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.
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.