A playwright leaves the country after facing death threats from the Taliban and finds refuge in Malaysia, where he teaches the Theatre of the Oppressed to his fellow refugees, to help give them a voice.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – In the darkness, a small girl kneels beside the grave of her father, an Afghan government official killed a few weeks before, and begins to tell him about her day at school.
It is the opening scene of a play, but it’s no fiction.
The Bitter Taste of History – written, produced and performed by Afghan refugees of the Parastoo Theatre group in Malaysia – is rooted in the decades-long conflict that has devastated their homeland and forced millions to flee. In just 30 minutes, the play recounts a series of events that drive home the brutality of war and the terrible toll it has taken on ordinary people.
Saleh Sepas, a theatre director and playwright who fled to Malaysia last year and is the driving force behind Parastoo, is also a believer in the Theatre of the Oppressed; a methodology devised by the Brazilian director and dramatist Augusto Boal. It’s a philosophy that’s based on the idea that theatre should inspire revolutionary change in society.
“The Theatre of the Oppressed changes the mind and the thinking,” Sepas explained before the performance.
“[On stage] we can talk about peace, a better life, our economic difficulties. We can forget about our past life because the past was war. Instead, we can see and focus on the future; on life.”
There are about 1,100 refugees from Afghanistan living in Malaysia today, according to The UN Refugee Agency or UNHCR. The country’s government is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, which means many refugees live a precarious existence on the margins of society, unable to work legally or send their children to mainstream schools, and vulnerable to exploitation.
Sepas has found work, but his salary is $281 (RM1,200) and his rent is $234 (RM1,000). He supports his wife and three young children on what’s left. Every month is a struggle, but he is happy to be back in the theatre.
Acting has also brought some meaning to the life of nine-year-old Fatimah Jafari, who has been in Malaysia for nearly four years. She plays the young girl at the graveside, who ends up being snatched by the Taliban; a single pink sandal left behind as she’s dragged away.
Like the other five members of the cast, she had never acted before the audition, but decided to give it a go because it was better than sitting at home on her own – as she used to do. “I just watch TV,” she said. “It’s so boring.”
In early June, some 25 people responded to Sepas call for auditions – none of whom had ever having been inside a theatre – and were graded on their performance in relation to delivery, expression and body language.
Rehearsals then started, two months before the August performance, with the actors practising twice a week for three hours in the evening in a community hall in a Kuala Lumpur suburb. Victor Maxwell, a New York-based actor and expert in the Theatre of the Oppressed, came to help in the final two weeks, after he heard about Parastoo when he was travelling in Indonesia.
It wasn’t always easy. Fatimah laughs with Sepas that he wanted to “replace her with another girl” because her voice wasn’t strong enough.
“I did,” he admits, but they both agree that the confidence-building games that form an integral part of the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology gave the nine-year-old the help she needed.
Fatimah attends a refugee school supported by the UNHCR and dreams that one day the fighting will end and she will be able to return to her homeland. Now, living in a land of endless summer, she remembers the snow and how much she loved it.
“I want to be president,” she revealed, at the end of one of the rehearsals, laughing at the idea of ever being a professional actress. “I’d make sure everyone had enough food. That everyone was okay. That no one kills anyone anymore and no one dies.”
Fatimah was only small when her family left Afghanistan because they feared for their safety.
In Sepas’ case, likewise, it was death threats and intimidation that finally forced Sepas and his family to leave Kabul.
One of only twelve students who enrolled on the theatre course at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Kabul University when it reopened in 2001, Sepas carved out a career for himself as a producer and writer on the popular long-running radio drama New Home, New Life. The show was based on the BBC Radio 4 programme, The Archers, and supported by the BBC World Service Trust.
The series focused on issues of huge importance for the fragile democracy – education, family and elections – with as many as three million people tuning in to each episode and the drama establishing itself as the country’s most popular radio programme.
For Sepas, the series was an education in the power of the arts. It also introduced him to New York-based writer and theatre artist Kayhan Irani, whose crowdfunding appeal on LaunchGood helped raise more than $5,180 to support Parastoo, well above their target of $3,840. The Geutanyoe Foundation, which helps refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia, also provided funds for the group.
While he was still in Kabul, Sepas began using the Theatre of the Oppressed techniques to help children and women affected by war. He found the approach helped the women – some of whom were widowed, others abandoned or the victims of domestic violence – find a voice.
“At first, I would ask them their names and they couldn’t answer,” he recalled. “But slowly they began to talk. It was very busy. We were working out of two to three offices. I loved my country, my people, my job and my work, but I had to leave.”
His work had drawn the attention not only of the vulnerable people he was trying to help, but also the Taliban. Eventually, the threats became too much. Speaking from her home in New York, Irani recalls just how well Sepas was doing in Afghanistan.
“I felt so happy for him, and that he would be there forever,” she said, in a phone interview about the time that they worked together.
“Afghanistan was where he wanted to be and work. It was clear that he was rooted there. It was his home. And to have something happen that so completely changed the direction of his life is so incredibly sad.”
The Bitter Taste of War reflects not only Sepas’ story of loss, but the stories of his fellow Afghans. The script, in Persian, was developed from the experiences of friends and family, to a soundtrack of traditional music and snippets of news reports on the explosions and fighting that continue to rock the country.
At the end, a soliloquy delivered by Sepas’s wife – clutching a blood-stained baby to her chest – reflects on the sense of despair that has descended on the country after so many years of war.
“I’m not afraid of death,” she says. “I’m afraid that life will continue like this without ever changing. And now I’m tired. I feel the exhaustion of a whole lifetime.”
The lament brought muffled tears from some, but as Sepas returned to the stage to take questions and discuss the themes with the audience – an integral part of the Theatre of the Oppressed approach – the audience began to applaud. A few rose to their feet. Quickly, a fellow Afghan refugee was discussing what happened to him. A Pakistani was up next, and then Malaysians began to ask more about the experience of the refugees among them; people who remain almost invisible to wider society.
It was an encouraging response for Sepas, who hopes other refugee groups and Malaysian performers will join his Theatre of the Oppressed.
“It doesn’t matter where we come from,” Sepas said. “We are all human. We all feel pain.”