Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Afghan Update: Bamiyan

Getting ready to go to Bamiyan… it’s a bit dicey because we are driving. There are two routes: the southern way (paved) goes through Wardak which is definitely to be avoided if you are foreign or Hazara since it’s Pashtun and thus potential Taliban territory. The northern route (unpaved) bumps along through mountain passes on roads of rubble and sheer cliffs, but passing only has one danger area, the Pashtun villages in the Ghorban valley. This is not a road really; this is a rugged path carved by hundreds of years of donkeys patiently hoofing their way through the precipices, head down, loaded with every sort of tradable item. These donkeys are relentless, dauntless. We are passing them continuously on the path – they nimbly trot through the rubble as we go bouncing along, rattling teeth and brains. What do donkeys think? Do they think? No matter how huge the load, they just keep walking.

The dangers on this precipitous journey run from robberies to kidnappings, and we aren’t too keen on either. So the entire ride with our non-English speaking driver we are asking if we are approaching, in, or leaving this notorious Ghorban valley. Nothing like a 7 hour scary ride to improve one’s language skills, and my Dari is improving daily. I’ve learned khatar = danger, and checkpoint which has a long name but everyone knows ”checkpoint.”

Passing through one town in the long ride to Bamyan, we pass a sheep being slaughtered, its head severed, still shaking and quivering – still alive. A man stands by casually. Sheep are food; sheep are life. Death is a casual event. Meat hangs in front of every butchery, a gory decoration to me, a vegetarian, but even a bit too vivid for meat-eaters who are used to packaged pieces of animals. A wheelbarrow full of hoofed feet stands by with another row of feet all neatly lined up fill the store window. Without the sheep, people could not live. I hear it’s really tasty, this mutton, so fresh, so tender!

Pulling into Bamyan is a little shock after Kabul. Most small cities (or large towns) are clusters of mud walled lanes shielding homes inside from prying eyes, punctuated by alleyways between them, and a few streets lined with rows of small, open-front shops. Bamiyan has one long street of bazaar that welcomes you into the town. It is the town. There are a few cross streets and a lovely river traversing the town, and then endless farms and mud walled enclaves – all in a flat sprawl between the mountains.

But the most prominent feature in Bamyan is that amazing rocky fa├žade of mountain dotted with caves across its impossibly sheer face, and the two huge empty arches where stone Buddhas once towered until the Taliban blew up these treasured statues. There it stands, the huge wall of caves and niches, right there, visible from anywhere in the city the minute you enter, and right there at the end of my block. It’s not hidden, or a bus ride away, or behind a fence – it’s there – the biggest thing in town. It defines the town in more than reputation but in situation. The wall is omnipresent. Farmers are busy at its base tending to crops just as they’ve done for centuries; herds of sheep or goats traipse along looking for edibles oblivious to this majestic masterpiece of nature and man.

So what did the town do as the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas that stood watching over them for a millennium? Did they all come out to watch? Did they have a protest? Chain themselves to the mountain? No… because before the Taliban blew up the statues, they proceeded to massacre most of the Hazara in the area, going door to door and killing every male, and causing a mass exodus of families over the snowcapped mountains. Babies froze, the elderly faltered, men dressed in burqas, women carried their children until they dropped. Who was left in town to dispute the slaying of statues?

Bamyan is the safest province in Afghanistan (once you get there) and one of the poorest (hence our presence here). The locals feel that, since this is the homeland of the Hazara, the government ignores them and isn’t sending them the money for teachers, schools, training programs, etc. Sounds familiar. So the new idea in Bamyan is eco-tourism. Several key development organizations are assisting in staff training and hotel building, and establishing tour groups and media to bring in tourists. Perhaps in a year or two a kiosk selling souvenirs will open at the mountain base, and then a few more, and then a billboard… but, then again, you can’t keep a valley alive selling ladies fingers (aka okra or bamya in Dari).

I hope that tourism won’t bring those elements that plague Kabul: too many cars, unfettered pollution, pickpockets, beggars, high prices, random dangers for foreigners, etc. Already, we were accosted – or jubilantly surrounded – by a swarm of kids as we passed a makhtab (school). The second they saw us, they ran at us screaming like we were Santa Claus. But there was savvy behind the mania. The children (girls and boys) mimed putting on lipstick – clear message: give me lipstick. And they cling, and pinch, and grab your hat and bags, and yell “qalam” (pen) and “bakhshesh” (gift or tip). Someone has been giving children lipstick and pens. Children are the most needy, the least able to survive… but the mass attack was unnerving. We have experienced this before: after a show in a refugee camp in Macedonia during the Kosovo war, I was literally carried off by the sea of excited kids, as I waved madly at Michael who was similarly being swept away in the other direction. We were suddenly the candy they never tasted.

Speaking of Santa, I see Christmas trees here and there – decorated with shiny balls and all – right here in Afghanistan. “We like Christmas here,” they tell me. Of course, why not? The Christmas event is noted in the Quran along with the virgin birth and angelic visits.

One more word on Bamiyan… the province – the only one with a woman governor – is not as well served by humanitarian organizations as are the areas besieged by war. Many in Bamyan suggest that it would be a better strategy to improve the safest areas, such as Bamyan and Badakhshan, to serve as models for the other provinces. Give Bamyan good schools and hospitals, provide services in the mountain villages, improve agricultural methods and transportation, and let the other provinces get the message that peace attracts aid, not violence. Of course, the counter arguments are many. Every battle-weary village in Ghazni, Qandahar, Helmand or Wardak wants peace. Only the handful of troublemakers that are bought and paid for by another handful of wealthy outsiders who profit from war want its continuance. What family in Uruzgan wants a life of fear and insecurity for their children? None. Some of the most conservative areas may share traditions with their Talib cousins, but no one wants bombs at their son’s wedding or daughter’s school. Families are alike the world over and bemoan their lost children.
from Joanna's Afghan journal

Monday, November 08, 2010

Afghanistan Update: Rameen

Rameen, our friend from Afghan Communicator who was born in Kabul and raised in the US and now returned to help rebuild the country – one of the few returnees -- says that this is not the Kabul of his youth. It’s full of “hillbillies,” he says. When refugees returned from wherever they went, they all came to Kabul. Add to that the general trend toward urbanization that comes after war, drought and famine, and you have a city full of country bumpkins. They know nothing, Rameen complains, about how to operate in an organized, civil society. They are relentlessly tribal and dismiss anything outside their sphere of understanding – such as, entrepreneurship, modern trade practices, money managing, rewards for merit rather than familial ties, etc.

Rameen has set up a beautiful gallery of arts, from exquisite calligraphy (a famous art of Afghanistan) to crafts, clothing and furniture. He already has money, so he is seeking out the best artists, buying their goods, getting them further training at his expense, and selling their artwork with negligible markup. This kind of support for the arts is rare though, and Rameen returned determined to bring back the arts and to encourage self-respect among fine artists and train them in entrepreneurship. He speaks strongly against turning Afghanistan into a “beggar nation.” All this money flowing into the country is hampering the people’s ability to solve problems and survive on their own. All this building of hospitals and schools but no trained doctors and teachers to fill them.

Okay this was Rameen’s rant but it fits right in with this lack of global coordination of aid.

From Joanna in Kabul.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Afghanistan Update:

Sorry, since this is our fact-finding journey, so we have more news reportage than uplifting tales about the joys of working with the children.  It has been very interesting hearing from each arts group and NGO about their trials and successes.  But we are trying to locate the artists that are truly dedicated to the craft and recognize how rewarding and effective it can be, and see beyond the TV cameras and sheltered stages (where only the invited or intellectuals go) and are happy to go out into the rural provinces. 

We were invited to give a presentation to the Theatre Program students. For the presentation, Professor Hussainzadah gave a nice opening about our place in new Afghan theatre history and we showed the students our "Theatre for Peace" video with Dari translation (well done by Sharif) for the narration.  Then I described the point of the project – that you theatre students have an essential role in improving life in Afghanistan – beyond reviving the art of theatre, beyond being on TV or film – using theatre as a newspaper for the majority of Afghans that live in the provinces and can’t read and have no access to information and don’t know that they have no access to information.  Most of the students were heartily in favor of this kind of theatre and ready to sign up then and there. They responded with genuine concern and idealism, not the lure of money. 

And then, typically, I had to stir things up – I mentioned an idea I’ve had for awhile, an idea that upon mentioning to my hosts and others, was greeted with tremendous skepticism. The Theatre Program has almost 300 students, and only eight of them are women (and none of them are actors, only playwrights and directors).  Here was my ultimate test – idealistic students – all of them male but one.  My idea is that the University should create a “women’s theatre group” specifically to perform just for women, and especially for women in the provinces.  And where would they gather the women to perform for them?  Most villages have rudimentary community centers where the men hang out to smoke and chat, so why not have one night as “women-only night” and only women and their children are allowed. Then we can present our play by women, about women, and for women. I asked them: don’t they see how essential it is – if you have important information about breast-feeding or women’s hygiene or pregnancy, you can’t expect the men to relay this information to the women. You have to reach them directly!  Well --- this caused quite a stir!  Sharif said that the more prevalent response amid the ruckus was, yes, this may be possible. The others shook their head and said no way was this going to happen.  The one woman at our presentation left amid the stir – perhaps she was embarrassed to be the object, even obliquely, of the discussion.  (But maybe she just had to go to the loo.) 

Rameen had told me a story when I mentioned the idea to him. He said he was advising a women’s group and they complained to him that they wanted to start a Women’s Forum but the men, who had a Men’s Forum, wouldn’t let them.  So Rameen asked the men what the problem was. They thought this idea of a Women’s Forum could only mean trouble for them, that the women were going to gang up on them.  He then asked the women what they intended to discuss at their Forum and, of course, it was just issues about health and family and the like.  Now in Islamic tradition, mothers reign supreme – mothers are tops.  So he asked the men if having a Mother’s Forum would be okay.  The men said of course it would be fine!  So the women established a Mother’s Forum with no problem. Recalling this story, I made sure in my presentation – and especially my question at the end – to refer to Mothers Night at the community center rather than Women-only Night so the men would be more apt to agree. 

After the discussion, one group of students came up and informed me that they themselves were doing a show about women’s rights in the provinces – performing for the women.  This is allowed: for women to see men perform.  I told them that they should also take care to perform for the men too, so they have a better understanding about women’s rights.  This group also thought that they could arrange a performance by a group of girls as I had suggested, and that girls would be willing to be on stage and perform if it were under these circumstances. 

Interestingly, this student group was all Hazara and, for Americans this means nothing, but for Afghans, the Hazara are the most put-upon tribe/ethnicity.  It’s quite comparable to being black – the prejudice is deep-seated, less noticeable in some arenas and huge in others.  They are less represented in government, but widely appreciated for their arts; they were decimated during the mujahideen civil war (which was primarily inter-tribal) and are less often hired except among their own businesses.  My hosts are all Hazara, and doing very well in business.  So it was interesting for Sharif, who is also Hazara and very sensitive to the issue to see a Hazara group perform – they did a short comedy skit during the class – and then speak up about women’s rights. He was quite complimentary about the group’s performing even though he swears little interest in theatre.  But he is always very attuned to anything accomplished by Hazara, and consequently Michael and I are now very sensitive to who’s behind the counter in a store, who’s sweeping up, who’s on the bus and who’s driving the bus.  It seems things have become more polarized in Kabul – neighborhoods are more clearly defined by tribe and Sharif feels more comfortable driving in certain areas. Hazara are considered the descendants of Genghis Khan, an outside invader from centuries ago, because Hazara look slightly Chinese. It’s remarkable that this feature remains after all this time, I assume because there isn’t much inter-tribal marriage. Also, and maybe more important, prejudice is doubled because the Hazara are Shia and most of Afghanistan is Sunni. 

From Joanna in Kabul  

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Afghan Update: The Role of Theatre

Theatre is a good solution to the information problem. It really is effective in the few places it goes…. but it’s just not generally accepted. That's partly because it doesn’t sound proper, but mostly because people don’t know what it is! It’s as though they never had a tradition of theatre. In fact, Afghanistan enjoyed a long history of traveling actor-poet-comedians who roamed the country acting out stories from Islamic and mythical tales with one fellow acting all the parts with different voices and accoutrements. But a collective of actors on the stage didn’t emerge until the early 1900s and came into its own in the 50’s and 60’s. Even a women’s theatre was formed in 1958 for audiences of all women. Gradually the audiences for these plays were mixed men and women. Then, as we know, the best actors fled the country during the Russian invasion, then the civil war in the 90’s, and the Taliban finally put the theatre into the grave.

So you have a country of mostly deeply traditional, rural, uneducated people in the provinces, cities full of these country folk who come to the city for work, a huge expatriate population of the best Afghan actors and intellectuals scattered about the globe, and youngsters growing up today who have no knowledge of theatre or memory of any tradition of theatre. Even the students entering the Theatre program at the University, reports one of the Theatre instructors, actually do not know what "theatre" is. How would they know? What have they seen in their province? So why are they there? They are there because they have seen people on TV but they have no knowledge of live theatre and no idea that one might perform for a live audience. Really, Salahuddin, one of the teachers says he is amazed (he has the 1st and 2nd year students) that they have no knowledge of live performance whatsoever, having never encountered it.

He begs us please send DVDs of performances -- Shakespeare, Brecht, Ibsen -- anything from the Western tradition so they can see a play. We left a full version of "Beyond the Mirror" and small excerpts from four of our productions, but we are not classical theatre, we are symbolic, non-realistic, physical-visual theatre... which is good too. But they need exposure to everything so they will get a balanced view of theatre from many genres. The Germans sent in a puppetry teacher who taught the animation of objects, but he didn’t teach puppet-making, so they have a successful puppet theatre now sponsored by the Goethe Institute, but the puppets are rough and amateurish looking. However, the children love the puppets all the same.

Theatre is so unknown that it presents a problem to tackle right off when trying to go into the provinces. We have to find some forward-thinking village leader who will take a chance. Then when they see that this thing called theatre is funny and amusing and educational, they like it… mostly. Once, Parwaz Puppet Theatre told us, they did about half the show and had to quickly pack up and leave a village. Yet we saw photos of them in the mountains of Bamiyan, with the villagers carrying their gear up and up and up the mountain with them tagging along behind. Then, after all this lugging of gear, the villagers loved the show! They said this was one of their most rewarding performances because, really, these people so far up in the hills never dreamed of something like their puppet show (about children’s rights). We had the same experiences in Pakistan in one refugee camp where we had to leave in a big hurry, and the same completely rewarding experience taking our show to remote villages around Andkhoi (a small town) where people flocked from miles around to see the amazing show!  Our experience is – and same with the theatre groups we spoke to – people may be very skeptical and disapproving to start, but almost always, when they see the funny-business and imaginative puppets or characters or antics and music, they just love it. And they see that it is not un-Islamic and actually carries a good message for their children. And everywhere, people love their children.

from Joanna in Kabul

Monday, November 01, 2010

Afghan Update: Meetings, NGOs, and International Aid

We have had great meetings... with Kabul University, theatre groups, NGOs, old friends, cultural organizations, etc. and the Embassy.  Everyone has been very happy to see us, interested in the project, hopeful for its success, and yes... they do see dollar signs when they look at us, but most have been genuinely helpful, interested and generous.

Prof. Hussainzadah, the head of the Theatre Department at Kabul University was our first stop – he knows everyone in the theatre business in all of Afghanistan, and has been introducing us to every director of note and the most promising students and inviting us to the important events. Fortunately there was a big Arts Festival at the famous Bagh-e Babur (Babur’s Garden) that attracted directors and artists from all the provinces. We met the Directors of the National Theatres in Herat, Mazar, Jalalabad and Jowzjan Provinces, and have gotten a good sense of what their needs are, who funds them, how they survive, and their hopes or doubts about the future. And we’ve met some of the smaller theatre groups and see how they survive. In a nutshell – foreign money.

The Goethe Institute is the big funder for arts here, and the Norwegians. There’s money flowing into Afghanistan from everywhere, for every purpose, for odd scraps of time… and it’s completely disorganized. No one seems to coordinate with anyone else. Wouldn’t it be great if the Norwegians, who are sending four actresses here to work with the girls at the University for one week (!) to coordinate with us who will be working for five months, and with the French who only seem to bring Afghans to France for extended study, with the Germans who fund this and that theatre group with no communication with anyone else?

It’s really a lesson for us to stay in touch with these groups so we can try to coordinate a plan to move theatre forward in some concerted way. For example, the theatre director from Herat said every foreign group that comes in a requests they do a play about HIV-AIDS. So you have dozens of plays about AIDS and the real issues of water use, agri-practices, anti-corruption, or whatnot are ignored. I get the gist – these are all fine ideas but it might be better to let the Afghans make some decisions about what is important to address. But the counter to that is – the Afghans only want to line their own personal pockets and aren’t looking at the big picture. And the government – that does look at the whole picture – is too corrupt to organize and implement anything. Sigh.

from Joanna in Kabul