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  

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