Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Afghan Creative Arts Prison Project - First Report

In April Joanna and Anna spent a month in Herat launching the Creative Arts Prison Project. We are working again with members of Simorgh Theatre, with whom we collaborated for the Theatre for Social Development project in 2011. Here is Anna’s first report.

Together again!
Back in Afghanistan after four years. Back to Herat to see the girls of Simorgh again! How wonderful to have the chance to work together again. Four years is a long time, and yet it’s like yesterday. But going from 13 to 17 or 16 to 20 makes a big difference. They’re young women now, all grown up. I hardly recognized some of them! And others look exactly the same. (For me, I just look older, as one of them pointed out. Well, yes, time does that!). We had a happy reunion and then we met the new girls who have joined the group. All in all, we are working with six young women, and then two young men who are helping out -- who really just want to be part of the process, and I’m so glad to see them again too! They are great guys. But this project is specifically for women by women.

Getting ready for action
All of us jumped headlong into our work together with great excitement and energy. For the first nine days we did training to prepare the group for the upcoming program. Workshops practicing various theatrical exercises in the morning, and in the afternoon rehearsals to develop a performance. In between we have lunch together. During the week I think to myself, “We are having such a wonderful and fulfilling time together that if this is all we do with the project I will be happy!”

Enjoying lunch together the Afghan way. 
But we have much more to accomplish. The goal of our project is to bring theater workshops to the women’s prison and the juvenile correction center as a way to offer psychosocial support -- to give the women and girls a safe, creative forum in which to express themselves and process their experiences through play and physical action. Research and experience has shown theater to be an effective tool in helping people heal trauma, build self-confidence and manage daily challenges. Eventually the women will have the opportunity to create their own plays. The aim is for this to be an ongoing program throughout the year.

We are training the members of Simorgh Theatre to lead the program and teach the workshops, as we are only here for a month and after we leave, the project will continue. We are also preparing a play that we will present first thing as an introduction to theater. That is, the Simorgh girls will present it. Joanna and I are directing and they perform. Many in Afghanistan have never seen a live theater performance and have no idea what it is. We want to show them that they can create a play just like this with their own stories.

A Common Problem
The play is called The Backbiters and centers on two gossiping women who make life difficult for a young woman, Nafisa, who wants to go to university. They talk bad about her and spread rumors that worry her family. Nafisa’s friend, a younger girl of thirteen named Fereshta, looks up to her and dreams of herself becoming a doctor one day. But Fereshta’s father has other ideas. He has decided she’s going to get married to an older, rich man who will give the father lots of money. Fereshta is devastated. The mother can do nothing to prevent it, but finds an ally in Nafisa’s mother and together they speak to the mullah (similar to parish priest). This mullah is a wise, learned man who talks to the father about the laws of Islam and that a girl must agree to who she marries and that Fereshta is much too young and should get an education. He points out what happened last year when the neighbor’s wife almost died because they couldn't find a female doctor to treat her. It’s good that girls study to become doctors! The father struggles with the idea but finally decides to forego the marriage and let his daughter study. Meanwhile, the backbiters have had some backlash and decide they must mend their ways.

Our story has a happy ending, but unfortunately this is not the case for many girls in Afghanistan. This is a common scenario – forced early marriage. Even though Islam does say a woman must agree to marriage and should be educated, many villages follow old tribal ways that have become tradition and conflated with Muslim practice. The community listens to the mullahs who often are corrupt or ignorant. And people are very concerned with what the community thinks and says about them because honor is everything. Gossiping old ladies is a common problem and families can be destroyed by bad rumors.

Our talented actors in Simorgh made the play very compelling and also added lots of humor to it. The two women playing the backbiters were funny and forceful, and the woman playing the father (yes, women only-troupe playing all characters) didn’t hold back in her portrayal of a gross, old man. It’s exaggerated but all too real.

Joanna guides a discussion planning for our workshops in the prison. 
Showtime in the Prison
The day arrived for us to present our play at the women’s prison! I wasn’t sure what to expect, or how the women would take to the show or the idea of doing workshops.  How open and accessible will they be, or perhaps closed off, resistant, even hostile? No telling what will happen, we’re breaking new ground. Here we go – "hala hamagi hamabaham bedboard!" ("Now everybody all together, let’s go!")

Well, it went fantastically well. About ninety women in all gathered to see the performance. They laughed and applauded and listened intently, and a few cried. Afterwards we did a talkback where they had a chance to speak about the show and go up on stage and engage with the characters. This is where I wasn't sure how it would work. But it worked very well. The women didn’t hesitate to engage. Some stood up and talked about their own personal circumstances. Others got up on stage to confront characters, especially the father. They argued with the father for not letting his daughter go to school and marrying her off so young. The woman playing the father stood her ground and said “Everyone in my family married before the age of 13, it’s no problem.” The prisoner countered, “And this is why we’re all in here!” Spontaneous applause broke out in acknowledgement. Another woman wanted to speak with the mullah and proceeded to rail against mullahs who are bad and want money and don’t follow proper Islam. She was animated and passionate in her speaking. All the women spoke with great passion. It was clear the play really resonated with them. It reflected and acknowledged their situation and gave them a chance to have a voice and speak out.

Afterwards, several women came up to me and exclaimed over and over again, “I’m so happy, I’m so happy, thank you for being here, thank you for presenting this play to us.” One woman seemed particularly taken and keen to connect. She asked my name and where I was from, I said USA and Sweden, and then she wanted to know which I liked better, Afghanistan or Sweden. I told her they are very different, and that I really like the people of Afghanistan -- they are so friendly and hospitable. She said, “We are friendly because you are. We respond to you. You are so nice and friendly, and we want to be friendly back.” At the end, she took a ring off her finger (a crocheted band with black beads) and put it on mine and told me, “This is a memory from me.”

I wonder what happened to her, what she did that she is here in prison. Did she run away from home? With her lover? From a threatened forced marriage? Or was she forced into marriage? And did she run away from an abusive husband? Was she raped? Did she kill somebody? These are many of the possible scenarios and circumstances that land a woman in prison in Afghanistan. I did not want to ask this woman right away, but Joanna and I have heard many stories since that first day.

More to follow! 

No photos beyond the barbed wire!

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