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Out of Exile

Afghani and American artists come together to present Beyond the Mirror. logo
Anisa Wahab in rehearsal for Beyond the Miror
(Photo © Bond Street Theatre)
Theater artists sometimes offer a litany of excuses as to why they can't put on a play, ranging from "there's not enough time and money" to "it's difficult to find audiences." So imagine what it would be like to have been exiled from your country and still have the determination to present a show in an area of political instability and economic distress. That's exactly what Afghani nationals Mahmoud Shah Salimi and Anisa Wahab did when they founded the Exile Theatre in a Pakistani refugee camp.

Now the pair are temporarily living in New York, where their show Beyond the Mirror will have its American premiere at Theater for the New City on November 17. Produced in association with the Bond Street Theatre, Beyond the Mirror depicts more than 30 years of Afghanistan's fraught history, including its occupation by the former Soviet Union, the mujahideen, and the rise and fall of the Taliban. But these horrifying subjects are dealt with in a carnival-like presentation with shadow puppetry, stilt-walking, and traditional music and dance as central features.

The unusual endeavor has been given a seal of approval by both the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs -- but this doesn't mean that the show's political content isn't provocative. In one memorable scene, a figure that's clearly meant to represent Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's current president, is propped up on stilts by outside powers while saboteurs try to cut him down from the inside. There's also a beheading presented in shadow; accented with percussion, the sequence is almost as horrifying to watch as the actual videos that circulate on the Internet.

Beyond the Mirror makes it clear why so many Afghanis were willing to leave thier homeland, but it was far from an easy trip. As Bond Street's artistic director Joanna Sherman says to a visitor to her office, using the map of Afghanistan on the wall to illustrate, potential exiles had to travel through a mountainous region filled with checkpoints and known for abductions. Those who made it through the famed Khyber Pass to Peshawar weren't exactly welcomed by Pakistanis; indeed, the refugees faced bitter xenophobia and deplorable conditions in the refugee camps, which were roughly made structures of mud.

The personal stories of Salimi and Wahab are terrifying and heartbreaking. Salimi survived a coalition bombing that occurred just as he was bringing his suit to the tailor. In the same way that New Yorkers can estimate the distance and direction of an ambulance siren, he said, Afganis can sense which roads are being bombed and adjust their travel accordingly. Salimi has also been compelled to alter his appearance throughout different regimes to go with the current fashion.

Mahmoud Shah Salimi and company in Beyond the Mirror
(Photo © Bond Street Theatre)
Wahab, who spoke with Salimi serving as her translator, became a child star during the Communist regime. Many years later, she still has the presence of a firecracker. Although she has no fondness for the Soviet occupiers of her country, she nonetheless maintains that the regime did provide for them in terms of the arts -- if one was well connected. (Today, Kabul has no remaining theaters, and the religious pieties that remain prevent new ones from being built.)

She's passionate and more than a little melancholy about the state of women's rights in the country. Even with the Taliban overthrown, both Wahab and Salimi are skeptical about the prospects for real change in that arena. "It's not fear of the Taliban returning [that's holding women back]," says Salimi, "it's the impact of tradition and religion." Both also stress that the current political situation is having a crushing effect on the arts. To this day, the word "dancer" is used as an insult in Afghanistan and the only traditional dance that's socially sanctioned is the "attan," which is performed only by men. As far as theater goes, actors are called by the names of the roles that they played as a mark of shame.

Still, the company has made positive impacts in various ways. It has performed for mixed audiences of men and women. One time, a dour religious man dressed like a former Taliban official was watching a performance, and since the Taliban would often violently suppress such activities, the company members were worried about what would happen. But then they noticed the man smiling at one of the play's jokes.

Perhaps the situation in Afghanistan is finally changing for the better. For example, coalition forces have built a 2,000-seat auditorium for a women's school that has 84 students. With continued struggle, it may someday be put to good use.

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