Afghanistan’s Lonely Hearts Call ‘Emergency’Feb 21, 2016
Afghans dial police hotline to chat up the opposite sex; ‘I like your voice’
Staff answered phones at the Kabul 119 police emergency call center in early February. PHOTO: EHSANULLAH AMIRI
By JESSICA DONATI and EHSANULLAH AMIRI
Feb. 19, 2016 1:17 p.m. ET
KABUL—In the age of Facebook and online dating, some Afghan men are still looking for love in an old-fashioned way—by calling the emergency-services hotline.
“We receive many calls telling us ‘I love you,’ ” said Fatana Yalda, 27 years old, who was taking calls in her booth recently and, like her colleagues, wore a head scarf over dark hair.
Across much of Afghanistan, women rarely leave home except in a head-to-toe burqa. Men don’t have much opportunity to make an approach, especially when many women aren’t allowed out without male chaperones. Few outside big cities have access to social media.
Thus, the one surefire way of speaking to a member of the opposite sex is to call Kabul’s police-and-emergency services. Operators say they receive as many as 70 crank calls a day.
“Especially illiterate men from the villages,” said Ms. Yalda. “We tell them that this is the 119 police call center. ‘Don’t make traffic on our line.’ ”
Amorous Afghan men, not so easily discouraged, often provide long, finely detailed reports about fires, in order to keep the conversation going. Firefighters dispatched to the scene often discover nothing burning but a man’s heart.
Another ploy is to report impossible-to-solve mysteries regarding missing livestock. “Some callers tell me, ‘my sheep and cows are lost.’ I ask who robbed them. They say, ‘you are police, so you have to find out,’ ” said 23-year-old Wida, who, like many Afghans, goes by one name. “They usually bother us like this.”
Lailuma Farouqi, who has worked at the center for eight years, said men keep calling despite their lack of success, probably because they enjoy the novelty of speaking to a woman who isn’t a relative.
“ ‘I like your voice, let’s be friends and give me your personal number,’ ” said Ms. Farouqi. “My ears are full of these words.”
The hotline’s policy calls for answering politely, reminding crank callers the line is for emergencies and not engaging in long conversations.
Persistent callers have their numbers blocked, a list of which The Wall Street Journal viewed. When contacted, no one on the list admitted to seeking love over the hotline.
“I have never called 119,” declared a shopkeeper named Hussain from eastern Ghazni province. “Crank-calling is totally against Islam!”
Some rural callers whose numbers were on the center’s blocked-numbers list denied calling 119 but admitted to speaking to female strangers on the phone when the women called first.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said those seeking love shouldn’t call the hotline. “It should only be used for emergencies,” he said, “and tips that could prevent attacks.”
One Kabul university student said after moving to the capital from his east-Afghanistan village he struggled to start conversations with girls. So he decided to try crank-calling women to practice, at random, not even using the hotline. On his only attempt, “she insulted me with bad words.”
Women crank-call, too. Beyond the country’s urban areas, most women remain out of public life. Girls lucky enough to attend school are typically pulled out at puberty and are under intense pressure to stay home.
One recent day at the call center, a male operator named Zikrullah took a call from a woman who tried to keep him on the line saying she was looking for friendship.
Zikrullah: “What you’re doing now is a making a nuisance call.”
Woman: “I’m not.”
Zikrullah: “You keep making our lines busy. You bother us. We are here to listen to emergency calls and to help our countrymen.”
Woman: “Can you connect me to Anil Kapoor?” the mustachioed Bollywood actor. He scolded her and she hung up.
Zikrullah, who has a mop of jet-black hair and honey-colored eyes, said he never gives out his number. It would get him into trouble.
“Lots of prank calls tell us that I like your voice and let’s be friends,” said Wida, the hotline worker. “So far that trick hasn’t worked here.”
Young Afghans have been known to call the police hotline seeking romantic advice. Some call for help escaping arranged marriages.
“For example: A girl loves a boy, but her family wants her to marry someone else,” said Gen. Mohammad Humayoon Ayni, who is in charge of the call center. “She does not agree, so she calls 119 for help.”
The center usually refers such callers to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
The call center, which was set up in 2007 and funded by the United Nations Development Program, has tried to tackle the problem. Calls used to be free. Now they cost 1.5 afghani a minute (about 2 cents), which Mr. Ayni said has helped. The center gets about 500 calls per 24 hours, he said.
The fees haven’t stopped men identifying themselves as Taliban from phoning female operators, the center’s operators said. The Taliban, who believe unrelated men and women should be segregated in education and the workplace, harass operators for working for the police, according to operators who have received threats from them. Their numbers are blocked.
The Web offers an alternative to young urbanites able to get online. “We have to thank Mark Zuckerberg and also Yahoo Messenger because they helped us a lot,” said one man, smiling at his fiancée over tea at a Kabul cafe.
The couple met on Facebook and communicated for a year before meeting. “He said, ‘may I love you?’ ” she said, describing the moment they agreed to be together. “I said, no problem.”
Write to Jessica Donati at Jessica.Donati@wsj.com