In eastern Afghanistan under the glow of an April sun and the sweet scent of orange blossoms, a small revolution begins. Six young women, ranging in age from 13 to 19, huddle in the basement office of a local civil society organization and brainstorm ideas for a play by women about women — and for women.
Just a week earlier, they had taken their first theater workshop ever.
Welcome to Jalalabad, otherwise known as Jollywood. This is the home of Afghanistan’s burgeoning film industry. The myriad DVD shops downtown display titles such as “The Tailor’s Story,” “Faith,” — and “Talk Show,” starring local Afghan men and just-over-the-border Pakistani women.
This is also the home of the Nangarhar Provincial Theater, an all-male company that has been active for over 25 years, performing for everyone from the Taliban to schoolchildren to the current police department. A stone’s throw from the city proper is the former home of Osama bin Laden, a labyrinthine complex of mud bricks now leveled. Like most of Afghanistan, Jalalabad is many things at once: lush, beautiful, and teeming with hidden change-makers and Taliban sympathizers.
Actors Beyond Borders
Earlier this year Bond Street Theater, known internationally for its humanitarian work, received a grant from the US Embassy and the United States Institute of Peace to establish an all-women’s troupe under the auspices of Nangarhar Theater. While a few other theater groups in Afghanistan did include women, in its nearly three decades, Nangarhar Theater has never had female actors due to the conservative political climate of the province.
Joanna in a brainstorming session. All photos ©Sahar Muradi.
Joanna Sherman, artistic director of Bond Street, was looking for an Afghan American actor to accompany her. She reached out to me, and I enthusiastically agreed. It had been seven years since I was last there, and I couldn’t think of a better way of returning than with theater and the possibility of sharing it with other Afghan women.
We arrived in the evergreen city on April 1. The Public Diplomacy Officer at the U.S. Embassy recruited a 19-year-old Afghan woman named Farahnaz –a dynamo university student with her own NGO. Farahnaz, in turn, recruited other younger teenagers she had mentored, promising them that they would learn new skills, help their country and receive a small stipend. Fifteen young women showed up, covered from head to toe with just their eyes exposed.
“What is theater?” Joanna and I asked them.
“Dancing,” said one.
“Being on TV,” said another.
“What?! Is that what this is?” exclaimed a third. “If so, I am leaving right now!”
Most of the girls were unfamiliar with theater and had a very negative impression of what it might be. Generally, they thought of Bollywood. Although Bollywood films are relished across the country, it would be an entirely different matter if those were Afghan girls singing, dancing and being pursued by men through fields of flowers. The girls worried we were recruiting them to participate in presentations that would compel their families to disown them. They looked at us as if to say: “Didn’t we know we were in Jalalabad?”
After much discussion — it helped that I was from Afghanistan — the girls agreed to participate. Joanna and I had to agree to no filming or photography. We also agreed to hold the workshop in a discreet, safe location and that the girls would not be obligated to actually join the troupe and perform plays. The overarching consensus was that we were there to have fun.