Thanks to the contact which Carol Mendelsohn had made with Rhine Skanes at the Theatre of Bergen in Norway, I discovered that for 7 years a team of a Norwegian actors has been helping with the reconstruction of the theatre of Kabul, victim of Taliban intolerance.
To help with the autonomy and the passing-on of Afghan art, the team also organises various workshops in theatre arts – acting, directing, make up, fabrication of marionettes etc. The education of young people is at the heart of their work, and was the reason for my two trips to Kabul in 2010.
I first flew over the wild Afghan mountains in March, then again in June. In all I spent 4 weeks there. My mission was to share my work on the voice with students and teachers a the theatre department of the university, and to give voice coaching to the the actors and actresses of the Kabul National Theatre, who were preparing a performance for children, based on ‘The Fire Bird’ an ancient Russian tale – a story which inspired Stravinsky early in the 20th century.
My hair covered with a scarf, and with a long-sleeved tunic over trousers, I was immediately mistaken for an Afghan woman, and was spoken to in Dari (a dialect of Persian), one of the languages spoken in the country, especially in the region of Kabul.
Strangely, and despite not speaking the language, I didn’t really feel as though I were in a foreign country.
Extracts from my notes:
“The Theatre of Kabul seems to be protected by an ‘anthill’ which protects it, like a rediscovered jewel. The director ‘Mister Farouk’ ensures its good functioning in communication with international aid resources, but also has to deal with local struggles. Since my first visit, M Farouk has been ‘replaced’.
My work begins.
The Afghans that I meet are full of vocal and physical energy. My ‘daring’ as a European woman seems to stir up some astonishment in this group of actors (in which women are in a small minority): they don’t recognise the codes of my work, but their willingness, and the uniting effects of the work on the voice, opens a door to a common language. The voice is a common human faculty which frees peoples from their inter-cultural differences. There may be differences in our genes, but the cells which make up our vocal instrument are identical… Contrast – between the chill of the weather and darkness caused by unexpected electricity cuts, the all-pervading dust – and the warmth of the encounters I experience. The experience of the work, which plunges depths rather than develops form…
Experiences which lead me to draw on inner resources normally unexploited in my comfortable daily life.
I hear my work language take on other forms, I feel connections awakening, ideas become clearer, and understandings emerge spontaneously. I can feel a very close connection between interior and exterior, heart and head…
In retrospect these travel notes make me realise how much this Afghan experience has deeply affected me, both on a human and creative level.
The meaning of my work, of ‘our’ work, became clearer under new skies.
The ‘opening’ potential of the human voice made real sense. All of these women and men have suffered the echoes of decades of total artistic repression..Dancing, singing, playing a musical instrument were all prohibited, along with many other activities of basic daily life, especially for the women.
‘Freeing the voice’ – the vital energy of sound, breath and gestures – allowing individuality to evolve in ‘real space’…. The Afghans I meet have a potential for incredible energy. Their inexhaustible repertoire of songs, specific to the different regions, languages and dialects, are a precious way in or connection for me. The melodies are often melancholic, and the words deeply romantic – surely to compensate for their social reality. When I hear Afghans sing, it’s pure pleasure! Jubilation in the air, in the body, and the voices are naturally resonant and rich in harmonics, not unlike in the Basque country.
In this country where the state of siege is permanently present, I realise how important art and the arts are for society and for the individual. The night before my departure from Kabul in July, a theatre presentation took place – after a performance for the ‘officials’ – in fact censors – who gave the green light for the show to go ahead.
Groups of children in serried ranks arrived, filling the space with laughter, comments and enchanted looks. The feelings of the adults were obvious; it’s one of the first times that a public like this returned to this space. Mr Farouk wrote in the program ‘we hope this performance is a positive message for the new generations of Afghans, and that it will encourage them to fight for their liberty and for a better society’.
The end of the tale calls for nobleness of the heart, for forgiveness: a message of hope for an abused country undergoing painfully difficult reconstruction, where art engenders life.
It’s not surprising that that Arian Mnouchkine and many other artists from the worlds of dance, theatre, song and clowning – (a member of the Bataclown Company is currently working in Afghanistan) – have gone to meet these Afghans who have never given up their commitment to artistic creation. Bridges have been built with other European theatres, and with other cultures.
The paradox? These Afghans who live from day to day with, on the one hand a fatalism at the heart of their daily life, and on the other their amazing impetus as artists towards the collective future of their country. And from this arises an important questioning of our personal priorities and euro-centric preoccupations..
On returning to France I realised that a spark from the soul of this country had slipped into my suitcase. I offer it to you here in the form of the diary of a voice teacher.