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The Afghan 'Borat' Turns Out To Be A Vegetarian Surfer From Florida

But you may also find Amanullah Mojadidi doing performance art pieces in Kabul.

Amanullah Mojadidi in front of his "Jihadi Gangster" character
Amanullah Mojadidi in front of his "Jihadi Gangster" character
Dietrich Alexander

Amanullah "Aman" Mojadidi isn’t offended at being called the "Borat" of the Afghan art scene. Like Borat – the character invented by British actor Sacha Baron Cohen – he loves provocation.

Also like Borat, whose movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan awakened the ire of a humorless Kazakh government; Mojadidi loves to anger autocrats, self-elected leaders and brutal oppressors.

The 41-year-old American stars – again, like Borat – in his own art projects set in public spaces, preferably Afghanistan.

There are of course reasons for this. The Mojadidi family is from the Afghan Hindu Kush region. In the late 1960s, his parents immigrated to the U.S., where Mojadidi was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1971. "Maybe to feel like an Afghan I needed to be born and raised in the States,” he told Die Welt, adding “and maybe I needed to live in Afghanistan for nearly a decade to feel like an American. Both worlds shaped me, but neither one of them completely correspond to the picture I have of myself.”

That may sound complicated – and it is. As complicated as Afghanistan and as cryptic as his art. One of Mojadidi’s video installations, for example, shows the action artist dressed like an Afghan policeman in Kabul stopping unsuspecting drivers at a fake checkpoint. To their amazement, he’s not seeking to have his palm greased – instead he presses 100 Afghani (around $2) into their hands with words of apology for the corrupt Kabul police department.

Only four of 20 perplexed drivers took the money. It’s a weird, cynical video that at first amuses but soon makes you think about the very real criminal behavior of Afghan officials that people have to put up with.

Mojadidi is in his element in moments like this – breaking taboos, unsettling and challenging people, laying reality bare. During the 2010 elections in Kabul he put up fake posters for an imaginary candidate – a “Jihadi Gangster“ named Hallunama Ididajom (his own name backwards). The poster said: “Vote for me. I’ve done Jihad and I’m rich.” The text on the candidate’s black-masked face reads: “Your favorite Jihadist.”

“What else is a jihadi gangster supposed to do but get himself elected to parliament?” the artist asks. What looks and sounds like satire is reality in Afghanistan. Everybody there knows it, but it’s taken an American in his adoptive country to give a deplorable situation a voice, and a humorous outlet.

Mojadidi’s satires take the pretense away from criminals trying to pass themselves off as national heroes in a country where – after over 30 years of war and civil war – there is hardly anybody around who is completely guilt-free.

With his daring, funny but also thought-provoking art, the fluent English and Dari speaking artist takes on both those calling themselves “holy warriors” as well as gangsters and corruption in modern Afghanistan. His Jihadi Gangster is a mix between gold-chain-wearing American gangsta-rappers and Afghan and Pakistani jihadists.

"I don’t want to paint rainbows, I want to make art that disturbs identity and challenges authority,” Mojadidi says. He’s very good at it, and exceeds the bounds of good taste at every turn – for instance his “Conflict Chic” fashion line that features a fox-trimmed flak jacket for Taliban fighters, and pants with a lot of hidden, large pockets for suicide bombers to stash their explosives.

He has another line in Jihadist furniture, like the “Kandahar”desert chair from his “Nomadic Furniture Line for Belligerents.” It is crafted from two guns, and step-by-step instructions for setting it up are on his website www.amanmojadidi.com.

A lunatic's heaven

Mojadidi describes his childhood as "an Afghan-American suburban dream, with racist Southern kids, pajama parties and football on weekends, Basmati-rice, meat seasoned with cumin, mashed potatoes with garlic." Ten thousand kilometers away, there was a war on in Afghanistan, and he remembers hearing slogans like “Afghanistan Forever,” “Down with Brezhnev,” and “Long Live Islam,” without having a clue to what they referred to.

His father Qudrat is a surgeon. During the Soviet occupation (Dec. 1979 to Feb. 1989), Qudrat Mojadidi went back to Afghanistan every summer to treat wounded mujahedeen.

When Aman Mojadidi was 19, he – “a vegetarian surfer from Jacksonville, Florida” – visited Afghanistan for the first time and with his uncle and 50 rebels went on a truck to the front near Jalalabad. He switched his "black Converse sneakers for brown sandals" and fired a single rocket at a government tank he couldn’t actually see.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001 he returned to Afghanistan. Slowly, he developed a passion that can best be described as love/hate for the torn country where satire is unknown, comedy induces anxiety, and criticism is feared.

He likes to refer to himself as an “Afghan by blood and a redneck by the grace of God,” although he also claims to be an atheist as well as a “radical political artist” – so radical he had himself photographed in a Kabul barbershop with a baseball cap and a few Budweiser beers. The picture is a surreal blend of a southern redneck and Afghanistan’s puritanical no-alcohol – and all around pretty joyless – daily life.

The tall, bearded artist calls his work “schizophrenic” and compares Afghanistan – oppressed by religious radicals and powerful politicians – to a “lunatic’s heaven” where the best-case scenario is that his art is censored but where the possibility of going to prison is omnipresent. So why do this, what drives him? “It’s a mixture of really wanting to learn about my cultural heritage and the need to give something back to the Afghans, to help them, to open their eyes."

The Afghan part of his family is not exactly thrilled by his artistic endeavors. His uncle is well-known in Afghanistan – Sibghatullah Mojadidi, now 85, is an extremely respected Pashtun leader in Kabul and was the first president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan after the fall of the Communist, Soviet-allied regime of Mohammed Najibullah in 1992. Sibghatullah Mojadidi, a moderate Islamist, still sits in the Upper House of the Afghan parliament. "We get along really well," says his nephew, "but I’m not really sure he gets the whole spectrum of what I do."

In Afghanistan he is limited in what he can show – otherwise it would be too dangerous. He’s done a couple of things on the underground art scene, a short anonymous thing on TV. He says he gets a lot of encouragement, but many Afghans – particularly the ones his art targets – call his work “insulting” and “blasphemous.”

"I’ve never been personally threatened," Mojadidi says, "but there were complaints to the voting commission about my election campaign poster, and they started an investigation. But then they had so much election fraud to deal with that they forgot all about it."

Mojadidi lives between Kabul, Dubai and Paris. He admits to being a seeker of “the geography of self” by which he means finding a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual identity. "I don’t aim to shock or preach. I’m also not saying I have any answers," Mojadidi says, "in fact my art may just create more questions."

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When Racism Poisons Italy's Culinary Scene

This is the case of chef Mareme Cisse, a black woman, who was called a slur after a couple found out that she was the one who would be preparing their meal.

Photo of Mareme Cisse cooking

Mareme Cisse in the kitchen of Ginger People&Food

Caterina Suffici


TURIN — Guess who's not coming to dinner. It seems like a scene from the American Deep South during the decades of segregation. But this happened in Italy, in this summer of 2023.

Two Italians, in their sixties, got up from the restaurant table and left (without saying goodbye, as the owner points out), when they declared that they didn't want to eat in a restaurant where the chef was what they called: an 'n-word.'

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The restaurant is called Ginger People&Food, and these visitors from out of town probably didn't understand that either.

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