Mozhdah Jamalzadah, the 'Oprah of Afghanistan,' speaks her truth with new biography, Voice of Rebellion
This interview originally aired on Nov. 23, 2019.
Dubbed the "Oprah of Afghanistan," Kabul-born, Vancouver-raised Mozhdah Jamalzadah came to Canada when she was just five years old. When Mozhdah's father wrote a protest poem inspired by an acid attack on a group of Kandahar schoolgirls, Mozhdah set it to music and turned it into a hit.
Afghan Girl was 2009's song of the year in Afghanistan, and in 2010 Mozhdah was invited to the White House to perform it for Michelle and Barack Obama. The attention led to a hosting stint at a TV station in Afghanistan that broke ground for its exploration of taboo topics such as child abuse, women's rights and divorce.
In 2018, Jamalzadah defended Sharon Bala's debut novel The Boat People on Canada Reads. She is now the subject of the biography Voice of Rebellion by journalist and documentary filmmaker Roberta Staley.
Jamalzadah spoke with Shelagh Rogers about her life and ongoing commitment to social justice.
A Canadian refugee
"Kids grow up very quickly in a war zone. My father's life was threatened and my family escaped from Kabul during the Soviet invasion. I was five years old when I left with my family to come to Canada as refugees.
Kids grow up very quickly in a war zone.
"But I remember a lot. I already felt like a little adult, even back then. I knew that there was a possibility that we might not make it through this journey."
Life on the west coast
"When people are migrating to Canada, most of them are placed in or in and around the Toronto area. So we were placed there. My dad's asthma became a lot worse and I think it was the cold and the heat. The doctor kind of suggested that my father go to western Canada, where the air is milder and his asthma might get better.
"He left for Vancouver to visit a friend and I remember he called us and he said, 'Pack your things, I'm not coming back.' When we moved to Vancouver, he was initially working a minimum wage job. He did eventually start his own business, but it was very difficult to get started."
"A couple of Afghan girls were attending school and members of the Taliban threw acid on their faces while they were walking home. I remember seeing a clip of it on the news and one of the girls said she wasn't scared and she wasn't going to stop getting her education. I was watching this girl with her face completely burned and she's still not afraid of the Taliban.
"I remember sitting there crying wondering why is this happening to these girls. I could have easily been one of those girls. My father was working with the Canadian Forces at that time as a cultural adviser in Kandahar where this took place. He wrote a poem and when he got back to Vancouver he handed me the paper. He told me he wrote it for those girls and hoped I could do something with it. I sat there that day and came up with this melody to go with it.
"The song I wrote, Afghan Girl, then became the biggest hit of the year."
The "Oprah" of Afghanistan
"When I was the host of my talk show in Kabul, I had to make sure that I was dressed in a certain way. I had to wear a full head scarf. My outfits had to be covered but I still tried to push the boundaries. I remember not wearing the headscarf purposely 'by accident' one time — and they didn't air my show.
We were getting threats from extremists who did not want a woman with a show like mine speaking so openly about taboo topics such as women's rights.
"Myself and the TV station were getting death threats constantly. We were getting threats from extremists who did not want a woman with a show like mine speaking so openly about taboo topics such as women's rights."
Telling my story
"I wanted nothing more than for Roberta Staley to write my story. Roberta produced a documentary that featured my life's story. That's when I met her and she is just an incredible human being. As difficult as it was to relive and revisit some of the difficult times in my life, she told the story perfectly, even better than what I had expected."
Mozhdah Jamalzadah's comments have been edited for length and clarity.