By Tommy Wilkes and Mirwais Harooni
KABUL, March 20 (Reuters) - An 18-year old female novice singer and a 23-year old barber-turned-rapper are the unlikely finalists of a televised talent contest providing Afghans a welcome distraction from the daily bloodshed in their country.
The two are vying to become the next "Afghan Star". This year's season is the most tradition-breaking yet in a deeply conservative country where the Taliban once outlawed music and Western-style popular culture is widely frowned upon.
Originally due to be broadcast live, the final will instead be pre-recorded following a wave of Islamist attacks in Kabul, with the winner announced on Tuesday night.
Finalist Zulala Hashimi, from a militant-plagued province in the east, quit school and overcame resistance from relatives unhappy with her singing publicly. When Hashimi auditioned, she was one of only two women out of three hundred contestants.
"I showed people that a woman can do it. I ask every woman to make an effort to reach this point," she told Reuters, her mother by her side between rehearsals at a television studio protected behind blast walls and Kalashnikov-wielding guards.
Wowing audiences with bright traditional outfits and jewel-encrusted tiaras, and off-stage sporting brown-rimmed Ray Bans, Hashimi's songs in Pashto and Dari have won her thousands of fans, who vote by text message and on Facebook.
Up against Hashimi is Sayed Jamal Mubarez, a barber from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif who spent several years in Iran, one of thousands from Afghanistan's Hazara minority that sought refuge across the country's western border.
Having ditched his shalwar kameez in early auditions for jeans, a zipped black jacket and a "Street Swagg" baseball cap, Mubarez said he discovered rap in Iran and has been writing his own lyrics ever since.
"My parents are illiterate, but when I was singing they were encouraging me, so I believed that I could win people's support," he said backstage. "But I never thought of being a finalist."
INSIDE A COMPOUND
Afghan Star, now in its twelfth season, is produced by the private television channel Tolo. Tolo's reporting has earned it the wrath of the Taliban, who last year killed seven Tolo employees in a suicide attack on a staff minibus.
The contest was moved to inside a compound in Kabul's city centre.
Obaid Juenda, a judge on the show who now lives in London, said the percentage of women auditioning had fallen sharply to five percent amid the deteriorating security.
Juenda hoped the show gave contestants a springboard for a career, but in a country where opportunities for public performances are limited, past winners have faded into obscurity.
"There isn't an industry here. We have too many people here who love female singers but we can't sell our music legally. They can't perform in public," he told Reuters.
Hashimi said she had received nothing but support so far.
"Right now I don't have any problem," she said, her eyes darting nervously to her mother. "If in the future there are some challenges I'll try to cope with them to fulfil my dreams." (Writing by Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Tom Heneghan)