On Radio Free Afghanistan, Time for Letters

BY Lea Winerman  March 9, 2010 at 3:07 PM EDT

When Radio Free Europe returned to Afghanistan’s airwaves shortly after the fall of the Taliban government, its mission was to bring listeners accurate and fair news and to promote discussion for citizens unaccustomed to a free press. Since then, Radio Azadi, as it’s known locally, has become the most popular media outlet in Afghanistan and has drawn tens of thousands of pieces of “fan mail” from throughout the country.

A selection of those letters — complaints of corruption, suggestions for rural development, song requests, poetry, tips for the president — as well as photos and artifacts are on display in ‘Voices from Afghanistan’ at the Library of Congress through May.

Sent in by ordinary Afghans from cities, small villages and refugee camps, the letters provide unusually candid insight into the daily lives of the people in the war-torn nation.

“You hear people talking about the schools they go to, the books they read, the poems that they love, the music they want to hear, and this is a side of Afghanistan we don’t always get to see,” says Radio Free Europe press officer Ari Goldberg.

While listeners tune-in to Radio Azadi as a conventional source of news and entertainment, it has also become a forum for people to air their grievances or petition for assistance in a country where government response comes slow, if at all.

“People live in remote places, the government is clearly not formed in such a way that people can get instant feedback from their representatives,” explains Goldberg, “so this radio station is really one of the few avenues to have their voices heard.”

Radio Azadi staff go through each piece of mail they receive, reading many on air. One such letter led to the reunion of a father and his daughter after a separation of 10 years. The Afghan woman sent a message in search of him via Radio Azadi. Within a few months, the father contacted the radio station, and they were soon reconnected:

‘Voices from Afghanistan’ also includes several e-mails, but for Mary-Jane Deeb, head of the library’s African and Middle Eastern division, it was important for the exhibit to highlight the visual charms of the handwritten letters.

Many are intricately decorated, echoing centuries-old scroll and calligraphy writing and floral motifs. One letter, sent by two young men to their favorite DJs, reaches 130 feet in length and is filled with poetry and illustrations.

“The good side of this is that they’re moving into modern times. The bad side of it is that we are going to lose this beautiful and traditional calligraphy,” Deed says. But, as she sees it, they’re all part of an invaluable record. “In the future when researchers want to do research, they will have this material in the voices of the people themselves.”