Theatre of the Oppressed in Afghanistan

In 2009, Nik Mohammed Sharif, Hadi Marifat and Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn helped form the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organisation, with the goal of establishing a Theatre of the Oppressed movement in war-torn Afghanistan. On a recent visit to Berlin, they spoke to Phil Butland about Afghanistan’s Tahrir Square moment, working with Yannis Varoufakis and the role of theatre in the revolutionary process

Photograph: Imelda Mandala Taken at the event organised by the Bildungswerk Berlin der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung
Photograph: Imelda Mandala
Taken at the event organised by the Bildungswerk Berlin der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn is insistent: “It’s important that people from the outside start to look at Afghanistan through Afghan eyes, not exclusively through some Western lens, even if this lens is progressive. We need to take a decolonised view”. The German-Bolivian dramaturg is in Berlin with his two Afghani colleagues, Nik Mohammed Sharif and Hadi Marifat, building links for the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organisation (AHRDO).

AHRDO was founded in 2009 by 7 Afghani activists, including Sharif and Marifat, and supported by Joffre-Eichhorn. Its aim is to apply the Method of the Theatre of the Oppressed to Afghanistan, and to provide a concrete tool for the oppressed majority to analyse the past in the context of the present in order to create a better future.

AHRDO sees theatre as a “rehearsal for social-political change followed by direct actions in the streets” and as “a catalyst to put pressure on the government and the international community to honour those who lost everything”.

Augusto Boal against the Brazilian dictatorship

Photograph: Imelda Mandala
Taken at the event organised by the Bildungswerk Berlin der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

Theatre of the Oppressed was first developed by Augusto Boal under the Brazilian military dictatorship in the 1970s. It provided both a cultural backdrop and a school for struggle for the overthrow of the dictatorship, and then for the victories of Lula’s Workers’ Party. The Theatre of the Oppressed thus played a key role in the revolutionary wave in Latin America, which has since carried on in countries like Venezuela and Joffre-Eichhorn’s Bolivia.

Boal built upon Berthold Brecht’s “Epic Theatre”, paying particular attention to breaking down all barriers between actors and audience (or spect-actors), using a facilitator or “joker” to encourage full participation. He saw the theatre as the rehearsal of the revolution where people learn how to act politically.

In its homelands, the Theatre of the Oppressed is currently experiencing a renaissance, after a brief period of stasis following Boal’s death in 2009. Julian Boal and the members of the Centre of the Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio de Janiero are developing his father’s work, which sometimes means questioning old certainties.

In countries like Brazil and Venezuela Joffre-Eichhorn sees an extra challenge: “the governments are still our best bet and the alternative is so bleak and terrible that we need to continue supporting those in power. The question is how and if we can use the method to continue the revolutionary processes of more bottom-up democracy.”

Possibilities in Afghanistan

Photograph: Imelda Mandala
Taken at the event organised by the Bildungswerk Berlin der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

Marifat explains that the situation in Afghanistan is not as black and white as it is sometimes painted: “we have had some gains in the last 15 years. The constitution provides equal rights for women and a quota system guarantees 25% female MPs – at the moment in fact 35% of MPs are women.”

“At the same time these gains are under attack. There are assaults on women activists. Two weeks ago, seven journalists were killed by the Taliban and ten seriously injured, we don’t know how many died later. Reporters Without Borders says that 2015 was one of the bloodiest years for people working in the media in Afghanistan.”

Democratic rights are under attack from the Western-backed government, from the Taliban, and – to a lesser extent – from the Afghani version of Islamic State/Daesh. Daesh has gained territory in the Nangarhar province, but has little support from the local population. Nevertheless, they are trying to fill a gap caused by a general rejection of official politics.

Sharif notes: “the people are losing their trust in the government because the government is doing nothing about the economy, security or unemployment. Three million young people in Afghanistan are now drug addicts.”

The old generation of oppositional politics – from the ex-Mujahadeen Front for the Protection of Afghanistan to the social democrats – has spent a lot of effort trying to win support from foreign régimes or allying with the Western-backed government. The social democrats first tried to enter the government. After they didn’t receive the seats that they were promised, they declared themselves part of the opposition.

The new generation enters the stage

Photograph: Imelda Mandala
Taken at the event organised by the Bildungswerk Berlin der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

AHRDO has noticed a different type of politics from the younger generation, providing fertile ground for the Theatre of the Oppressed Method. A very political facebook page “Kabul Taxi” quickly gained 65,000 followers, although no-one knows who was running it. Five years ago, the movement Afghanistan 1400 was formed. 1400 will be the next century in the Afghan calendar and is coming soon. The young activists believe that this will be their century and that the old leaders will soon all be dead.

Recently a million people demonstrated demo in Kabul. After the Taliban beheaded a 9 year old girl and 7 family members, different youth groups who are frustrated with the current situation in Afghanistan organised demonstrations throughout the country. 2,000 entered the presidential palace and forced the president to negotiate. Marifat sees comparisons with the movements around Maidan in the Ukraine and Tahrir Square in Egypt.

Joffre-Eichhorn notes: “there seems to be a new radicalization amongst young Afghans who have received Western-style education – some would say indoctrination – and are starting to turn against their master. They’re certainly rejecting the Taliban but they’re also starting to question the contradictory presence of the West, more than the previous generation including our organisation.”

“Perhaps this holds the potential for more action, maybe like the square occupations that we’ve seen elsewhere. The fact that this has been happening in the last 12 months is new. Whether it can be sustained is unclear, but it’s the first time something like this has happened after 40 years of war and occupation. Many young Afghans have turned towards more conservative interpretations of Islam but others are moving to the left.”

The role of AHRDO

Photograph: Imelda Mandala
Taken at the event organised by the Bildungswerk Berlin der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

This is the background against which AHRDO was formed. In 2006, the Afghan government launched an action plan for peace, reconciliation and justice. There were no tangible benefits for most Afghans. Even worse, the following year the warlords in government passed a law granting themselves amnesty for past and future crimes.

As a result of this “culture of impunity”, a number of theatre workshops and performances were organised in 2007 and 2008. The activities, which focussed on issues like women’s rights, oppression of the disabled and the economy, were not just attended by activists but also by many marginalised and oppressed men and women.

AHRDO was formally launched in 2009, initially working closely with war widows fighting for justice. As Joffre-Eichhorn explains “our experiences confirmed that our Method was one of the most powerful weapons of those at the margins of society to make their voices heard, getting involved in political activism and empowering themselves”.

Regarding the Method, Joffre-Eichhorn says “the day after the performance is always important for us. We don’t just end with a nice workshop where everyone feels happy. We want to provoke vigils at mass graves or pressure on the authorities. We’ve already caused the street leading to the main prison to be named after war victims. This is symbolically important as previously all the squares were named after warlords.”

AHRDO is still learning how best to adapt the Method to social circumstances – for example the use of touch in a society that is not always at ease with physical contact. Other constraints are more concrete, such as the continued lack of regular electricity. They are also breaking out of the old theatre buildings – many performances take place in tents and small gardens. If this causes aesthetic restrictions, this is made up for by the political gains.

The next step

Photograph: Imelda Mandala
Taken at the event organised by the Bildungswerk Berlin der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

AHRDO is also working with more traditional forms of theatre. ‘AH 7809’ is an adaptation of Dave Duggan’s play ‘AH 6905’, which was originally set in the Irish troubles between 1969 and 2005. ‘Infinite Incompleteness’ is a documentary play based on nine true stories, and has also been published in the USA and Japan.

AHRDO is particularly interested in collaboration with other countries, as they feel that in the light of more recent wars in Syria, Libya and even Iraq, Afghanistan is becoming the forgotten war. Sharif notes the irony that the German government has declared Afghanistan to be “a safe place” where refugees can be returned without worrying about their safety. Joffre-Eichhorn adds “from the German perspective where there’s a tradition of solidarity for other parts of the world, Afghanistan is largely absent.”

Despite apparently different social circumstances, Joffre-Eichhorn also sees possibilities for a Theatre of the Oppressed in Germany: “in recent years life has become tough for millions of people. Here in Europe we’re not allowed to use the term oppressed because we use it for colonised countries. But there are millions of men and women who are oppressed but won’t use the term for fear of stigmatisation.”

The AHRDO activists took the opportunity of their Berlin visit to attend the launch of Yannis Varoufakis’s Democracy in Europe Movement and are talking to Varoufakis about future possible collaborations with the Theatre of the Oppressed. While not necessarily convinced that the EU can be reformed, they see any attempt to question the brutal status quo as being welcome: “it’s the old theory of Che Guevara – the more little fires we start creating the bigger the bonfires.”

“In recent years we’ve shied away from the word ‘revolution’. People prefer to use terms like ‘change’ and ‘transformation’. I think it would be useful for us to focus again on revolutionary aspect of the Method. Not just in the Global South but also in North where we have the centres of power”.

AHRDO are planning to bring a new play about drones and suicide attacks to Europe at the end of this year or in 2017. This seems perfectly timed to fit the new political mood against austerity and the ‘German Europe’.

The German version of this article will soon appear on the Website

Post Script: see this video of the group in action