'Beyond the Mirror': Afghanistan's Pain Onstage

An unlikely partnership between an Afghan theatre troupe and Manhattan's Bond Street Theatre has led to a new show about three decades of occupation and violence in Afghanistan. Beyond the Mirror opened last weekend in New York City. Marianne McCune of member station WNYC reports.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In Manhattan over the weekend, there was an unusual collaboration between Afghan and American theater troupes. "Beyond the Mirror" is a walk through three turbulent decades of Afghan history. The two theater groups met while performing at refugee camps in Pakistan not long after the United States began bombing Afghanistan. Marianne McCune of member station WNYC reports on the result of their collaboration.

MARIANNE MCCUNE reporting:

"Beyond the Mirror" is about the disruption of normal life in Afghanistan over and over and over again.

(Soundbite of "Beyond the Mirror")

Group of People: (Chanting in unison) Allah Akbar!

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Group of People: (Chanting in unison) Allah Akbar!

McCUNE: On a recent afternoon in Manhattan, American and Afghan actors rehearsed one of the few happy scenes in the show. It takes place just after the mujaheddin forced the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. On stage, people celebrate with a national dance called the Attan. And in the next scene, four of the actors mime the rhythmic making of Afghan flatbread.

(Soundbite of percussion soundtrack)

McCUNE: The Afghan troupe's artistic director, Mahmoud Salimi, remembers a fleeting moment during the mujaheddin takeover when bread was in abundance and people were happy.

Mr. MAHMOUD SALIMI (Troupe Director): The prices were going down, down, down, down, but the reality was when they took power, they looted all governmental stocks and storages, and they sold it to the public at a very low price. But after some months, there was nothing.

McCUNE: The bakers on stage are soon hungry and running for their lives from fires and explosions. Internal warfare ruins their momentary peace.

Members of the Afghan company Exile Theater are all actors from Afghanistan who fled to Pakistan when the Taliban took power. There they began to adapt their trade to new and alienated audiences. Salimi says the transplants were longing to feel a sense of identity, and some of the old songs his company sang would make them cry.

Mr. SALIMI: (Singing in Pashtu)

McCUNE: This one is in Pashtu, and it begins, `Our beautiful country, our beloved country, this country which is my soul. This is Afghanistan.'

Mr. SALIMI: The song is sang in Communist regime in Afghanistan by an old traditional singer. Nobody liked it at that time, this song. But later when many problems happen and Afghans faced very difficult times in mujaheddin and Taliban time, that song became a kind of national anthem to Afghans, a song for unity.

McCUNE: Salimi also taught street theater to children. So when a New York-based company called Bond Street Theater traveled to the refugee camps of Pakistan, everyone told them they should talk to Salimi. Bond Street Theater has for years worked in areas of conflict around the world using non-verbal techniques to both entertain and to discourage violence. When they met up with Salimi and his group, the US and Afghanistan were at war. But Bond Street's artistic director Joanna Sherman says the two companies quickly discovered an auspicious harmony of style.

Ms. JOANNA SHERMAN (Artistic Director, Bond Street Theater): We said, `Well, this is what we do when we warm up. We get together in circle and we kind of do these sort of movement things,' and they said, `Well, when we start to warm up what we do is we get together in a circle and we do this dance called the Attan, the national dance,' you know. Then we said, `Well, we do this kind of thing with sticks; it's kind of a martial art form we got from the Philippines,' and they said, `Oh, we do this other thing with sticks where you--at weddings and this other kind of dance form that we have.'

Mr. SALIMI: And I said let the governments fight and let the public create art in culture of coexistence.

Ms. SHERMAN: We said let's meet next year in Kabul inshallah, which just basically means--you know, if God wills it, but in a way it means `Yeah, right,' because, of course, there was nothing to say really that everyone was going to be able to return to Afghanistan in the next year.

McCUNE: But a year later in 2003, they did return, along with millions of Afghan expatriates. Though politics in Kabul were still too tender to allow street performances, especially with women actors, together they did manage to put on shows in tiny villages up north.

(Soundbite of child laughing)

McCUNE: A video of their trip shows children laughing and applauding ferociously as they arrive.

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, my goodness. Look at this.

Ms. SHERMAN: And it was very rewarding to see that even though maybe children under 10 had never seen a performance because of the Taliban, if you do things that are the same kind of slapstick comedy that you would do here, kids will laugh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

McCUNE: Sherman says some children walked for miles to see them.

Ms. SHERMAN: And then we taught stilt-walking to the little girls especially 'cause they never get the chance to do anything daring or adventurous physically.

McCUNE: Back in Kabul, the two groups created "Beyond the Mirror," their current production.

Mr. SALIMI: I wanted to show a piece of reality, real life of Afghans, what happened to us, not how Afghanistan is reflected by media, because the East was reflecting Afghanistan the way the East wanted and the West the same.

(Soundbite of "Beyond the Mirror")

Unidentified Man #3: Good evening. Here's the news from Moscow. Soviet liberators are in Afghanistan and are returning the country to its former glory.

Unidentified Woman #1: Good evening. Here's the news from Kabul. The Soviet invaders have come to depress and destroy our way of life.

McCUNE: Later the words `blah, blah, blah' are projected onto a screen.

(Soundbite of "Beyond the Mirror")

Unidentified Man #4: Afghans need Soviet help.

Unidentified Woman #2: God's with the mujaheddin.

McCUNE: The unspoken truth, according to "Beyond the Mirror," is that despite short periods of celebration and hope, no one has so far done the Afghan people right. The play premiered over the summer in Kabul and has since shown in Japan and Baltimore. It's now up and running at the Theater for the New City in Manhattan's East Village. For NPR News, I'm Marianne McCune in New York.

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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