Afghan children in a rural school.
The Parastoo Theatre team with Lilianne Fan (second from left), International Director of Geutanyoe Foundation, after rehearsal.
Saleh Sepas (right) directs lead actress Fatimah Jafari.

Kneeling at his mountain grave, a young girl tells her deceased father about the events of her day. Her calmness, that allows her to cope with and at the same time deny her loss through the protective force of memory is soon disrupted by a series of encounters that plunge her head first into the unembellished brutality and despair of wartime Afghanistan.

The scenes are part of The Bitter Taste of History, an original play by Paratsoo Theatre, a group made up entirely of Afghan refugees living in Malaysia, which will be performed on Aug 11 at the Refugee Festival KL at Black Box Publika, with the support of the Geutanyoe Foundation.

Parastoo, which means swallow in Persian, was founded three months ago by Saleh Sepas, a renowned theatre director from Kabul who now resides in Kuala Lumpur, after he and his family were forced to flee their homeland following several attempts on their lives by the Taliban in 2016.

“Theatre doesn’t have a very long history in Afghanistan,” shares Saleh over a cup of coffee in Ampang, where he now lives, “... but it has been a difficult journey”. The first theatre in Kabul, the Paghman Theatre Hall, was built under the reign of King Amanullah Khan (1919-1929) with the help of the British, and theatre was regarded as a form of entertainment for the king and the aristocracy.

Between the 1920s and 50s, culture in Afghanistan opened up and evolved, influenced by figures such as writer-intellectual Mahmoud Tarzi and painter-composer-director Abdul Ghafour Breshna. Under King Mohammed Zahir Shah (1933-1973) and Prime Minister Mohammed Dawood Khan (1973-1978), the theatres became more established, with venues being opened in most cities around the country.

Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, theatre came under the influence of Russia’s rich theatre tradition, and a generation of theatre students was even educated in Moscow. Then, in the late 1990s, the Taliban came to power.

By the time Saleh entered Kabul University in March 2001, theatre education had barely survived the Taliban. The Faculty of Fine Arts, which had been closed by the Taliban between 1998 and 2000, had just reopened several months before.

Recalls Saleh: “That year, out of a population of 30 million, only 12 of us enrolled to study theatre. Everyone else I knew chose to study engineering, law, medicine, or political science.” Indeed, the lack of popularity of theatre studies was in no small part due to the banning of theatre, cinema, music, sculpture and other forms of art under the Taliban; but it was also due to the prevailing view in Afghan society that theatre had little social benefit, especially at a time when the country was reeling and seeking to rebuild itself after years of war and tyranny.

For Kabul-born theatre director Saleh Sepas, now a refugee here, theatre is more than an art; it’s also an act of resistance and a force for peace.

A new form of theatre

Despite being ridiculed by many in his community and made to feel that his choice of study was “embarrassing”, Saleh buried himself in the works of Konstantin Stanislavski, Bertolt Brecht and Shakespeare and succeeded in completing his four years of theatre education.

In contrast to scepticism around him, Saleh was blessed to have the constant support of his father, a farmer, who, in spite of knowing little about theatre himself, laboured hard to pay for his son’s education and always encouraged him in his passion.

Shares Saleh: “My father is illiterate, but he has played the role of a supportive and open-minded father who respected my discipline and commitment to my dream. This was very courageous in a country like Afghanistan where traditional social structures and customs do not make it easy for one to do something unconventional.”

Saleh was determined to find a form of theatre that would be effective in a society as wounded by war as Afghanistan. The years of conflict, insurgency and invasion had created “a culture of war” and Saleh saw both the need to instigate social change at a profound cultural level and the potential of theatre to become a tool for such change.

This search led him to discover and adopt the Theatre of the Oppressed approach as their method of choice. Founded in the 1970s by Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal, who was greatly influenced by the legendary educator and compatriot Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Theatre of the Oppressed is a theatrical method that breaks the boundaries between actor and audience, engaging the latter as active participants in performances that seek to transform the consciousness of all involved and inspire tangible changes in society.

The method, which has been employed in many countries, including Peru, South Africa and India, proved attractive to Saleh and his colleagues, who began to employ to work directly with marginalised communities in Afghanistan, including orphans who lost their parents to war.

Much of their work focused on women whose families had been killed in war and had no social security, women who had themselves been imprisoned, as well as victims of domestic violence. Through theatre methods and games, the group helped these women regain their lost confidence and sense of self-worth.

Saleh’s eyes grow distant as he remembers how one day they were performing a play in one of Kabul’s public parks, and a 40-year old woman who’d been abandoned by her family told him, “... from now on I will no longer cry; I will transform my tears into new life.”

Afghan village girls.

A different kind of weapon

The Theatre of the Oppressed, believes Saleh, has the potential of being meaningful for all social contexts. Now, living as a refugee in Malaysia, he hopes through Parastoo Theatre to reach out to the wider refugee community as well as to Malaysian communities hosting refugees, to help them overcome isolation, communication barriers, misunderstandings and even mistrust that may have emerged.

“Just as it’s important for Malaysians to learn about refugees,” reflects Saleh, “it’s also very important for refugees to gain a better understanding of and respect for Malaysian culture and to learn how we can become better guests.”

The importance of forging dialogue and understanding is something Saleh knows only too well. As presented in The Bitter Taste of History, war leaves people to mourn loss they cannot make sense of, forcing them to cling to fragmented memories in their search for connection and tenderness.

Memory may keep alive that which has been lost and may momentarily bring the promise that different realities are possible. But for countries like Afghanistan where war has become a culture, deep histories of violence threaten to erase even the smallest sign of humanity. As Saleh knows, to fight a culture of war, one must bear weapons of cultural power.

The Bitter Taste of History

WHERE: Black Box Publika, Solaris Dutamas, KL

WHEN: Aug 11, 2017 at 5pm.

The play will be performed in Persian with English subtitles. The play will be followed by a workshop led by Saleh Sepas on ‘Theatre of the Oppressed and Refugees’ at 6pm.

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