Kabul theatre aims to take tragedy back from reality

Afghanistan has witnessed the return of children's theatre to Kabul after an enforced cessation of two decades. The play, Dragon Mountain, carries a meaning beyond the legend it recalls. This is an Afghan story from an ancient past, tinged with hope for an emerging future.
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The Independent Culture

In his 2007 book A Thousand Splendid Suns, Afghan author Khaled Hosseini told how the dogs of Kabul developed a taste for human flesh in the worst days of the fighting. Yet today, the dogs of Kabul run in packs, no longer able to stumble alone upon a generous meal in the remains of a shattered building.

It is shortly after 5pm, 1 July 2009, and the dusty, pot-holed road that passes by the newly-opened Kabul Nendari Theatre building in Afghanistan's capital city is littered with kids.

The tapestry of the city's humanity is stitched together from across the country. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, driven to the city from the provinces by poverty, or the loss of a parent, have set up home in tent cities and slums on the outskirts of Kabul, broadening the boundaries of the capital towards the foothills of the mountains in all directions.

Though this afternoon, despite the familiar heat, the monotonous military aircraft overhead, and the regular high-pitched shouts of "sir - dollar?" the kids have seen and experienced a spectacle that has not graced Kabul for around two decades. The return to Afghanistan of puppet theatre.

Sat reverentially in his office beneath the main stage of the partly-reconstructed theatre building, the occasion is not lost on Abdul Qadir Farookh, National Theatre of Afghanistan (NTA) director and star of 2007's The Kite Runner.

"Twenty years ago we had the puppet theatre here in Afghanistan," Farookh says. "But it was lost during the war. It is good to see children's theatre return to our country."

With Afghanistan approaching its second presidential election next month, you would expect talk of puppets within Kabul to be in reference to select electoral hopefuls, depending on your political leaning. Due to the elections, security across the sun-baked city this summer is high. Road blocks adorn almost every street corner, cars passing through the inner city at night are stopped at gun point and occasionally searched by nervous-looking Afghan police, fingers on the triggers of loaded Kalashnikov rifles.

"It is a somewhat creepy feeling," Norwegian-born actor Petter Kristiansen tells us. "Elements of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida are regrouping in preparation for the elections. This is the calm before the storm." Kristiansen advises us that the kidnap risk across the city is "very high right now." If I hear any sudden cries of "he's behind you," I'll just have to trust that the best traditions of puppet theatre are alive and well in Kabul.

The performance on 1 July heralded a number of firsts in the city. Dragon Mountain was funded and devised by Den Nationale Scene - the national theatre in Bergen, Norway - and organised by the Norwegian team in collaboration with the NTA. It was the first official performance by the collaboration.

The performance also marked the opening of the partially reconstructed theatre building. Acting as a restaurant for the past five years, the building was refurbished by Norwegian money and Afghan toil. "The restaurant was a mess, a ruin," says project leader Rhine Skaanes. "We only started work three months ago and this place has become a theatre. It's quite astonishing."

An ancient tale

Four years ago, Dragon Mountain writer and director Vigdis Ludvigsen stumbled across the Dragon of Bamyan Valley. The Afghan legend tells the story of a dragon that terrorises a village by demanding the people sacrifice five camels and a virgin every week. The matter is resolved with the death of the dragon at the hands of sword-wielding hero Azad. The dragon is turned to stone, and to this day he stands frozen in the valley of Bamyan province, 140 miles north-west of Kabul.

Despite Den Nationale Scene's stated aim to steer clear of politics in Afghanistan, the parallels between Dragon Mountain and contemporary Afghan history are shockingly direct. The provinces of the nation are dotted with villages in which the way of life had barely changed for centuries. However, as the Mujahideen fought a civil war for control of the nation after the 1989 repelling of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and the seizure of power by the Taliban that followed amid the chaos, life in the provinces changed.

The world has become familiar with the draconian interpretation of Sharia law implemented by the Taliban in Afghanistan from 1996-2001. The regime was overwhelmingly Pashtun - Afghan and Pashtun rulers were installed across the country regardless of misrepresentation in the non-pashtun provinces. To the villagers of Afghanistan, the Dragon of Bamyan had awoken from its sleep.

In a country ever-teetering on the brink of political violence, and with Karim Khorram, the controversial Afghan information and culture minister who many accuse of pursuing anti-free expression policies in the audience for Dragon Mountain, was Ludvigsen concerned about how the story would be interpreted?

"A little," she says, "but it's an ancient story." On the day, Dragon Mountain met with Khorram's approval. In Ludvigsen's eyes, the play is representative not of a political history, or of the violent legacy that Afghanistan struggles in the shadow of today, but of something more universal.

"We had been working on this back in Norway," she explains, "and it's just not possible for us to know the intricacies of another culture. What we do know, however, are human beings. We are the same, no matter where you go."

If a universal human condition were to be identified permeating through Dragon Mountain; the return of children's theatre to Afghanistan; and the re-opening of a section of the Kabul Nendari building; it is that of hope. The concept does exist, despite the danger of it becoming a hollow western cliché when lamenting on a distant, war-ravaged city such as Kabul. Now and again, however, this stubborn concept requires cultivation in order to flourish into something tangible.

The synergy created by Den Nationale Scene and the NTA is just that. A palpable manifestation of the progressiveness of Kabul's people and the Bergen Theatre. A return to tales of fiction, for so long outlawed and transposed by violent reality.

Exit stage left

Mid-way through the debut of Dragon Mountain, as children sit inside enthralled by the performance, a theatre staff member, a middle aged Afghan man, is treading the boards of the former Kabul Nendari building next door. He appears deep in thought, bathed by afternoon sunlight flooding in through the open building. The theatre, which upon completion in 1905 was the fourth-largest theatre building in the world, is utterly ruined.

It stands as a brutal testament to the oppression of art and culture under the extreme Islamic doctrine of the Mujahideen leaders and, later, the Taliban. Theatre director Farookh is one of the few members of Kabul theatre society - if not the only member - who remembers the thriving scene of the 1970s.

The following day, back in Farookh's musty office, the room is a haven of calm. The Dragon Mountain cast has just enjoyed a lively farewell lunch with their Norwegian counterparts in the room above, many of whom will be returning to Scandinavia for the time being to pursue other projects following yesterday's successful debut.

"Twenty years ago, before the onset of war, Kabul Theatre was perfect," Farookh explains through his son, Meelad, who is translating. "I was only seven years old when I started acting. My father was the lead-musician of the Kabul Theatre."

Farookh rose through the ranks during the 60s and 70s to become director of the National Theatre of Afghanistan. But war was to wreak havoc. The main theatre complex was devastated during the Mujahideen's nine-year conflict with the Russians and subsequent civil conflict between the warring factions of the Mujahideen, as each vied to fill the gaping vacuum of domestic power.

As guerrilla warfare swamped sections of the city, factions of the Mujahideen sought refuge in the old Kabul Nendari, ironically, the very symbol of a culture many of them were ideologically and violently opposed to. Within months, the theatre hosted a tragedy the likes of which it had never been intended for, as drama crossed the line, with savage abandon, from fiction to reality.

"The theatre was completely destroyed," Farookh explains. "Rockets, bombs and bullets tore our theatre apart. The Mujahideen used it for shelter, and even after the Russians left, the Mujahideen did not want the Kabul Theatre in Afghanistan. They destroyed it."

The seizure of power by the Taliban in 1996, an organisation that took a similar ideological approach to any manifetation of culture as the Mujahideen had done, only served to elongate the black hole that had enveloped Afghan theatre. Throughout those oppressive years, Farookh was forced to seek work in neighbouring Pakistan.

He returned home following the election of current Afghan president Hamid Karzai to power in 2004. "The government of Hamed Karzai and the Ministry of Information and Culture decided that Kabul Theatre was important for Afghanistan," Farookh says. "So I was asked to come back here and lead the theatre again."

Farookh believes that his return to directorship of the National Theatre was as much about weeding out corruption as it was an appointment on artistic merit. He says that past directors “did not have the interests of the theatre at heart” and “just wanted to pocket the money.”

In 2004 Den Nationale Scene had been working with the Afghans for 12 months, yet Farookh insisted on drawing up a new contract to govern business between the two parties. "I asked the Norwegians not to pay me a single dollar," he says. "I wanted their cash to end up with the theatre. Nowhere else."

Den Nationale Scene went on to provide technology, such as computer-controlled lighting along with the necessary training, so that both parties could get down to writing, rehearsing and performing. The final piece of the Dragon Mountain jigsaw was the refurbishment of the restaurant that was attached to the side of the derelict former theatre, into a theatre itself. "In just three months we built this beautiful place," Farookh says.

The bombed-out shell of the old Kabul Nendari looks out onto a sun-scorched patch of earth, across which lies the crumbling buildings of the Kabul Chamber of Commerce. As we gaze out from the crumbling second floor, a pack of stray dogs tear across the barren, baking ground between the two complexes, howling and fighting among themselves.

Kabul-born author Khaled Hosseini told in his 2007 book A Thousand Splendid Suns how the dogs of Kabul developed a taste for human flesh in the worst days of the fighting. Yet the dogs of Kabul now run in packs, no longer able to stumble alone upon a meal in the remains of a shattered building such as the Kabul Nendari. That such brutality has occurred intermittently over the past two decades in this city, however, is not forgotten. It remains reflected in the sand-bagged check points at night, and the armed guards outside every government building and Western-friendly establishment.

As we depart the theatre ruins, our guide passes slowly through the barbed wire-lined hole in the wall that, twenty years ago, was the main doorway of the proud Kabul Nendari. He pauses as he exits stage left, framed in the door way by the late afternoon sun. It's a fitting exit. Den Nationale Scene and the National Theatre of Afghanistan have come here to coax Afghan theatre from the two decades of darkness that have consumed it, back into the light.

In the building next door, Dragon Mountain nears its climax. The villagers are yet to call upon the hero Azad. "No one is doing anything to stop the dragon, so the terror will go on," Azad's partner Maryam explains to a gaggle of villagers. "So next week it will all happen again."

"But there is nothing to be done," the villagers exclaim to Maryam, barely stifling their laughter. "The dragon is larger and stronger than all of us together!"

"Then we should ask for help," Maryam persists.

"But who can help?!" the villagers say, laughing even harder. "Do you think we can just call out for a hero?"

Heroes and villains

The US-led invasion of Afghanistan began on 7 October 2001. Eight years on, Karzai's government has achieved a certain level of stability inside Kabul, but its influence in the provinces remains limited. The US Operation Enduring Freedom continues along the Pakistan border, while the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) oversees security in Kabul and the surrounding area.

Like Iraq, Afghanistan is a nation of different peoples. Of differing religious backgrounds and complex tribal origins. Karzai is Pastun-Afghan. He was elected over representatives of the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek peoples. If one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, then in Afghanistan, one man's visionary leader is another man's puppet president.

With elections a month away, the streets are lined with posters. The grinning faces of the candidates adorn the walls of run-down shops and dusty street corners. In some, the face of the candidate has been viciously scratched out, revealing crumbling bricks and mortar where an inane, false smile should be. Babies are pictured, held aloft by a headless torso to be kissed by a circular patch of stretcher bond.

Karzai appears popular among locals. Bassmia, one of our many drivers throughout our stay, will vote for Karzai's re-election. If there is one thing the country craves, it is stability. The nation has been paralysed by power vacuums, sucking gun-toting militia men into the void, assuming positions of authority and imposing ideological doctrines based around extreme, oppressive interpretations of holy scripture.

It is little surprise that the Norwegian contingent behind Dragon Mountain chose to distance themselves from political comment. Indeed, in the words of Petter Kristiansen, "the story line is so highly politicised, and so highly charged, I am amazed that we were able to do this."

Puppet-maker Jack Markussen - and that's puppet-maker not in the George W. Bush metaphorical imposition-of-overseas-government sense, but the Pinoccio's-father-Geppetto literal sense - was the artistic source behind the puppets. This is not your average Punch and Judy show however. The puppets in Dragon Mountain are life size. In every facet of this performance, the cultural sensitivities of a patchwork nation had to be considered.

"I had ideas concerning Afghan clothes and costumes but it's difficult," Markussen explains, "because in this country it's so very different depending on which area you are from. I spoke to one person who said, 'no, don't use this hat on this puppet, use this one instead because it's the kind of hat worn by my people.' I found the only solution was to mix everything up."

"We ended up putting everything into a soup," writer Ludvigsen adds. "We just hope it is not perceived as disrespectful." In the land of the Pashtun, the Tajik, the Hazara, and the Uzbek, you can't please all of the people, all of the time.

The Norwegians are waiting for their ride back to Kabul International Airport. From there it is Dubai and "a hot shower," Ludvigsen says, then back to Bergen. Den Nationale Scene will continue to collaborate with the NTA for the next five years as per the contract drawn up by Farookh and the group. Workshops will be run by the Norwegians to train Afghan theatre staff in acting, writing and directing.

More performances of Dragon Mountain will be staged, though finding a suitable venue along with making the appropriate security arrangements is an ongoing concern for all parties. Though Kabul has not seen what the ISAF terms a "major incident" for some time, with elections around the corner, the city remains on tenterhooks.

According to the ISAF, in March, a school in the Khowst province of Afghanistan sustained major damage when it was attacked by insurgent forces. The following month, a further two separate schools in the same province were attacked, and as recently as June 21st, a school in the Bamyan province was hit by an improvised explosive device.

There remain elements within Afghanistan that are deeply opposed to what many would term progress. To some, education, independent thought, art and culture are forces to be feared, threats to the status quo, and to the authority of religion and dictatorial, ultra-conservative governance. There is little doubt that the same people who planted an improvised explosive device on the second floor of the Bamyan province school on 21 June would act to halt the return of establishments such as the NTA, given the chance.

Running in packs

Our last night in the Kabul Inn is an uneasy one. According to an NGO worker we met in the city earlier that evening, threats had been issued by the Taliban against Norwegian interests across the country, a result of fierce fighting in the north between the Norwegian military and insurgent forces. The entire Norwegian theatre party had been staying at the Inn with us. Indeed, a smattering of them remained.

Outside, across the city, the dogs of Kabul let out intermittent yelps. They howl in the night as they stalk the streets of their re-emerging city. If the predicted spike in violence during election month can be overcome, or better yet, fails to materialise altogether, and Karzai secures a further five-year term as expected, the complex story of Afghan politics can be allowed to continue on its present arc.

Over breakfast one morning, Petter Kristiansen, the same man who had comfortingly warned us on our arrival of the high risk of kidnapping during election month, spoke frankly of his career, and his shift into what he termed a more fulfilling veneer.

"I became bored of normal roles," he said. "It seemed the theatre was purely a platform for people who wanted recognition, when it should be about telling a story. Have something to say, share ideas and learn about yourself. To me," Kristiansen said, "the theatre is a temple."

Inevitably, the subject of the dragon arose. But there was no macro-political definition in Kristiansen's view. His understanding was shaped by a will for people to experience theatre from a personal perspective. "The dragon can be many things," he said. "In Afghanistan, it can be your father who won't allow you to go to school. Or it can be your mother who forces you to step into the street and beg."

It is said that if you stand atop the stone dragon in the Valley of Bamyan, and place your ear to a giant fissure that runs the length of the rock, the groans of the dragon can still be heard emanating from its parched throat. Though it appears to sleep, its threat remains.

There is hope for the Afghan capital as it emerges from two decades of war. The opening of the new Kabul Nendari building and Dragon Mountain represent tentative but bold steps towards reclaiming a once glorious past where drama and tragedy remained rooted on the fictional side of reality where they belonged. While the dragon sleeps, the show will go on. And the dogs of Kabul will not be allowed to walk alone pursuing the scent of flesh, but will continue to run, and hunt, in packs.