Nabi Roshan was a renowned comedian, dubbed by many as the Jon Stewart of Afghanistan, with his show aired on the country’s largest TV network – watched by millions each week.
But last August he was forced to flee the country after the Taliban armed group took over the country 20 years after it was driven out of power in a United States-led military invasion. He is now among more than 3,000 Afghan refugees based in Albania.
Roshan tries to keep a low profile but he often gets stopped by admirers – fellow Afghan refugees – who recognise him from his Shabak-e-Khanda (Laughter Network) show – popularly known as Afghanistan’s SNL.
And often he is invited to speak at gatherings of the small Afghan community living at the refugee centre in Shegjin, a small town by the Adriatic Sea. He uses his knack for satire, to add a little humour to an otherwise grim congregation of Afghans many of whom were forced to flee their country fearing persecution from the Taliban.
“Being in a refugee camp is such a social equaliser,” he said during one such event.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a former minister or a parliamentarian or a cook, when the food is served, we all run to grab the bread before it is over,” he jokes, as the crowd responded with loud laughter.
His satire is not just for laughs though, it also puts the spotlight on the unprecedented hunger crisis in his native country, where people jostling for a loaf of bread has become a common sight. The Afghan economy has been in a free fall, further worsening the humanitarian situation since the fall of the internationally-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani last August.
“One can’t make everyone laugh, but it is a nice feeling to be able to make people smile,” Roshan told Al Jazeera at the refugee centre in Shengjin, a small town with less than 10,000 people.
Taliban imposed strict media rules
Roshan was among the few political satirists along with Mohammad Ibrahim Abed and Seyar Matin who were watched by millions on Tolo TV. Abed and Matin were also forced to flee the country, fearing threats of Taliban persecution.
With comedy and satire that often reached into the political and social spaces, the trio often ran into trouble even before the Taliban established the Islamic Emirate.
“It was not easy; there was always a threat from not just the Taliban, but also the government and warlords. Because my fellow comedians and I spared no one,” he added.
Roshan recalls an incident from “during the republic days”, referring to the West-backed Afghan government, when a prominent political leader threatened his colleagues for mocking him on their show.
“He [a prominent parliamentarian] promised to have us killed, and for a couple of months after receiving the threat, we had to travel in armoured cars [to protect from attacks], but at the end, truth prevailed because we were protected by law,” he said.
That is no longer the case, Roshan said, narrating the ordeal of his escape due to death threats he and his family received after the Taliban took control.
“I am someone who will always tell you the unfiltered, naked truth in my jokes. But this regime [the Taliban] has a problem with truth,” he said.
Since taking control of Afghanistan, the Taliban has imposed strict rules that monitor all media, including satire and entertainment, forcing entertainers and comedians to cease work.
Most popular entertainers, like singers, actors, comedians, including Roshan’s colleagues, were forced to flee the country, many of them seeking asylum in the West.
While most entertainment and satirical TV shows have been pulled off the air by channels that are still operating within Afghanistan, Roshan and fellow comedians try to keep the humour alive through their YouTube channels operating from exile.
Last November, the Taliban issued a decree banning comedy shows and women’s appearances on TV shows altogether.
‘The death of satire’
For Roshan, the murder of Nazar Mohammad, popularly known as Khasha Zwan, by the Taliban in July last year, was a foreboding sign of things to come. “When they killed Khasha, it was not only a warning for all of us [comedians], but it was the death of satire.
“There is no difference between Khasha and myself or other entertainers; they killed us all,” Roshan told Al Jazeera, sitting in the community area of the refugee centre, sipping Afghan green tea.
A viral video clip showing the Taliban members abusing and assaulting Khasha Zwan, who had his hands tied behind, caused international outrage.
“They killed him for his speech and satire; and without due process, they made a judgement and took his life,” he said, reminiscing Khasha’s murder.
Being a satirist, Roshan said, was never easily accepted in Afghanistan where rigid social norms largely looked down upon the professions in the entertainment industry.
“Not every joke was well received, and there was always someone upset with us which in a place like Afghanistan can prove to be very dangerous,” he said with a chuckle.
But comedy allows a society to make difficult conversation on subjects that would otherwise evoke strong responses, he said, sharing an example of shows they did on corruption, drug abuse and even domestic violence.
“For over a decade, we shaped the comedy scene in Afghanistan, melding criticism of political and social situations with satire that could directly speak to the people. We addressed difficult issues, from corruption to human rights to situation of women,” the Afghan comedian says.
“Through our work, we started difficult conversations, and eventually helped normalise them,” he said.
Lack of family support
Despite the lack of family support, Roshan chose to become a satirist. His father wanted him to join the family trucking business.
He learned the art of satire by watching international professionals mainly from India and Pakistan, and adapted techniques to suit an Afghan audience.
He spent hours practising, writing, and then rewriting bits, ensuring the integrity of the message was conveyed within the boundaries of humour.
His efforts were rewarded, as he attained fame and success. “Afghans loved and welcomed our show,” he added.
Roshan says his father accepted his career choice eventually.
Even in exile, many Afghan fans come up to him excitedly to share their admiration of his work. Often though, the enthusiasm over having spotted a national celebrity in a foreign country is quickly replaced by shared grief over the loss of one’s homeland.
“Even though we are all here because of tragic circumstances, I get so much love from fellow Afghans who never fail to tell me how much they enjoyed and admired our comedy show,” he said.
“But it is also reminder of what we lost in these last few months,” he added, referring to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, including the humanitarian crisis, as well as the clamping down on rights and freedoms.
“Many Afghans come up to my room [at the refugee centre] wanting to talk, or request to arrange shows. I try to oblige everyone because we are all experiencing the same pain and sorrow,” he said.
“Even refugees deserve some laughter in their lives,” he told Al Jazeera.