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I'd like to ask you, what do these three people have in common? Well, you probably recognize the first person. I'm sure you're all avid "American Idol" watchers. But you might not recognize Aydah Al Jahani, who is a contestant, indeed a finalist, in the Poet of the Millions competition, which is broadcast out of Abu Dhabi, and seen throughout the Arab world. In this contest people have to write and recite original poetry, in the Nabati form of poetry, which is the traditional Bedouin form. And Lima Sahar was a finalist in the Afghan Star singing competition.
Now, before I go any further, yes, I know it all began with "Britain's Got Talent." But my point in discussing this is to show you -- I hope I'll be able to show you how these merit-based competitions, with equal access to everyone, with the winner selected via voting by SMS, are changing tribal societies. And I'm going to focus on Afghanistan and the Arab world with the UAE, how they're changing tribal societies, not by introducing Western ideas, but by being integrated into the language in those places.
It all begins with enjoyment. Video: We are late to watch "Afghan Star." We are going to watch "Afghan Star." We are late. We are running late. We must go to watch "Afghan Star." Cynthia Schneider: These programs are reaching incredibly deeply into society. In Afghanistan, people go to extraordinary lengths to be able to watch this program. And you don't necessarily have to have your own TV set. People watch it all over the country also in public places. But it goes beyond watching, because also, part of this is campaigning. People become so engaged that they have volunteers, just like political volunteers anyway, who fan out over the countryside, campaigning for their candidate. Contestants also put themselves forward.
Now, of course there is a certain degree of ethnic allegiance, but not entirely. Because each year the winner has come from a different tribal group. This has opened up the door, particularly for women. And in the last season there were two women in the finalists. One of them, Lima Sahar, is a Pashtun from Kandahar, a very conservative part of the country. And here she relates, in the documentary film "Afghan Star," how her friends urged her not to do this and told her that she was leaving them for democracy. But she also confides that she knows that members of the Taliban are actually SMS-ing votes in for her.
Aydah Al Jahnani also took risks and put herself out, to compete in the Poet of the Millions competition. I have to say, her husband backed her from the start. But her tribe and family urged her not to compete and were very much against it. But, once she started to win, then they got behind her again. It turns out that competition and winning is a universal human value. And she's out there. Her poetry is about women, and the life of women in society. So just by presenting herself and being in competition with men -- this shows the voting on the program -- it sets a very important example for young women -- these are young women in the audience of the program -- in Abu Dhabi, but also people in the viewing audience.
Now you'd think that "American Idol" would introduce a measure of Americanization. But actually, just the opposite is happening. By using this engaging popular format for traditional, local culture, it actually, in the Gulf, is precipitating a revival of interest in Nabati poetry, also in traditional dress and dance and music. And for Afghanistan, where the Taliban banned music for many years, it is reintroducing their traditional music. They don't sing pop songs, they sing Afghan music. And they also have learned how to lose gracefully, without avenging the winner. (Laughter) No small thing.
And the final, sort of, formulation of this "American Idol" format, which has just appeared in Afghanistan, is a new program called "The Candidate." And in this program, people present policy platforms that are then voted on. Many of them are too young to run for president, but by putting the issues out there, they are influencing the presidential race. So for me, the substance of things unseen is how reality TV is driving reality. Thank you. (Applause)
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Cynthia Schneider looks at two international "American Idol"-style shows -- one in Afghanistan, and one in the United Arab Emirates -- and shows the surprising effect that these reality-TV competitions are creating in their societies.
Cynthia Schneider studies culture and politics -- watching how novels, TV shows and cultural engagement around the globe (and especially within the Muslim world) might lead to political change. She was the US ambassador to the Netherlands from 1998 to 2001. Full bio »