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

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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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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