaint:
“Why, why, why, why do you always repeat the same songs?”
It could have been from the suburbs of Cleveland or the boroughs of New York – but in fact, it took place in Afghanistan. The girls’ request was delivered not by a quick call from a cellphone, but rather via an elaborately hand-decorated letter to Radio Azadi (Radio Freedom), the Afghan service of Radio Free Europe. The station receives some 500 letters a month from its listeners, many of them beautifully decorated as is the tradition in Afghanistan.
More than 50 of these letters, including descriptions of their contents, went on display today in the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building at 10 First St. S.E. in Washington, D.C. The exhibition, in the north orientation gallery on the building’s first floor, is titled “Voices from Afghanistan.” It’s free and open to the public, on display from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, and will run through May 8.
Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division at the Library of Congress, termed the letters – of which RFE is offering the Library 15,000 for its collections – “a fantastic resource … it’s the first time that the voices of ordinary Afghanis are being heard. We’re going to have a window into a segment of the population, across the board.”
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington initiated the exhibition; several members of Congress also contributed Radio Azadi letters from their own collections to the display.
The letters cover many topics. They include criticism by students of the conditions in their schools, young people writing love poems to the objects of their affection, villagers harpooning corrupt officials, prisoners asking for prison reform. And yes – lots and lots of song requests.
Akbar Ayazi, who has been with Radio Azadi for five years, has been described as the “Jim Lehrer of Afghanistan.” He’s presided over on-the-air presidential debates, and notes that the station carries political satire, which the audience delights in.
But what is astonishing is the lengths the station’s listeners will go to in “talking back” to the station, which is the most popular source of news and information in the country. Many listeners have to travel miles and miles to a town with a post office. Some cannot write, and must use the services of public scribes to convey their feelings. And yet, the letters pour in.
Increasingly, there are e-mails, but even many of these electronic transmissions are decorated – using such modern means as Photoshop.
And those ninth-grade girls? They asked for a song by the late and very beloved Ahmad Zahir.