Under pain of death

The sea green Toyota Corolla rolls to a stop in an ugly gravel alley somewhere in Afghanistan’s sprawling capital.

Mozdah Jamalzadah

Mozdah Jamalzadah

The sea green Toyota Corolla rolls to a stop in an ugly gravel alley somewhere in Afghanistan’s sprawling capital.

The driver throws the car into park while our group places a cellphone call to ask for further instructions. A short time later, a young Afghan man appears through a metal gate about 20 metres away and motions the car to pull forward.

Our Afghan driver and the guide, intentionally left in the dark about the visit’s purpose, stay with the car, while the man leads us through a courtyard and into a Kabul home, indistinguishable from thousands like it in the city. Only when we’re safely inside does Mozhdah Jamalzadah emerge from hiding, to warmly welcome her guests.

Jamalzadah, 25, is suffering from an acute case of cabin fever after spending a week locked up in the building under constant supervision; otherwise, she is in remarkably good spirits for a woman who was rumoured to have been kidnapped, brutally beaten, tortured, shot to death and buried.

The Afghan-Canadian is famous in her homeland for her song Afghan Girl, a tribute to the nation’s heroines that she co-wrote with her father, Bashir; and her television talk show, The Mozhdah Show, which was inspired by The Oprah Winfrey Show.

The controversial show tackles some of Afghanistan’s most taboo topics: child abuse, child labour, domestic violence and divorce.

Rumours of Jamalzadah’s untimely demise and vague death threats forced her to return to her parents’ home in Vancouver in May. Only a handful of people know that she recently snuck back into Kabul in disguise; hence, the guests’ need for discretion. She has since left the country.

“Honestly, the reason I came back is to look for my cats,” Jamalzadah admits sheepishly over snacks and soft drinks. She left her kitties in the care of relatives when she fled Afghanistan. The cats ran away while the relatives were moving. “I cried for five days straight,” she adds.

Longing for a couple of lost cats may seem trivial when your life is on the line, but for Jamalzadah, they are symbolic of a great upheaval that has her questioning her future.

In the span of less than two months, Jamalzadah has all but lost her television career, her home, her cherished pets and, most importantly, the freedom to help rebuild her nation.

Jamalzadah had hoped to visit A Better World’s projects in Sheberghan, Jowzjan province, and accompany the Lacombe-based international development organization’s team to Herat, the city she fled with her family at age five. Security concerns prevented both visits.

“I thought that whatever I’ve gained from being raised in Canada I could give back here. And now that’s been taken from me. I don’t know how else to help,” she says.

Jamalzadah’s life was thrown into turmoil in April, the week after she shared her life story and her perspective on Afghanistan at a Lacombe event hosted by A Better World’s youth organization, Tomorrow’s EDGE.

A few weeks before making her first visit to Canada in seven months, Jamalzadah had signed a contract to work with Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s most popular television station.

The station planned to re-launch The Mozhdah Show, which thrilled Jamalzadah. In the meantime, it asked the singer to host the final four episodes of Afghan Star, a talent show in the vein of American Idol.

Jamalzadah was hanging out at home in Vancouver, catching up on her emails and fleshing out concepts for The Mozhdah Show when she received an urgent message from her boss at Tolo TV about the rumour about her circulating in Afghanistan.

“There are always rumours about me here,” explains Jamalzadah with a laugh. “I’ve been in a car accident, I’m in a coma, I’ve been kidnapped, a bunch of things.

“I’m like, ‘It’s no big deal.’”

Two days later, Jamalzadah packed her bags for Kabul. During a stopover in London, she switched the SIM card in her phone to make international calls.

“I started shaking because there were two urgent text messages from the Canadian embassy (in Kabul). I’m like, ‘What is going on?’”

Jamalzadah called the embassy, which informed her that its intelligence branch had reason to believe that, rumours aside, there was a direct threat against her life.

It advised her to turn around and return to Vancouver until the situation calmed down.

Unwilling to abandon her home, her cats and her show, Jamalzadah pressed on. As soon as she stepped off the plane in Kabul, everybody working at the airport ran toward her shouting, “Oh my god! She’s alive! She’s alive!”

“That’s when I realized the seriousness of this rumour,” she says.

By the time Jamalzadah arrived back in Afghanistan, the rumours of her demise had spiralled out of control. Newspapers, television stations and websites had jumped on the story, which gave the rumours more legitimacy.

Then someone claiming to be a doctor called Tolo TV’s news department to say Jamalzadah’s body had just arrived at the hospital. Doctors were performing an autopsy, and the station was welcome to send a crew to the hospital the next morning to cover the story. Other television stations took it one step further, reporting on Jamalzadah’s funeral arrangements.

“That’s when my family freaked out,” she says. “The moment I got to my house, my uncle, my cousins, everybody came and they’re like, ‘We’re going to book you a ticket back. Take whatever you can, you need to go right now.’”

Who started the rumours? One thing is certain: it wasn’t the Taliban, says Jamalzadah.

Whoever created such an elaborate, pervasive rumour must be in a position of power, perhaps the Afghanistan government, and have the ability to manipulate the media, she says.

“Excuse my language, but it really did (scare the crap out of me).”

Frightened and under immense pressure from her family, Tolo TV, government ministers and Kabul’s chief of police to leave Afghanistan, Jamalzadah hastily prepared to head home.

Tighter security and the restrictions imposed on her movements made it difficult for Jamalzadah to do the very interviews that might have put the rumours to rest. Even some of her Facebook friends questioned whether she was really the one behind her posts.

“A lot of people are still convinced that I’m already gone,” says Jamalzadah.

To complicate matters more, The Oprah Winfrey Show had approached her about participating in one of its final episodes. The producers insisted she submit a brief segment for the show.

At great personal risk, Jamalzadah hired a television crew and made public appearances in Kabul to film it.

In the end, the segment never aired. Jamalzadah was disappointed and humiliated by the treatment she received at the hands of Oprah’s producers.

“They didn’t even understand what I was going through. They didn’t even try to listen,” says Jamalzadah. “I love Oprah. She’s my idol. And I’m sure she didn’t know anything about it.”

When Jamalzadah arrived in Vancouver, she struggled to settle into a new life. Confused and uncertain what to do next, she decided that if she was going to take a few weeks to get back on her feet, she would do it in Kabul.

The disguise she wore to sneak back into the country was so effective that even her bodyguard failed to recognize her at Kabul International Airport.

“I left without closure,” says Jamalzadah of her decision to return. “I feel like this time, if I don’t come back, then at least I won’t feel as terrible as I did (in Canada).”

Jamalzadah’s time in Kabul is running out and she still doesn’t know what she is going to do with herself in the future. She never expected to be forced out of Afghanistan the way that she was, and that really hurts.

In spite of the rumours and the death threats, Jamalzadah says that, if it were up to her, she would stay in Afghanistan and work on The Mozhdah Show.

However, she is uncertain whether Tolo TV and her sponsors would be willing to take responsibility for her security, which would be costly, or deal with the fallout in the event she was killed. Her family and the Canadian embassy would also probably have something to say about it, she says.

“When I’m putting other people’s lives in jeopardy, when I’m putting my own life in jeopardy, I’m wondering, ‘Is it worth it? Should I do it? These are the things I need to think about.”

cjkennedy@bprda.wpengine.com