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Performing Culture

How to communicate about culture? It is a thorny question. In speaking about culture – or a particular culture – one is generalizing about a group of people, about many individuals.  Diverse individuals, who can of course challenge any sweeping description of “essential characteristics” of the group as a whole.  Yet, there is culture. There are shared norms and shared meanings which make people insiders of that cultural group. So, how to communicate the underlying values, the shared beliefs, of a people, a place, a community? How to communicate the humanity of a community and avoid objectifying a culture?

We are now in the second week of our project, On the Front Lines: Performing Afghanistan, including the premiere performances of two new plays on Monday.  This project is our humble contribution to the question of “how to communicate about culture.” This project works to educate primarily through the means of theatre and storytelling.  Thus, one could say we are “performing culture” although not in the imperialist sense of display for a Western audience.  One of our goals for the project is to demonstrate to a wide audience, both academic and non-academic, the immense importance of hearing authentic voices and learning from (not about) cultures.

Sahar Speaks plays provide an intimate but respectful – even mundane –  look at Afghan experience. Their words and actions have the ability successfully form dialogues with diverse audiences, even those without much knowledge of Afghanistan. Yet, they delight and touch those with extensive lived experience in the country or with its diaspora communities. Hardly an exoticizing approach. At one point in “Parwana,” the characters confront the audience and criticize the colonizing Western gaze by refering to the famous portrait of Sharbat Gula.  The problems are quite universal but set in the particulars of Kabul.  One of the ways we achieve this is by working with Afghan authors and creators, as well as researchers and reporters who have spent time in the field.

We based these performances on the actual life experiences of Afghans reported by Afghan women of Sahar Speaks.  The image below is of Zari and Parwana, Protagonists of Alia Bano’s “Parwana: They Bear All the Pain” performed for the first time this past Monday at the Wexner Center for the Arts. “Parwana” was directed by Ji Rye Lee.  “Dust Allergy,” written by Nushin Arbabzadah, and directed by Rina Hajari, was also performed for the first time. Both plays were commissioned and supervised by Lesley Ferris, director of on the Front Lines.

 

Image of Zari and Parwana, Protagonists of Alia Bano's "Parwana: They Bear All the Pain" performed at the Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University on Oct. 7 2019

Zari and Parwana, Protagonists of Alia Bano’s “Parwana: They Bear All the Pain” performed at the Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University on Oct. 7 2019

I learned from the teachers in my dissertation study that in learning about culture through its own creativity, truth becomes more accessible. The plays are how we use this approach in On the Front Lines.  But we don’t stop there, of course. As scholars and educators, we are also exploring Afghan history, the history of Afghan theatre, the use of theatre for cultural awareness education, perspectives on Afghanistan from journalists and photojournalists, film makers, and perhaps more.  These disciplinary lenses underly the events which have taken place and will take place in the coming month.  We will be dedicating future posts to the researchers, artists, and scholars, who have contributed to this project and the ways in which cultural knowledge can be both shared and scrutinized.

Dust Allergy, New Play by Nushin Arbabzadah

Playwright and internationally recognized scholar of Afghanistan, Nushin Arbabzadah, explores the experience of living abroad and then returning home in her new play about Afghan/U.S. cultural crossings, Dust Allergy, to premiere at OSU on Oct. 7th. She was inspired by a the stories Afghan women journalists of Sahar Speaks, a project to promote their careers internationally and bring their much-needed perspectives into the mainstream.  In a recent interview with Arts and Sciences, Arbabzadah shared that when she “listened to the stories of Afghan women who returned (to Afghanistan) after spending more than a decade in the West” she realized how much her own experiences abroad had changed her.

Please join us on October 7th as “Dust Allergy” is staged for the first time.  It is a tender story of compassion, even pulling one’s heartstrings with the sub-plot of a three legged puppy. Many issues are raised, such as child poverty, women’s rights, and imperialism. Nineteen-year-old Arzo, the protagonist, recently returned from the U.S. and is living again with her mother in their family home in Kabul. Arzo’s experiences in the U.S. cause her to observe facets of Afghan culture from the perspective of outsider. We learn about these observations via a conversation with her mother about their current living situation and her need to find paid work.

Arzo’s reason for traveling to the U.S. was to learn English with the goal of obtaining work in Kabul paid in U.S. Dollars. The economic disparities related to language and culture reveal a colonizer/colonized relationship between the two countries, and the complicated situation that creates for Afghans – needing to cross cultural boundaries in order to obtain financial and physical security. The one-act play unfolds by way of the conversation between mother and daughter and is rich with metaphor, symbolism, and many direct and indirect references to Afghan cultural traditions. This is an excellent story to “unpack” with regard to the challenges of navigating cultural difference, the meaning of cultural relativism, and the phenomenon of reverse culture shock. Arzo’s personal drama of re-entry into Afghan culture also reveals many layers of the evolving Afghan story with regard to class, gender, modernity, and globalization.

Arbabzadah’s aforementioned work is a part of Sahar Speaks, two plays commissioned by Palindrome Productions of London and adapted for the stage from stories by Afghan women, these two one-act plays–Parwana: They Bear All the Pain by Alia Bano and Dust Allergy by Nushin Arbabzadah–offer a rare and revealing look into Afghan women’s lives. On October 3rd Arbabzadah will deliver a lecture on the history of Afghan theatre, which in her words, “may go to sleep but never dies in Afghanistan.”

Image of girls on Afghan street.

Image of girls on Afghan street. Kabul street Jan 2014 by Michael Foley via Flickr CC2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelfoleyphotography/12053283655

These performances are part of On the Front Lines, a series of events centered on Afghanistan, organized by Lesley Ferris, Art and Humanities Distinguished Professor of Theatre and sponsored by a Global Arts + Humanities Discovery Theme Creation Grant. Co-sponsored by The Department of History, the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, the Middle East Studies Center, the Wexner Center for the Arts, and the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Service and the Lawrence and Lee Theatre Institute at the University Library.

 

 

 

 

Opening Day Events on October 7th

Mark your calendar! October 7th 2019 is the official start of the On the Front Lines: Performing Afghanistan project. Join us for the opening events (details below)! These include two one-act plays based on stories written by Afghan women and adapted for the stage, images of Kabul presented by photojournalist, Joël van Houdt, and authentic Afghan culture, as we watch, socialize, and discuss. Complete information on the guest artists and scholars can be found on this page. We are also hosting top scholars in the field of theatre to discuss topics relevant to Afghan history and culture, including the history of Afghan theatre, theatrical practices that the military uses for simulating field operations in Afghanistan, and “the Great Game.

The aforementioned plays were commissioned as part of a larger project to bring Afghan women’s voices to the public more prominently through storytelling and theatre. The project, On the Front Lines: Performing Afghanistan, is directed by Lesley Ferris, Art and Humanities Distinguished Professor of Theatre at Ohio State University. Palindrome Productions produced several of the plays in London prior to this project. The first three plays, are based on stories written for the Huffington Post by Afghan women journalists who completed training through Sahar Speaks.  Now Ohio State University is home to this project which will engage and build an intellectual community around the issues brought up in the plays.

 

On the Front Lines: Performing Afghanistan, Opening Events, October 7, 2019

 

4:30 p.m.
Sahar Speaks: Voices of Women from Afghanistan
Film/Video Theater
Wexner Center for the Arts

Playwrights Nushin Arbabzadah and Alia Bano adapted these works for the stage, giving a rare and revealing look into Afghan women’s lives. Following the performances, the playwrights, with invited guests, join the post-performance discussion with Lesley Ferris, Art and Humanities Distinguished Professor of Theatre at Ohio State University and other invited guests. Since 2016 Dr. Ferris, as Artistic Director of Palindrome Productions (London), commissioned and produced the first four plays for  Sahar Speaks. This event is free but we ask that you obtain a ticket through the Wexner Center.

5:45 p.m.
Chai Khana Social Hour
Wexner Center for the Arts Lower Lobby

Afghan afternoon tea and refreshments.

7:00 p.m.
Joël van Houdt: “Kuja Meri?” (Where are you going?): Afghan Refugees Across the Globe
Film/Video Theater
Wexner Center for the Arts

Dutch photographer Joël van Houdt’s discusses his gripping exhibit documenting the journeys of Afghan refugees around the world following the despair resulting from the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan. This event is free but we ask that you obtain a ticket through the Wexner Center.

 

Supported by a Global Arts and Humanities Discovery Theme Grant

Presented by the Department of Theatre and the Middle East Studies Center with support from the Department of History, Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (NELC), the Wexner Center for the Arts, and the Middle East and Islamic Studies Service and Lawrence and Lee Theatre Research Institute at the University Library.

Image of Panjir Valley, Afghanistan. Photo by Tom McClimans.

Panjir Valley, Afghanistan. Photo by Tom McClimans. All rights reserved.