By Lia Gladstone
During Taliban rule, the Hazara were the most victimized. Susana, our Pashtun translator in Herat, told me that when she and her family were fleeing to Iran, their car was repeatedly stopped and searched for Hazara. “They would have been executed had they been in the car,” she says. One of my Hazara students writes: “We are the ‘blacks’ of Afghanistan, the old guys deprived of education as I have been right now in the dawn of the 21st century.”
Fri, Mar 22, 4pm
Simorgh Theater Company is based in the Hazara ghetto of Jebraiel outside Herat on the Afghan border with Iran. A group of skilled young women form the core of the company. One of the most startling things are the masks the young women have constructed complete with mustaches, and their very convincing performance on stage as men and soldiers complete with male gestures and body language.
The interior of the Al Ansari orphanage in Herat is heated by diesel, toxic fumes adding to the long ledger of things these intrepid girls must survive. The weather is good so we move to work outside. Since the United States Consulate (our sponsor) expects the children’s participation in the weekend performance, in addition to theater games and improv, we work on a traditional wedding stick dance. When I return the following day, I’m informed there will be no dancing outside nor dancing of older girls inside or out. We can teach the four-year-olds the stick dance, inside only. The neighbors have complained: Islamic tradition does not approve. The neighborhood and the government came down hard on the director of the orphanage, a weathered woman in her 30s looking much older. “Afghanistan, for women, it’s like a prison sentence for life,” she said.
In one game a scene is improvised using a scarf: it is the turban that inspires about 10 four –year-olds to wrap their headscarves around their heads turban style. When I comment, Fausia, a precocious 14-year-old, says matter of factly: “All women in Afghanistan want to be men.”
The four-year-olds at the orphanage work hard learning the stick dance for the performance. My Afghan assistants Susan and Fatimah visit the bazaar early in the morning to buy costumes. The mostly Afghan audience are clearly enjoying themselves but the orphanage girls never have a chance. The Council of Mullahs has written to the Minister of Culture declaring that if there is any dancing onstage all cultural events will be banned for a year. They said it is because the time coincided with the anniversary of the departure of the Soviets and it would be wrong to dance on this occasion.
What good can come of teaching theater to children and young adults in Afghanistan? Is it helping anyone? It probably won’t land them a job. In a country with an 85 percent illiteracy rate, where the soldiers the US are training so our troops can pull out can’t even write their own names, any educationally positive experience for young people whose lives have only known war seems a worthy effort.