Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Afghan Stars: Jalalabad Update 5

Sahar writes from Jalalabad.

Dear friends,

A long overdue update on my time here in Jalalabad! It’s been a whirlwind – beautiful and challenging and every swing of emotion.  But overall, it’s been really amazing. I’ve been journaling as much as I can because we don’t have great internet access. The hotel connection is slow and then we have limited access where we hold the workshops.

I’m writing you now from my room in the Spinghar, an old government-run hotel with a lovely garden abloom with the city’s famous and very aromatic orange blossoms. Jalalabad is known as “evergreen” for its year-round lushness and warm weather. And indeed, it’s a fresh respite from the dry and cool weather of Kabul.

How I dress in Jalalabad
In many ways, it’s vastly different from Kabul. It’s a predominately Pashtun area and you only hear sprinkles of Dari, which actually makes me feel good about my Americanized Dari (I tease my new friends here: Dari is my second language too). You also see much fewer women on the streets here, at least in the city proper, which is the only area we have visited so far. Most of the women cover their faces or wear the full burqa. You also don’t see many foreigners here, so Michael tends to stand out (Joanna and I are fully covered). 

Also, because of its proximity to Pakistan, Jalalabad is heavily influenced by Pakistani culture. The main method of transportation is the rickshaw, most women wear the shalwar kamiz and most families fled to Pakistan during the civil war.

As for the work, it’s really great, and all because of our colleagues here.  We’ve gathered a group of twenty teenagers from two schools. We work with one group of 15 in the mornings before school and then four in the afternoons following their school. In Afghanistan it’s generally like this, with school times varying before or after lunch.

The men’s group consists of members from the Nangarhar Provincial Theater, which is well-established and very active. Their work spans comedic and dramatic theater. Their ages range from 20 – 50 or so, and most have to have a second or third job since they cannot sustain themselves on theater alone. The company also has a film wing, which is extremely active and you can like them on Facebook at Afghan Stars!

The men's group!
☺ They are incredible--please check them out on YouTube too.

We work with each group daily for 3-4 hours. The first ten days constituted the training period, which included warm-ups, theater games, physical and dramatic theater techniques, Theater of the Oppressed techniques (including lots of image theater,) and lots and lots of dialogue. And, of course, fun! These are all new for the girls, while a few of the men participated in a similar workshop last fall in Kabul. 

The goal is that those girls who are interested and able will go on to create a play, which they will then perform in various local institutions for all-female audiences, such as women’s shelters, orphanages, rural shuras, etc. The men have more flexibility, but will perform largely for all-male audiences.  For example, they just did a free show at the park (for men only, except Wednesdays, when it’s women’s day) on the implications of the international community leaving Afghanistan.

The girls were really shy at the beginning, giggling behind their hands or saying they couldn’t or feeling totally ashamed to even so much as jump in front of each other (even though they’re all friends, or maybe because of that).  It’s taken some time, but it’s been beautiful to see them come out of their shells and feel uninhibited and now even lead exercises themselves! 

A scene about the Turtle and the Hare.
We did one exercise where we stand in a line and imagine a mountain ridge. Each person then steps forward and yells their name, tossing it over the mountain. Then all of us behind follow suite, stepping forward, yelling and throwing their name over the mountain. The person then does it facing the group, imagining the group as the mountain. The mountain of us then responds. It’s really empowering to hear one’s name like that. Afterward, many of them mentioned how courageous they felt doing this. Hearing their life stories, they already are some of the most courageous individuals I’ve met, but I think this is a new outlet for them to demonstrate that. They’ve also been so incredibly creative, coming up with wonderful scene work on subjects like illiteracy, gender equality and abusive teachers—issues that they self-identify as important to their lives--and proposing feasible solutions.  It’s so inspiring!

Oh, but there are challenges! For one, the girls are, I think understandably, extremely fearful about the implications of participating in theater at all. In Nangarhar province, which is very conservative compared to other parts of the country and still under a lot of Taliban influence, it’s just not done—it’s scandalous and implies inappropriate entertainment. The guys from the Nangarhar Provincial Theater though have been active for many years now and have worked hard to dispel these ideas. When the Taliban were in power, they performed secretly at weddings and such. But for the most part, they have been successful and are now ell-respected in town. Of course, some people still stigmatize their work and there are limitations with having to hire Pakistani actresses (which has its own social implications). But, comparatively, the girls really have a long way to go with gaining social approval for pursuing this art. They are the pioneers.

Stay tuned for more!

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