KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Barely three years ago, at a time when women in Afghanistan were not permitted even to leave their homes, the idea of a woman performing on stage - and in mixed company! - seemed inconceivable. Any woman who did so risked life and limb.
All the more astonishing, then, that a theater festival opening in Kabul will include a play written by a woman (a teenage schoolgirl, to be precise), with real actresses, about the brutal suppression of women under the country's now-ousted Taliban government.
"To those people who want to keep us away from the stage, I say: You have no right to interfere," says 16-year-old playwright/director Naseeba Ghulam Mohammed, whose "Toward Brightness" is among the plays women will perform during the eight-day national festival. "In Afghanistan today, men and women are equal."
Her words hint that opposition to women on stage - and perhaps to live theater in general - is not entirely a thing of the past. Indeed, the festival devotes a day to "women's theater" which challenges Islamic fundamentalists who would block women's ascent to the stage - not to mention school, jobs, and other aspects of civic life. But the country's first theater festival ever, and the participation of about two dozen newly formed dramatic companies from around the country, speaks to how quickly this Muslim country is evolving and to the role the arts are playing in its transformation.
To those who support this flowering of Afghan theater, drama is an effective way to spread the message of a modern, democratic Afghanistan.
"People may not listen to the mullah, but they will pick up good things when they come to the theater," says Majid Ghiasi, director of the government-financed Kabul Theatre Company. "The message conveyed through drama or comedy is more easily absorbed."
The Kabul Theatre Company has toured several provinces in the past year, presenting short plays on themes such as women's education and the importance of democracy.
Audiences have greeted the troupe with enthusiasm, even in villages. Only once did trouble arise, when fundamentalist university students stormed a performance in Jalalabad.
Many Afghans, though, continue to regard theater as inappropriate for women and some see it as in conflict with Islam. Female performers at the 45-play festival in Kabul will wear a hijab, the traditional head covering prescribed by Islam. But the audiences will be mixed and women's voices well represented.
Naseeba's half-hour play, to be performed by the Mediothek Girls' Theatre from the northern city of Kunduz, is just part of her repertoire. The teenager has written, directed, or acted in 15 short plays for the German-sponsored girls' theater company in the three years since a US-led coalition force swept the Taliban from power. Before that, she could not even attend school in Afghanistan and received her education as a refugee in Iran.
"Theater is an easy medium," says Nobert Spitz of Germany's Goethe Institute, which supports the Afghan theater revival and is helping to organize the festival. "It travels by bus, it doesn't need electricity, it can go to the remotest region, and the audience needn't be literate."
Afghanistan has a long tradition of rustic theater - storytellers enacting religious myths and legends, or vaudeville-type entertainers performing at weddings.
But modern Afghan theater was born less than a century ago, at the initiative of King Amanullah. The first production, about 1920, was of a patriotic play, "Mother of the Nation," performed in the royal garden retreat of Paghman, near Kabul.
With Afghans' love for music and melodrama, theater flourished in the cities. In the early 1960s, a state-of-the-art, German-designed National Theatre opened in Kabul, with a revolving stage, an orchestra pit, and seating for 700.
The art form did not fade with the rise of the Communists in the 1970s: During the Soviet occupation, Kabul's police and firemen even had their own theater groups. But the mujahedin militias who drove out the Communists in 1991 also dimmed the lights of theater. The bombed-out hulk of Kabul's National Theatre stands as stark testimony to the assault on Afghan culture during the mujahideen civil war, and by the short, brutal reign of the Taliban.
"Theater was suppressed all over the country under the Taliban, but curiously, not in Kabul University," says Mohammed Azeem Hussainzada, head of the university's theater department. "That's because the university head, though from the Taliban, loved theater. So we continued to produce plays, but for a restricted audience - the university boss and his friends. He allowed women to appear on stage, but controlled the content of the plays. So we could do a play, for instance, showing photographers harassing people and making money [the Taliban considered photography "un-Islamic"], but we had to steer clear of romantic or religious themes."
The current revival is taking place in a climate of creative freedom. Many plays at the national festival have themes that are daring in Afghanistan - star-crossed lovers, hypocritical mullahs, corrupt provincial governors, smugglers of ancient cultural artifacts, and drug lords. But Afghans have not forgotten how to laugh - several plays take digs at doctors, policemen, and busybodies.
"The aim is to establish theater as a common cultural domain that not only provides entertainment but also reflects the country's problems," says Julia Afifi, an Afghan-German director who has returned to her homeland to produce plays, teach at Kabul University, and help establish a national theater research center.
She is also introducing Afghans to Western plays and modern theater techniques. Among her current productions are short adaptations in the Dari language of Chekov's "Three Sisters" and British playwright Sarah Kane's controversial "Blasted," a searing portrayal of violence.
"Afghans tend to adopt a declamatory style of acting, so I try to help actors liberate their emotions and bodies," she says. "I even show them [Quentin] Tarantino's films ["Pulp Fiction," "Kill Bill"] to demonstrate how violence can flow from normal, relaxed situations."
For advocates, theater is a medium that can help Afghans not only to emerge from a dark period, but also to examine and understand it. As Naseeba put it, "Theater can help us find better ways to exist in the future."