The Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner
Unafraid of Uncertainty: Developing Grassroots Leaders Using Theatre in Afghanistan
By Susan J. Erenrich and Kayhan Irani with Saleh Sepas (Translated by Ahmad R. Salim)
Susan (Susie) J. Erenrich is a social movement history documentarian. She uses the arts for social change to tell stories about transformational leadership, resilience, and societal shifts as a result of mobilization efforts by ordinary citizens. Susie holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University and is the founder/executive director of the Cultural Center for Social Change. She has more than four decades of experience in nonprofit/arts administration, civic engagement, community service, and community organizing and has taught at universities, public schools, and community-based programs for at-risk, low-income populations. Currently a professor at American University, she is the editor of Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change (a volume in ILA's BLB series). She is the producer/host of Wasn't That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation, a live community radio broadcast on WERA.FM. Listen on-demand or live every Friday from 1:00 - 2:00 PM Eastern time.
Kayhan Irani is an Emmy-award winning writer, a cultural activist, and a Theatre of the Oppressed trainer. She creates art to build community and connect audiences into social justice issues. She regularly partners with NGOs, government agencies, and community-based organizations to use theatre and story-based strategies for organizing, engagement, and education. Kayhan was one of ten artists named by President Obama’s White House as a 2016 White House Champion of Change for her art and storytelling work. She has trained hundreds of groups in Theatre of the Oppressed and participatory storytelling tools over the years, both nationally and overseas, in Afghanistan, India, and Iraq. Her published work includes a volume of essays, Telling Stories to Change the World: Global Voices on the Power of Narrative to Build Community and Make Social Justice Claims (Routledge, 2008); and a chapter in Culturally Relevant Arts Education for Social Justice: A Way Out of No Way (Routledge, 2015).
Welcome! This issue of the Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner features my dear friend and Theatre of the Oppressed compatriot, Kayhan Irani. I first met Kayhan at The Brecht Forum in New York City. We joined approximately seventy-five others from around the globe to study with Augusto Boal, the founder of Theatre of the Oppressed, and his son Julian. It was my summer ritual, back when I resided in the Big Apple. Enrollees from all over the world — Israel, Brazil, France, England, Morocco, Denmark, Lebanon, Canada, Azerbaijan, Ireland, and the United States, to name a few — gathered together during those extraordinary times. Men and women from many different ethnicities speaking many different languages attended, with ages ranging from their 20s to their 70s. Most of the participants were theatre practitioners who worked in a variety of settings. We had one thing in common. We were all there to study with the champion of Theatre of the Oppressed and his son.
The workshops were organized by The Theatre of the Oppressed Laboratory (TOPLAB), which was founded in New York City in 1990 by Marie-Claire Picher. Claire, a good friend of Augusto and Julian, was a founding member responsible for the summer get-togethers. Claire’s intention was to create an organization to provide a forum for the practice, performance, and dissemination of the techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed. Besides Claire, TOPLAB consists of a group of educators, cultural and political activists, and artists whose work is based on extensive training and collaboration with Augusto Boal. Kayhan, is an integral part of this group.
For readers not familiar with Theatre of the Oppressed, it is grounded in popular education, a methodology credited to Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Paulo Freire was a major influence on Brazilian playwright Augusto Boal, who incorporated the principals of popular education into a theatrical practice. Freire and Boal first met in 1960 while Augusto was touring in the poorest region of Brazil. Based on Freire’s principles outlined in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Boal created Theatre of the Oppressed. While Freire talked about learning to “read the world,” Boal emphasized the need for participants to “’speak’ theatre for themselves, rather than be content to watch plays written and performed by acknowledged experts” (Babbage, 2004, p. 20). Participants in Theatre of the Oppressed workshops “would learn theatrical language based on the need to express their own reality, in order to engage with the contradictions of that reality. Finally, the trainer would be motivated by a genuine desire for dialog — a belief that in this process the ‘students’ have knowledge which the ‘teacher’ needs to learn” (Babbage, 2004, p. 20). The approach was similar to Freire’s, who had outlined the methods whereby students within the educational process could make the transition from seeing themselves as objects (unconscious and acted upon by others) to subjects (capable of self-conscious action). “Boal had identified stages by which the spectator — in his view fundamentally a passive being — could become an actor. The proposed steps are as follows: (1) knowing the body; (2) making the body expressive; (3) the theatre as language; and (4) the theatre as discourse” (Babbage, 2004, p. 20).
The Theatre of the Oppressed influence has been far reaching. Boal’s book, Theatre of the Oppressed has been translated into at least 25 different languages. There are Theatre of the Oppressed centers, groups, and organizations on every continent — such as Jana Sanskriti (Calcutta), Headlines Theatre (Vancouver), Giolli (Italy), ATB (Burkina Faso), TOPLAB (New York), Formaat (Rotterdam), and Ashtar (Ramallah) — which use techniques directly or in combination with other strategies. There are Theatre of the Oppressed festivals that take place all over the world. In 2001, as Boal reflected on five decades of work, he put the Theatre of the Oppressed in a global context: “In stable countries, artists know where they stand — serene and unperturbed. They know what they want and what is expected of them. In a Brazil cast adrift, everything was and is possible: we asked where we were, who we were, where we wanted to go” (Babbage, 2004, p. 2).
By a fluke of fate, Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal died on the same day, but years apart. Their teachings live on in the hearts and minds of those of us who had the opportunity to study with these incredible people. I hope you enjoy Kayhan Irani’s important story.
Babbage, F. (2004). Augusto Boal. New York, NY: Routledge.
Freire, P. (1992). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.
Unafraid of Uncertainty: Developing Grassroots Leaders Using Theatre in Afghanistan
By Kayhan Irani
The concept of culture serves the basic need of naming such ineffable and inexplicable features of human existence as “meaning” and “spirit” and living together with others. Stop thinking of it as a name for a thing and come to view it instead as a placeholder for a set of inquiries — inquiries which may be destined to never be resolved. – N. M. Stolzenberg (2001, p. 444)
When does a session of the Theatre of the Oppressed end? Never — since the objective is not to close a cycle, to generate a catharsis, or to end a development. On the contrary, its objective is to encourage autonomous activity, to set a process in motion, to stimulate transformative creativity, to change spectators into protagonists. And it is precisely for these reasons that the Theatre of the Oppressed should be the initiator of changes the culmination of which is not the aesthetic phenomenon but real life. – Augusto Boal (1992, p. 245)
Working to develop grassroots leaders within a cultural space, one in which participants use the tools of theatre to critically examine their own lives and explore multiple versions of reality, has allowed me to bear witness as people step into their own power and fight for justice in many parts of the world. As a culture worker and a Theatre of the Oppressed “Joker” (expert trainer/facilitator), I consider myself extremely lucky to be in the position of teaching and sharing intangible, but robust; unremarkable, but life changing, practices and tools with grassroots groups working for social change. The Theatre of the Oppressed methodology provides unique and rewarding tools to surface desires, analyze power relations, and mobilize capacities needed to move through dynamic change processes unique to transforming entrenched social issues and cultural norms. This article will go between New York City, Kabul, Afghanistan, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia as I recount an eight-year process of developing grassroots leaders in Afghanistan using Theatre of the Oppressed methods and practices, while weathering the larger structural forces: war, political upheaval, and economic strife. It will include the voice and journey of my project assistant and trainee Saleh Sepas, an Afghan theatre-maker and grassroots human rights activist turned refugee and refugee advocate.
Around the world creative initiatives are making changes on the local level and beyond (Solinger, Fox, Irani, 2008). People are coming to the arts as hopeful and fresh ways to participate in civic life and create a world they want to see. In Afghanistan, when Taliban rule ended, theatre arts were making a slow and steady comeback due to authentic Afghan efforts. Afghan storytellers organically lean towards telling stories with social and moralistic considerations and most productions are about local problems, social ills, and tragic situations. This community-minded, ethical stance is what gives storytellers a great deal of flexibility in reaching the public and maintaining their activities despite the systematic dismantling of arts and culture throughout the 30-plus years of conflict.
In 2010 I was brought into a rich community of storytelling for grassroots engagement situated within Afghan Education and Production Organization (AEPO), the largest single media-for-development project for Afghans run by Afghans. Set up in 1994, AEPO provides informative radio programming to refugees, internally displaced people, and the rural population of Afghanistan. Their programs are broadcast on the BBC Persian and Pashto Service, which have been broadcasting to Afghanistan since the 1960s and 1981, respectively. It so happens that AEPO is the home of the most popular radio drama in Afghanistan. In 1993, a group of Afghan radio producers in exile in Peshawar, carrying on the Afghan oral tradition of storytelling, started a radio drama to build community among the displaced Afghans now living in Pakistan. The show was called “New Home, New Life” and it used humor and entertainment to reach Afghans of all ages, across borders. Storylines reflect real-life situations in listeners' lives and offered information they needed to help improve their own lives.
After returning to Kabul in 2002, the show continues to be popular; 39% of Afghan adults listen to “New Home, New Life”. The characters have become household names in Afghanistan and after years of uninterrupted broadcast, the program has become an Afghan institution. In 2010, AEPO producers envisioned possibilities to build on the sincere relationship audiences have with the show in order to develop dialogue on important issues. What could live performance and public dialogue look like? How could they support civic engagement through drama? A theatre project was drawn up, where theatre troupes (from select provinces) would come to the AEPO offices to be trained in models of participatory theatre as well as in dialogue facilitation in order to generate and tell stories of local importance and to offer a space where everyday people could generate ideas and perspectives about eliminating entrenched social inequity. I was called in to train these provincial theatre troupe members.
From 2010 through 2013 I worked in Kabul (on and off) with AEPO to train ten different groups from provinces such as Balkh, Baghlan, Gazni, Ghor, Herat, Kandahar, Khost, Kunar, and Nangarhar in the Theatre of the Oppressed tools, popular education methods, and ethical considerations of storytelling for social change. The program provided theoretical and practical training in order to explore the possibility of using live theatre as a location and format for constructing authentic Afghan forms of public discourse. Our work would expand on the operation of regional performance groups training them to be regional leaders in this format and working with them to track the viability and development of this new approach. The project took on the challenge of improving and enhancing not only their skills as theatre artists, but also their skills as dialogue facilitators and leaders of collective discussions. My specific training goals were to help participants develop their cultural organizing skills by:
- Training participants as practitioners of Image Theatre and Forum Theatre — a repertory of group dynamic techniques designed to enhance democratic group process, community-building and solidarity;
- Stimulating reflection on, and discussion of, the structure of local theatrical and non-theatrical participation models and strategies as well as the current practices and potential of theatre work;
- Providing participants with the opportunity to work with other theatre artists in a safe space in order to explore and confront issues of power and oppression that concern them; and
- Providing a collaborative structure designed to enable participants to directly apply and adapt, within the context of future facilitation/performance, elements of the training they will have received in the intensive workshop.
The training was delivered through the practice of Image Theatre where participants engage in and learn: a process-based approach to group-building and dialogue; drama techniques useful for individual and group empowerment; group dynamic structures for analyzing power relations, conflict, and oppression; interactive dialogue models; and group facilitation skills. Sessions were a mixture of facilitated conversation, group work, and participatory theatre activities. We used games, role play, and power analysis to ground the theories of leadership and change as well as to understand local context and cultural perceptions more clearly.
The goals of creating a space where artist/activists can navigate ever-changing dynamics and contradictory points of view, while staying in a dynamic process of inquiry, can be explored through one key exercise called “Complete the Image”. This exercise is Augusto Boal’s theatrical exploration of Freire’s popular education methodology “To See, To Analyze, and To Act”. In pairs, and with no discussion or dialogue, participants use frozen body poses to explore telling a story, contending with change, cooperation, leadership, and praxis. One partner takes a pose of any kind, to express something. The other partner considers that image, walks around it to “see” the image from all angles, analyzes what she would like to add to this image or transform about the image, and then steps in and takes a pose of her own to “complete”. Since there is no discussion, neither partner knows the story the other is trying to tell but has to “act” to continue or change that story in some way. After the second partner enters the image, the first releases their pose and steps out to look at this new image. Then, the first partner steps back into the image, in a brand-new pose, to change the story again. Once she is back in the image, the second partner steps back out, looks, and re-enters in a new pose, making a new story. This process continues in improvised format for 10 minutes or so. The only rule is that you can’t manipulate or move your partner.
The exercise moves participants through an embodied analytic process where they must contend with the image they see, the “real” image, and with how the world changes. Each new iteration of the image is made by the participant as well as made around the participant. Their own body is the subject and the object of change. There is no right or wrong, only the process of analyzing, creating, and re-creating. What we see in this exercise is what we see in life: images of solidarity, violence, love, disconnect, support, and fun. But while I am asking participants to “complete the image”, they are never making a complete image. They are always struggling with change, with perception, with taking a risk. They practice being inside the image, being analyzed by others, and outside the image, analyzing it and then taking a step to create something that didn’t exist before. They are embodying the goals of the Theatre of the Oppressed as a method for leadership development “…its objective is to encourage autonomous activity, to set a process in motion, to stimulate transformative creativity, to change spectators into protagonists” (Boal, 1992, p. 245). In order to gain a sense of comfort with this complex relationship between oneself and society — one needs practice. Instead of throwing the theatre artists into situations of conflict, entrenched power, and rigid social hierarchies, I have them explore themselves, how they act, what they feel, what they are triggered by, within a cultural space and through the aesthetic dimension.
The weaving of theatre, storytelling, and social issue analysis allowed us to develop individual and group insights, create new information, and share creative workarounds that fed into an approach to leadership that was uniquely theirs. In this way, culture as a set of inquiries, allowed us not only to discuss and consider what local conditions would permit, but to expand the ways in which we could widen the types of acceptable public interaction. The leadership model then, doesn’t only hinge on the dramatic structure of the theatre work, but on the manner in which the facilitator and the actors can create a space for change, for dynamic discoveries, for the articulation of desires out from under one’s social conditioning while maintaining safe boundaries of participation. The training prepares the theatre workers to carry on the work outside the workshop, with all the complications that may come. A fact reflected in a comment by Neda after she completed a training. She said that the training felt to her like the shopkeeper allowing his young assistant to run the shop after only a short time. I was pleased by the comment because it meant she truly felt the responsibility of the work and the real-life repercussions (good and bad) of what may come of it. Also, because in Afghanistan hierarchies of power and decision-making are rigidly structured in all realms of society — from the home, to the village, to school, even to the local shop. If they can feel the difference of working with horizontal and cooperative leadership development processes, then they will be able to transmit and replicate such processes in their leadership and practice.
My hopes were confirmed as I started getting reports from the field. The troupes were finding ways to innovate and make the format and tools their own. The artists from Kandahar reported back to the staff at AEPO that they hired a “white beard” (a male elder, who literally has a white beard) to travel with them for their shows. They gave him a very small role on stage, but his main purpose was to liaise with the community — to demonstrate that they are a respectable group by speaking with local elders, inviting them to the performances, and holding conversations to gauge whether the content of their show would be received well or with some tension. The participation of an elder within the event signifies to the villagers that this form of “entertainment” isn’t breaking any taboos or social norms. It helps audience members feel safe to engage and come discussion time, having elders in the audience, who often have great decision-making power and status, allows space for dialogue that often doesn’t happen in traditional decision-making spaces (jirgas). Women’s concerns, youth concerns, the claims of the marginalized get to be heard by all strata of the local society. Importantly, the community’s thoughts and points of view on these issues are aired in public. Whether any change is made in the moment isn’t the point. The point is that many perspectives are shared and the community can take the temperature of its members about a vexing issue. All of this trickles down from the initial innovation of including a white beard in the work of the troupe and preparing him to do the work on stage and off. It’s a brilliant way that the artists made these tools and theories their own and exerted their unique Afghan approach to getting the work done.
To keep the work going, the AEPO and I chose a staff member who would be the institutional knowledge keeper, and a guide and mentor for the theatre workers to touch base with as they developed their role as Afghan community cultural leaders. Saleh Sepas, a young writer on staff and theatre maker, was identified. Saleh, in fact, was part of the first graduating class of Kabul University’s Theatre Department after the Taliban rule ended. I worked closely with Saleh to help him learn all he could — not only about the technical aspects of creating a Forum Theatre piece, but about the maieutics of being a Joker, and the capacities of being a culture worker who can hold open a space for inquiry and possibility despite volatile and uncertain contexts. To understand his journey as a theatre worker and leader in arts for social change methods, I asked him to share his story.
Saleh Sepas’ Story (Translated by Ahmad R. Salim)
The political climate has prevented theatre in Afghanistan to take its natural course. As a result, at no point in its history has it benefitted from a milieu befitting the social and cultural needs of the population. A general review of theatre in Afghanistan confirms that it has never successfully attracted the attention and appreciation of the public, both in the spheres of culture and in art. However, this points to the absence of locating and formulating a place and identity for the population as well. In a traditional society marred by volatility, new ideas and changes are perceived as a danger to the people and their way of life.
I was accepted as a student at Kabul University’s Fine Arts & Theatre department in 2001. As I entered the university’s grounds for the first time, I never imagined that I’d be met with damaged buildings without windows and doors, but the reality was as such. The walls of the buildings were riddled with bullets and it seemed that no corner was left undamaged. I was clueless as to where my department was located. I finally reached the campus directory with its faded colors and made my way towards the department. A mere 50 meters away from the building a stench overwhelmed the senses. When I came closer, a pack of stray dogs darted out of the building’s basement and into the distance in search of food. Half of the building was destroyed as a result of a bomb’s explosion and the other half was charred by fire. The repugnant stench emanating from the building’s basement was unbearable. I was in a state of shock and disbelief. My mind couldn’t make sense of it all and I regretted my decision and my chosen major.
Until 2001 throughout Afghanistan there was only one Fine Arts department in existence. A country of 30 million had no more than 35 students in the department of Fine Arts at Kabul University; the theatre division had 12 of those students. The difficulties of my studies started when my relatives and friends viewed my field of study with ridicule and mockery. They considered theatre a useless pursuit without a stable future. They considered studying theatre as shameful and banned me from pursuing my chosen field. The continuation of such pressure and restrictions forced me to pretend that I was studying literature and to no longer identify as a theatre student. The ridicule and mockery had impacted my mental health and my family was impacted negatively by the gossip and criticism of others. I became disheartened.
Finally, one day, my dad told me: “My dear son, it matters not what people say. Realize that you have a chance to earn a degree! Don’t lose this opportunity. Go and pursue whatever you desire!” This was the spark that ignited the fire of hope and determination in me to commit to theatre. Being a university student inspired me to seek out and peruse different sources and familiarize myself with other artistic styles and genres. The first thing I learned from art during my studies was that one must think deeply, creatively, and look at things anew. In reality, art changed my outlook towards life and caused me to awaken to my humanity and civic duty. I discovered that I must not lead a selfish life, but rather labor for my oppressed people, tired and exhausted from war, and for my ravaged country.
It was in 2004, after graduation from Kabul University, that I began my work at Radio Kalid, in the production of the “Ending Violence Against Women” program. My work was contingent on researching and understanding the realities of the condition of women in Afghanistan. My visits would range from frequenting jails, to the Commission for Human Rights, to the Department of Women’s Affairs. The result of this work familiarized me with the depth of sorrow and calamities that Afghan women faced. I found that the women of my country were brutalized under social difficulties, a culture of toxic masculinity, and archaic traditions. It was impossible to be desensitized to such unbearable pain and tragedy that permeated one’s existence. As a result, I continued my work and efforts and decided to work for an organization with a wider audience and impact. I joined the BBC Afghan Education and Production Organization in 2008 as a writer for “New Home, New Life.” Concurrently, I continued my involvement in theatre, but always felt that in order to bring change in Afghan society there needed to be a stronger apparatus and means in place. I felt that an adherence to the classic method could not change an insular, conservative, and war-ravaged country like Afghanistan. As a result, I always felt that the traditional approach was insufficient.
Fortuitously, a great opportunity presented itself when Ms. Kayhan Irani, a celebrated playwright and theatre instructor, arrived in Kabul on July 12, 2010 to teach theatre companies in collaboration with the BBC/AEPO and familiarize them with the methods of the Theatre of the Oppressed. I attended the workshop, but Augusto Boal’s method wasn’t comprehensible to me initially. I questioned its effectiveness and, since I was seeking impactful methods, Theatre of the Oppressed didn’t pique my interest. However, towards the last days of the workshop my assessment and view of Theatre of the Oppressed changed. I was prodded to research and understand deeply and with openness. This in turn, led to a gradual discovery that Augusto Boal’s approach is exactly what I was after. I then decided to study and research his method further. In addition to Kayhan’s expertise, the additional trainings she led in 2011 and 2012 allowed me to expand my skills and practice alongside other individuals. Though time was limited, we benefited greatly from these opportunities.
This methodology and approach was new and refreshing and led me to apply the medium of theatre to women’s rights work being done through the Organization of Fast Relief and Development (OFRD). This project enabled the collection and dissemination of the struggles and narratives of Afghan women within the framework of the Theatre of the Oppressed. What we discovered was that, despite the violence and oppression against them, the women had tremendous will-power, determination, and audacity to demand their rights and assert their role in forming their own future. Women entering the arena of public polemics and willing to debate the basis of their rights was, in fact, a taboo shattering event and something that the theatre plays afforded them. This in turn led to more women critically thinking about the paucity of rights allotted to them and to more women striving to establish a greater voice and role for women in society.
During a performance of “The Other Face” in “Baghe Zanana” [Kabul’s main park designated for women] the result was completely beyond our expectations. Following a discussion and input on women’s rights, a middle-aged man came to the stage, eyes filled with tears, and vulnerably spoke about how he as a husband was experiencing tremendous difficulties given his wife’s refusal to be a supportive partner to him and build their family. This gentleman, Rajab Ali, noted that for 14 years he’s been struggling against the burden of keeping up with the Joneses. The audience of almost 200 women fully agreed with and supported him as he bemoaned the pressure to constantly buy jewelry and other material goods. At this time the park’s director approached the stage and noted that in the 14 years that Rajab Ali has worked as a grounds-keeper there, he’s uttered nothing more than hello and goodbye, but it was the theatre and the open platform of discussion that inspired him to speak and share his pain.
Sadly, such pressures and issues are all too common in Afghanistan and often lead to tremendous family problems and divorce. Thus, the need and benefit from the Theatre of the Oppressed is that it enables a milieu and safe-space to discuss and engage in such conversations amongst the population. It has the potential to transmit values of tolerance, discussion, and openness as crucial components of a healthy society. Theatre groups from other areas were also able to contribute to the growth and reception of theatre in the country by emulating Boal’s method and offering platforms for discussion and engagement for the attendees.
Due to the deteriorating security situation in the country, my family and I became refugees and arrived in Malaysia in 2016, and thus I was no longer able participate in the field of theatre. The condition of other refugees and our own condition was extremely painful for me. The impact of depression, hopelessness, the lack of self-confidence, fear, and isolation are ingrained in the refugee experience and are not easily overcome. In reality, the life of a refugee is akin to the confines of a prison. The difference is that a prisoner must experience this isolation for the crime they’ve committed while the refugee must experience this isolation as a result of seeking security and safety. The initial six months following our arrival was unbearable. In an attempt to escape the hopelessness and despair I’d at times watch movies. Other times, with the help of my wife, I’d plant flowers or turn to reading and writing. Certain days I’d just cry or try laughter to cheer up, but none of these were effective.
I submitted proposals to refugee assistance committees in Malaysia in the hopes of establishing the Theatre of the Oppressed there but never received a response from them. It was during this difficult period that my teacher and friend, Kayhan Irani, came to my aid and recommended that I start a refugee theatre group. I lacked the financial resources to materialize this vision, but Kayhan’s support and online fundraising drive were of great help. This enabled me to begin recruiting Afghan refugees in Malaysia. Twenty young refugees signed up. Though none had any previous experience with theatre, I selected the six best candidates based on three criteria: 1) Belief in theatre as a platform for progress and change; 2) Creative talent; and 3) Time and commitment to the effort.
I chose Parastoo as the group’s name. It is the name of the Swallow, a bird that’s present in all seasons and places, associated with journeying and establishing a home nearly anywhere. The actors faced a very real and serious challenge in that their original assumption — that theatre is just mere performance and they’d easily be able to win an audience over — was misplaced. After receiving their parts they soon realized that a lot of hard work goes into this art. A number of them were overwhelmed and doubtful. We even had a few individuals leave! However, we would spend an hour each day practicing the art through games that would build up the confidence and comfort of the actors. In addition, feedback and discussion were an important part of these activities.
Within a month, they realized that theatre truly is a medium of expression and a voice for them. Refugees are generally silent listeners but through theatre they not only had a voice but also an audience. On August 11, 2017, refugee assistance organizations held a three-day Refugee Arts Festival in Kuala Lumpur, in which our play, The Bitter Taste of History, was showcased. Beyond our wildest imagination, Parastoo’s performance left the audience spellbound. Prior to the performance, many doubted that the refugees could truly muster a convincing performance. But the performance spoke for itself and greatly moved people. It received a lot of attention and buzz from the Malaysian press and the social development sector, but also from other refugees.
After this project, Roqayyah Yusufi, a 55-year-old woman who had protested against her son Hafeez joining the ranks of Parastoo, joined our subsequent work and brought her daughter-in-law and grandson as participants. She now enjoys theatre and when I inquired about her change of heart, she noted that theatre gave her the confidence to speak. She recalled how when she had enrolled in English language classes she wouldn’t speak in class and felt painfully shy with any attention. Now she wants to express herself, on stage. Then there’s the case of a woman who plays a police officer in the play. She had endured a number of difficulties while being a refugee in Iran and had preferred to be secluded and hidden from the public. She is now so committed to her role in the drama and her performance that she doesn’t want a break, even during pregnancy. There are numerous other refugee women who were previously barred from participation by their husbands, but who now have the freedom to be a part of our work.
The Afghan refugee community in Malaysia is very isolated and not very active. Through the work of Parastoo many people have been able to experience a more rewarding and hopeful way of life. Z is one such individual who had endured the difficulties and bleakness of being a refugee to such an extent that he almost committed suicide. Theatre has given him a new hope and he focuses his energy into refining his performances. Many actors, in general, had struggled with mental health issues and other difficulties. However, they are now sources of inspiration and a positive example for others in the community. Furthermore, our work in theatre has built bridges and understanding between the local communities and the refugee community.
Theatre has allowed for a nuanced and intimate understanding of the refugee population and their lives by the local communities. This includes positive media coverage and building relationships with Malaysian civil society. I think this is just the start of our work and potential. As we continue, we believe that through theatre we can help our refugee community make positive social, cultural, and legal progress; establish trusting and connected relationships with our host country; and offer support to refugees dealing with mental health issues and depression. We’re more determined and thoughtful about the future of our work.
Saleh is writing in Farsi, from Malaysia, where he is now a refugee because of the increasing violence against arts and culture workers in Afghanistan. In fact, one could say this intentional targeting of artists means that the work they are doing is truly powerful and transformative. Using the arts to understand and explore resistance is a powerful force for transformation because of the regenerative properties, the subjunctive action, the imagination, and the visioning process for creating the future. The women Saleh was working with in Afghanistan identified the resource the Theatre of the Oppressed offered to them. They engaged with and used the tools to develop their own thinking despite all odds. In fact, it created a new space — one in which new social dynamics could emerge. A man no longer felt it was a diminished space, a “women’s space”, one in which he could lose his social status if he entered. In fact, he opened himself up even more once he engaged with the women in the space. He became vulnerable and offered his story — not to diminish the women’s, but to say that he recognizes his struggle in theirs. He is also trapped by impossible gender roles and expectations. The women didn’t boo him off-stage, they recognized his struggle as real and as valid in the larger struggle against rigid gender roles. Theatre as a method of engagement and leadership development allows analytical and aesthetic faculties to work together so that individuals can rehearse and remember the complex weave needed to make a new social order — not simply one group being allowed to dominate the other. In such a space, artists and culture workers can offer hope, build agency, and create a space where dialogue can occur, new possibilities are imagined, and actions are initiated toward change.
However, Saleh’s story reminds us that in a conflict zone, one’s daily life is taken over by large, powerful forces. The ability to dream within that storm, to create amidst chaos, is a huge contradiction to the oppressive forces that want us to remain hopeless and confused. Even as a refugee, with no legal personhood or rights, there is power to be claimed. Saleh’s hopelessness and depression living as a refugee was transformed into action as he reclaimed the theatre tools he had put to use in Afghanistan. His knowledge and practice of holding space for change, for conflict, for transformation had to be revived, and these tools and practices allowed him to take leadership and activate his Afghan refugee community to fight for themselves. The resilience of those in dynamic struggle is one of their strongest assets and, if activated and organized, is the very weapon that will bring about their own liberation. Any attempt to use theatre as a tool of change must be rooted in the capacity of the oppressed to solve their own problems and must work to strengthen their collective will. Defeat is never permanent and while the oppressed may suffer many setbacks, it is their will to continue that keeps them in the game.
Using the language of theatre, Parastoo has been able to build connections across lines of language, ethnicity, legal status, and gender. The performances are not only for refugee communities but for the Malaysian public to understand the lives that these newcomers have fled, and the lives they would like to make. When one person examines the world she lives in through art, it becomes a prompt for wider reflection. When art is shared it builds relationships, as others are generously invited in to think about and expand on the artist’s vision. The exchange starts a process of questioning, analyzing, and processing. We are pulled into participating, whether in our own thoughts or in a discussion with others. Whether or not we find an answer or fully formulate an opinion, we have expanded our thinking. We have spent time engaging with possibility and reflecting on the present. It brings to light different perspectives, an alternative narrative, and it challenges us to acknowledge our limits.
Dialogue and art-making with diverse populations in Malaysia, through a refugee lens, has led to the “buzz” that Saleh speaks about. But it’s not a PR buzz, it’s the genuine excitement of local organizations, schools, and development workers to build new relationships. Using theatre, Saleh has created a process of understanding and exchange that has extended out into the “real world”. Through an aesthetic frame, one that assists us in performing our own power, he and his troupe members see the struggle but are not bogged down by it. Rather, they create links for continuing to move out of hardship — a process that is ﬁlled with imagination, creativity, creation, regeneration, and love. As Freire says, “Thus, nascent hope coincides with an increasingly critical perception of the concrete conditions of reality. Society now reveals itself as something unﬁnished, not as something inexorably given; it has become a challenge rather than a hopeless limitation” (Freire, 1974/2013, p. 11).
Boal, A. (1992). Games for Actors and Non-Actors. (A. Jackson, Trans). New York, NY: Routledge.
Freire, P. (2013). Education for Critical Consciousness. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic. (Original work published 1974 by Sheed and Ward, Ltd.)
Solinger, R., Fox, M., & Irani, K. (2008). Telling Stories to Change the World: Global Voices on the Power of Narrative to Build Community and Make Social Justice Claims. New York, NY: Routledge.
Stolzenberg, N.M. (2001). What We Talk About When We Talk About Culture. In Borofsky et al., When: A Conversation About Culture. American Anthropologist, 103, 432-446.