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Life in the Ka-bubble

Trudi-Ann Tierney, author of Making Soapies in Kabul, talks to KarryOn about her experiences of travelling to Afghanistan and producing soap operas in Kabul.

Trudi-Ann Tierney, author of Making Soapies in Kabul, talks to KarryOn about her experiences of travelling to Afghanistan and producing soap operas in Kabul.

Trudi-Ann Tierney knew of the NATO intervention in Afghanistan that had endured since the fatal attack on New York’s twin towers in 2001. She knew of the reign of the Taliban and the plight of Afghan women. To Tierney, Afghanistan was a distant and conflict-prone desert.

However, what she didn’t expect to find when she hopped on a plane in 2009 was the real Afghanistan. A country that was hidden away from news cameras. One that she’d get to know and love dearly during the three-and- a-half years she spent there as the head of drama for one of Afghanistan’s most prominent broadcasters.

“I have travelled to many countries but I have never encountered such hospitality as I did in Afghanistan,” she says. “I was a guest in their country and my friends and colleagues did everything they could to make me feel welcome.”

This sentiment prompted Tierney to put pen to paper and write a book based on her experiences.

“Essentially I was a bystander, watching with fascination as a nation moved to democratic rule,” she says.

Headstrong girls change hearts and minds in a war-zone

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Making Soapies in Kabul, the title of her novel, follows Trudi-Ann Tierney through her impulsive decision to travel to Afghanistan to add an international dimension to her career.

“In late 2008 I had dinner with a friend and he told me he was going to Kabul to work as Head of Television Production for the country’s largest broadcaster,” she says. “His job was to elevate the production values across the company’s two TV channels and to help train up its largely unskilled workforce. It all sounded incredibly intriguing, immensely challenging and bloody exciting. When we parted ways that night I begged him to try and get me a gig. Fast forward to April 2009 and I was on a plane and heading to Afghanistan to write an 8-part drama serial.”

Joined shortly by Muffy Potter, her business partner, Tierney set about creating soap operas that could be described as communications for development.

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“My time there taught me that media has such a crucial role to play in changing hearts and minds,” she says. “Most of the television that we produced contained positive messaging around important social and political issues. Our shows addressed subjects such as women’s rights, the importance of education, the dangers of narcotics use and the threat that the insurgency poses to the community. The fact that these messages were woven into drama serials made them unobtrusive and palatable.”

The two were successful in their grab for ratings, particularly with “Salam”, a TV serial that had become highly popular among locals.

As former actresses and Sydney producers, they were also adept at dealing with the strut and puff of demanding actors and surly film crew. However, nothing could prepare them for the turbulence of Afghan television.

“I constantly had to break up fights between the young men and women in our company,” Tierney says. “These guys were so accustomed to running the show and suddenly they had all of these intelligent, feisty, headstrong girls to contend with.”

“One day a female writer came to me and complained that a male colleague had shown her a photo of a dog on his laptop and told her that the dog was better looking and smarter than she was. When I took him aside to caution him about it, he was genuinely astonished. He insisted on showing me the photo of the dog, his argument being that there were much uglier dogs he could have chosen. I made him apologise to the girl but it wasn’t exactly delivered with good grace.”

Ground Zero

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Tierney’s book continues into the thick of creating the TV series under the heat of war. Tierney and Potter would work long hours, haul stage props themselves through 40 degree temperatures and dusty winds. They wrestled with the difficulty of obtaining female actresses to star in roles without bringing “shame to their families.” Of course, there was the constant risk of insurgent attacks.

“There was the day that I thought that Muffy had been caught up in a suicide attack on a Western supermarket,” Tierney says. “She had headed out for lunch but was going to stop by the store on her way through to buy me some light globes. As soon as I got news of the attack I tried to call her but some Afghan man kept answering and then hanging up the phone. On my final attempt, the phone had been switched off altogether. I frantically called work and told them that they had to track her down. They quickly located her at a French Bistro enjoying lunch. She had left her phone in the company car and it was our driver that kept answering it but those ten minutes when she was MIA were perhaps the most torturous of my entire life.”

Tierney would plot exit strategies in her mind lest the Taliban knocked down her door and kidnapped her. Though, according to her book, had she fallen victim to an insurgent attack, she would be capable of doing little more than passing out.

Luckily, there were many an expat among her circle that would lend experience, an understanding ear and first dibs on the liquor cabinet during guest house soirees.

“Living in Afghanistan made me realise how spoilt I was,” she says. “My friends and colleagues there have known nothing but war. They struggle for everything and yet they are just so resilient and uncomplaining.”

“I remember returning home to Australia for the first time after nine months of living there. I was watching morning television and there was a three-minute panel discussion about self-serve checkouts and whether people liked them or not. It somehow put my whole fortunate existence into perspective. I can still whinge with the best of them but I think I’m much more mindful of it these days.”

Afghanistan: the sequel

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Tierney, along with Potter, are currently back in Afghanistan working on a new series. The head-strong duo find the lure of making soapies in Kabul far too great to pass up.

“Afghanistan is a very beautiful country,” Tierney says. “My first shoot was in a town called Jalalabad about three hours drive from Kabul. The city is surrounded by mountains and has a river running through it and the air smells of orange blossoms. One of my greatest joys was to stand on the balcony of my guest house in the afternoon and watch the lightning storm close in on us.”

Upon arrival, she knew she was “home” when she heard the familiar siren of a local ice-cream truck.

“They play the theme song from the film Titanic,”  she says. “Apparently that was the first film to find its way into Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban so it has a special place in the hearts of most Afghans…and mine.”

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Making Soapies in Kabul is available from Allen & Unwin ($29.99)

Would you travel to a war-zone if you were assured a life-changing experience?