Sometimes I wonder if everything I’ve thought of, everything I’m thinking of, has been thought before. Often, it’s in bouts of depression and my conclusion is that I’m probably useless and unoriginal. (Yes, I am being a bit dramatic but that’s me!) These last few months, however, when I reflect on the originality of my being (how embarrassing) I have been grateful for all the thinking that has come before me. Millions of people, doing the best they could, have lived lives and laid the groundwork for me to do what I do. Being immersed in the world of craft, it is starting to make more and more sense that originality isn’t highly prized. It’s nice, but it isn’t the point.
What is the experience of time? Sun up to sun down; the phases of the moon; an 8-hour workday; the passing of a birthday; the harvest; the sowing; the completion of a thought? The time for group remembering, the communal gatherings and the personal, internal time; we live between the two. My time in India so far has been a weaving between the two forms – personal and collective.
The famous banyan tree in India has aerial roots. That means small seedlings growing on its branches send down vine-like extensions that upon hitting dirt, take root and anchor the tree. If left unchecked, a single banyan can expand into a maze-like thicket of its own creation. A tree intertwined around another tree, creating shadow trees. I’m living in a similar metaphoric spiral right now. Thoughts shooting straight downward, leading to confusion, leading to pause, leading to insights, leading to growth.
I’ve come back from Afghanistan about 3 weeks ago, and in another 3 weeks I am heading off to India for 8 months on a Fulbright grant. I’ll be returning to the country of my birth and the adopted homeland of my people. It will be strange to be back in a place that is so familiar but so alien. It’s like meeting a celebrity in person. You recognize her, you’ve seen so often. However being here, face to face, makes you realize that you have no idea who this person is and she knows nothing about you.
How do I talk about difference without putting a value judgment on it? If one thing is different than another, must one thing be better than the other? How can I value multiple experiences, approaches and perspectives while keeping a sense of self? Must I choose one as better so that I can hold on to something familiar? This project is different than the rest of my work in Afghanistan. I am not working directly with a theater group, I am working with media makers; writers, producers, researchers from Equal Access, Afghanistan. I am training them in methods of participatory storytelling for community engagement and social change
As I prepare to return to Kabul for a short project with the US Institute for Peace, I wanted to take the time to wish everyone a very happy Eid. May it be filled with closeness, kindness and a renewed hope for human liberation. May the best and brightest parts of your spirit shine. The end of Ramadan (marked by Eid) this year coincides with the Zoroastrian time of prayer and reflection for our dearly departed. The prayers we held at my parent’s home fell one week after the death anniversary of my maternal grandmother. As a girl growing up in India when she did, Dina Arjani was not to be educated past middle school, but her family relented after her insistence.
It’s a Friday full of sweetness and sadness for me. I leave in a couple of days and I am spending this lazy Friday visiting friends to say goodbye … until we meet again. Everything about the city seems magical today. The mountains are glowing white, circled by grey clouds. The streets are calm and people are out and about.
This week was a long week with lots of prodding and pushing. We were telling stories about oppression, personal experiences of oppression, something simple, clear. I started by asking them to make a frozen body sculpture of one such experience. After the activity, we spoke about what they were showing. It turns out no one made an image of something from their own life! They made images from other people’s lives, images from stories they heard, or things they saw. They were finding it hard to access those personal stories, without compounding them with others.
Full of JOY! I feel like I’m walking on clouds, slowly climbing higher and higher till I reach my cruising altitude. I am preparing to go back to Kabul for a month of trainings and am thrilled to see my work build on itself. The first two groups I trained are coming back and I will be offering them new cultural tools for community engagement, collective problem solving and local healing. After this advanced workshop, a few members will stay with me to co-facilitate a brand new training with 3 new groups!
It’s that time of the year again. Spring is creeping up on us, new shoots are poking up from the ground and festivals of regeneration and re-birth are taking place around the world. In my ancestral part of the world, South and West Asia, the festival of Holi, (celebrated in South Asia) and Norooz (celebrated in West Asia), are coming up this month. Holi is March 8, Norooz is March 20th. Both feature fire, a meditation on righteousness and lots of color.
Hello Kabul! Hello mountains. Hello kindness. Hello community. Hello learning. Hello growing. Hello change. I feel so full of joy and gratitude to be here and do what I love. It’s been such a busy week and I can’t believe that already I am half way done! I am finding out that being the sole facilitator and workshop coordinator is pretty time consuming but I promise to send more updates.
Art imitates life, life imitates art … but what’s the deal with pepper spray at WalMart? It’s the theater of the absurd in overdrive. I sit here next to the pot bellied stove in my guest house, calm and distant. I don’t mind the distance from this facet of life. Though I do remember when I was here in late September, I had such longing to be part of the Occupy movement in NYC. Funny how things change.
I’ve been back in NY for two weeks now and am so pleased that I got to see the last of the fall colors. When I arrived, reds, yellows, browns and greens were still bright and shocking. Now, many of the leaves have fallen – and the colors faded. When I left New York in October Zucotti park had just been occupied and the movement, which seemed to appear from nowhere, bloomed and blazed. In the two months between, something important has begun.
There’s no way around it. I can’t hide, pretend it’s not happening, close my eyes. I have to have to face it -the project has come to an end. Well, my part of it has come to an end and now the young students are tasked with carrying on the work and moving it forward. I have learned a great deal by spending these 6 weeks in Kabul, listening to people, observing life, understanding daily struggles, seeing entrenched attitudes and thinking about all of this in light of how art and culture can be used to educate, build community, and inspire change.
This last week has been filled with performances for NGOs and community spaces throughout Kabul. We often have 2-3 per day which makes for hectic and fun times. So far we’ve performed at schools, orphanages, for the National Police force, a community center for widows and orphans, the Kabul women’s prison, and in the garden of a women’s rights organization.
Sometimes a banana is just a banana … and sometimes it’s more! For the young men’s theater group, a banana represents the multiple problems in Afghan society. Dealing with the seemingly insignificant task of where to throw the peel leads the main character on a journey through the maze of maze of problems on all levels of Afghan society.
I’m writing two separate blog posts, one about the young men’s production and process and one about the young women’s. This one is all about the women. Despite being located in the cosmopolitan capital city, it seems that this theater group is the first all women’s group in Kabul. Many of these young women, even though they have studied theater at university, have not performed on the stage for audiences – not even in university productions. Well, here’s their chance! They are talented, smart, passionate, and ready to shout from the rooftops.
Here’s what happened the other day … Every day, in the room we train in, I hear drums playing, horns blowing and people jamming. Yesterday I took it upon myself to investigate the source of this funkiness. So I walked the halls of the fine arts building at Kabul University. I was stopped on one staircase by some heavenly rabab playing. Coming from where, I didn’t know. It was magical and lovely to just stand there and listen.
I’m tired. Tired, tired, tired. I work 6 days a week with the actors, then spend many more hours at the apartment revising agendas, planning, And trying to connect with local and international NGOs who would be interested in supporting this fledgling theater company when we leave. We go to meetings in the mornings and then go to the university in the afternoons until evening working hard and pushing the students harder. The sky is dark when we leave and Kabul is getting chilly, “sard-e-st” … “it is cold” in Dari.