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Afghan Exile Theater Explores Nation's Past 25 Years

Afghanistan 's 25 years of invasion, occupation, and oppression are explored on stage in New York in Beyond the Mirror (through December 4). The joint project between Exile Theater of Kabul and the New York-based Bond Street Theater is being called the first U.S.-Afghan theater collaboration in recent history.

Members of Exile Theater and Bond Street Theater first met in a Pakistani refugee camp shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Joanna Sherman, Bond Street's artistic director, says her group was there primarily to entertain children in the camps.

"It is especially difficult for children," said Ms. Sherman. "They do not have the freedom of movement that they once did. They do not have the things that are familiar to them. We wanted to entertain them and make them laugh and also to see who Afghans are and what their situation is."

Mahmoud Shah Salimi was an illegal Afghan refugee in Pakistan, working at any job he could find to survive. At the time, Mr. Salimi was working with street children.

"I was doing street theater, acrobatics, games with kids on the streets," he explained. "I met Bond Street there, we talked, we saw each other's work on videotapes and picture. We said let us start working together. Let us start a project."

That project evolved into Beyond the Mirror. Mr. Salimi says Exile Theater began in Pakistan during the tumultuous days of the Taleban rule as a way to preserve Afghanistan's cultural identity.

"When the Taleban took power, many artists fled to neighboring countries," he noted. "Many of them went to Pakistan. In March 18, 2000, we all came together and said 'Let's establish an exile theater. Let us continue with Afghanistan's theater art.' The main objective was to rehabilitate Afghanistan's theater. We were artists from TV, movies, theater."

The play is a series of vignettes based on videotaped interviews with ordinary Afghans. Mr. Salimi says each vignette represents one of the periods of political changes Afghanistan has undergone in the past 25 years.

It opens with the 1979 Soviet invasion, followed by a period of mujahadeen rule, then the Taleban era and, finally, the interim government. Some of the interviews are woven into the structure of the play.

"We did interviews with people in Kabul and people in the countryside," he added. "We collected all those interviews and put them together and used all of those interviews in video-projection of the production to make it more documentary-like, close to the reality."

Throughout the production, Rebob music is played on stage by a well-known Afghan master, Quraishi. The rebob is similar to a lute.

Dialogue is spare and mostly in Dari. Masks, mime, puppetry, shadow play, film, acrobatics, photographs, and news reels are among the dramatic techniques used to convey a mixture of historic reality and cultural mythology, as well as especially gruesome moments: torture, hangings, beheadings.

Joanna Sherman says enabling the audience to understand a non-verbal production is one of Bond Street's chief contributions.

"We have gathered a physical vocabulary that we could bring from martial arts to mime technique to different dance forms, circus arts, all these kinds of physical performance forms," added Ms. Sherman. "This is the basis of Bond Street Theater's work so what we were bringing was something that appeared very new when, in fact, it is really quite traditional, and then marrying that with the style of exile theater."

Beyond the Mirror debuted in Afghanistan in August at the second annual Theater Festival in Kabul. It was an exciting time for Mr. Salimi, who had been living in exile since 1996.

"They were so excited and we were so excited," he recalled. "To me, it was a wonderful experience, coming back to Afghanistan and performing, because these were all those wishes that were suppressed and now it is time to give them back."

Casting in Kabul presented a problem, however, because Afghan women are still not easily accepted on the stage. Joanna Sherman says that was not a problem for the foreign actresses who traveled with the theater group in Afghanistan.

"This is something very close to our hearts: how would they see us being that we were doing some very physical things - acrobatics, touching each other, rolling over each other. Women fighting or doing some very aggressive things. Somehow it was okay because we were foreign women," noted Ms Sherman.

Anisa Wahab, a founding member of Exile Theater, is an exception. As a child, before the Taleban rule, she was already an established television and film star. She plays a leading role in Beyond the Mirror.

The National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. State Department helped fund the project and Mr. Salimi says he hopes Beyond the Mirror will lead to more cultural exchanges to show people that they can coexist regardless of positions taken by governments.

Exile Theater and Bond Street Theater plan to take the production to Germany. After that, the two directors say they want to do a lighter production, something that will leave audiences laughing.