Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Anna's First Update from Herat

From ensemble member Anna, April 7:

Salam! Chestor asti? Khob astom! Here I am in Herat, and am picking up some good Dari phrases. After a month of living here, I’ll be speaking like a native. Not quite. But little by little, able to do some simple communication.

We are living with our theater hosts’ family. Monirah, the director of Simorgh, the theater company we're working with here in Herat, is fantastic. She’s 26 years old and has already produced several plays and films, together with her husband Hakim. Well, actually they’re not quite married yet, though they finally got engaged, a bit of a scandal here.

She’s a free-thinking modern young woman, but is having to adhere to local customs (which she gripes about). To that end, she dresses in the chador whenever she is out on the street, like all women here. This is basically a large sheet, black or with white flowers or sometimes grey, swept around the body and held tight with the hands under the chin, so only the face shows. There are still women who wear the blue burqa, too. When inside, all women (and girls over 9) still wear a head scarf if there is a male present who is not close family. So because Michael is in the house, her mother and herself and her younger sister wear head scarves, but otherwise they wouldn’t. Joanna and I don’t bother when in the house. Since her father said to me: “You’re like my daughter!” I figure we’re family now and I don’t have to. And Michael is family to us too (me and Joanna). So there. But the grand father came for a visit the other night, and the father ran up to me quickly and said: “Anna, Anna!” and gestured to put my head scarf on. Because the grand father is very old school, very conservative. He does not, by the way, approve of Monirah’s choice of husband (to be), and has not spoken to the family for a long time.

In any case, the family is very welcoming to us, the father is really great and good-humored, and the mother is sweet. They cook us fabulous Afghan food. We are eating like kings -- yummy vegetable dishes, salad, yoghurt and great bread. We eat on the floor on a plastic table cloth (called the ‘sofra’), that’s the Afghan way. And drink lots of green tea –wherever we go, we’re offered tea, even in a shop.

We are in a new suburb to Herat called Jabraiel (it's being built as we speak, everywhere partial structures in process of construction). It’s where all the Hazara live. The Hazara are an ethnic people in Afghanistan and are very much discriminated against, especially by the Pashtuns (who consider themselves the only true Afghans). The Hazare are supposedly descendants of Djengis Khan, and have Asian features. The day after we arrived was a holiday and Monirah’s family and many many others went to a picnic area near a mountain. There some Tajik guys took a photo of a Hazara girl (and you do not take photos of girls!), so her brothers asked them to stop and to delete the pics; some soldiers came up (who happened to be Tajik too) and suddenly opened fire, and two random Hazaras got killed. This was extremely upsetting to Monirah, who started crying when she heard. It’s distressing because this kind of thing happens a lot. Of course, it didn’t help that we were in the midst of an intense political discussion about the state of Afghanistan and its future, as she got the news.

The day we arrived is when they had protests because of the Koran-burning. However, it was pretty small here in Herat (although later I was told there were up to 3,000 protesters and that is still quite a crowd). We were advised not to hang about town for a couple of days. But everything is fine. Things are peaceful here. It’s down in Kandahar, and in the east, Jalalabad, and now up in the north too, Mazar-i-Sharif, where the Taliban are causing trouble. We walk down the street and nobody bothers us, although we got lots of looks. There aren’t any other foreigners here, so we are quite a sight. And Joanna and I are not wearing the chador-sheets, although we of course wear long tunics and loose pants, or long skirts, with head scarf. People stare at us like we’re aliens, men, women and children alike. Some looks do appear a bit disapproving and hostile, from some men in particular, but mostly it’s just shock and awe. In general, people here are friendly and welcoming.

We have started teaching workshops, and are working with a group of very talented young girls, age 12-20, and some boys, too. It is really fantastic that there’s a theater group here, I must say, and with so many girls, and that their families let them come and be part of it! Considering how conservative and traditional the area is, one might expect any such activity to be entirely suppressed here in Herat and certainly if involving girls. And yet Herat has historically been the cradle of Afghan culture. For sure, engaging in theater here is not without controversy, without its risks and problems. Theater is certainly not considered a respectable activity here, let alone profession (nor did it use to be in the US or Europe, and perhaps still isn't). Really, theater is a foreign concept, and thus suspect. For certain, it is not something respectable young girls should partake in. Women are not supposed to show themselves (off) in public, so to be on a stage and be looked at – unthinkable! And who knows what kind of untoward activities they’ll have to engage in… Moving their bodies – scandalous! Being loud and expressive – outrageous! And, God forbid, intermingling on stage with the opposite sex. At Kabul University where they have an acting department, there is not one single female acting student among about 200 male students. In fact, Monirah's sister Tahira is just now entering the university and she will be the first female acting student ever! Go Tahira!

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