A Road in KabulI am walking down the dirt road, my headscarf up over my nose to keep from breathing quite so much dust and smog, averting my eyes and trajectory from any men, and looking for the cement stanchions on the righthand side that mark, for me, where I turn left. So many of the courtyard and protection walls look similar, I am still nervous about making a mistake, even though I have taken this route for over a week. My left turn takes me down another dirt road, past the home of somebody important, to the middle of the next block. There, next to a yellow metal door in the huge security wall, the building’s white facade is painted in bright colors with images of children juggling, standing on each others’ shoulders, and smiling. This is the compound of the Children’s Circus of Afghanistan.

Because I think my work with the girls there was colored/textured so heavily by the context of what is happening in Afghanistan, I want to paint a more detailed picture of what life is like there, especially for girls. As many of you know, Afghanistan has been torn by war since the 1970s, with the Taliban ‘occupation’ setting new standards for oppression and cruelty in this part of the world. When I was in Kabul eleven years ago, it was illegal to listen to music, wear bright colors, watch television or movies, illegal for girls to go to school, and for children to fly kites or play outside.

Of course, in true Afghan spirit, people did these things anyway, fighting the darkness with secret arts and education. How telling that these two phenomena, arts and education, are perceived as the most threatening things people could do!! And yet, this is what we Teaching Artists know, that arts and education are tools of immense power to instigate thinking, compassion, and action.

The dynamic and delightful blend of arts and education is the backbone of the Mobile Mini Children’s Circus/Afghan Educational Girls at FestivalChildren’s Circus, and is what took me down those dirt roads this past October and – I hope! – will again in 2014.

Although I spent half my time volunteering with the Afghan Friends Network, each day also held time with the wonderful children at the Circus school. Some days I was with them as they went to perform, some days I was the teacher for the full morning, and some days I hung out with them in their math or science or English or Dari class before being their Teaching Artist for the following hour and a half to two hours.

It’s hard for people in the US to really understand what girls ‘taking up space’ means, how important that is in and of itself, never mind the actual defiant act of girls studying anything outside of the Koran, which is still an issue (especially outside Kabul) despite official government support. Girls performing, having actions and a voice, being seen strong and bold in public and across Afghanistan deeply affects everyone—the viewers, the families of the performers, the boys in the Circus, the girls themselves.

There are so many street children here, and their situation is truly bleak. Many of the children at the circus would be walking that road without this incredible organization–which feeds them, by the way. Moreover, too often, street children and orphans do not have the opportunity nor modeling to develop social skills needed to thrive and become the agents of change they wish to be; the social skills needed to learn as a team and perform integrated juggling routines develops these skills. I was asked to help develop the girls’ sense of ‘theatricality’; what is character, how does one develop them, how/why would you include characters in a juggling routine… what is a scene… how does comedy and comic timing work… what are forms of local narrative, and how can we create work along those lines…entrances and exits… beginning/middle/end… physical theatre techniques, and so on.

SchoolSo there I am, only enough Dari to say hello, in a room full of children who typically all talk at once to each other throughout their academic classes (all learning and working, by the way), tasked with doing that listening-teaching thing in hopes of sparking their understand of and interest in various theatrical concepts. Daunting. Exciting. Chaotically beautiful. Each day I would come, not knowing if the schedule would bear any resemblance to what we had talked about the previous day, having a lesson plan of something fun, student-driven, and geared toward skill-discovery and exploration. I always came early so I could hang out with them in their other classes or as they prepared to perform, and participated in warm-ups, being extra goofy or rigorous or reflective as it felt right to do.

Some days I had some translation help from the “circus father” Hamid, sometimes my friend Eva of the Afghan Friends Network (who is not fluent but had waaaaay more Dari than I did) would help and participate, sometimes I and the girls struggled through with bits of Dari they taught me, bits of English they knew, and a great deal of gesture and pantomime. One day we played with masks and discovered characters, gestures, and walks, then let them create little scenelets (girl with mask video clip).  The next using masks they madeday we played with objects, creating scenes around them then using them to become other objects (including a hilarious one where a woman trying to smack a fly with a swatter pops another character’s heart). Another day we built on the “this object is really something else” and grew scenelets with those, focusing on humor and poignancy. We found it was easier and more fun for them with the masks, and that the ‘conceal/reveal’ nature of the masks made entrance and exit buttons more apparent. 

Slowly, bit by bit, we negotiated what was important, what was fun, when it was time for a break, when we wanted to work beyond the normal parameters. They came to trust my intent and instinct and would reach more passionately across the divide of language as well as that of theatrical understanding. They worried less and played more. On our last two of my ten days, they created a new piece based on a favorite folktale, using each other as the trees and house, discovering largess and timing and so much more, and even though it was fairly raw, it was enchanting and Hamid planned on developing it to be included in the touring show, the first piece of its kind, the first story told. This video clip is from part of the story where the father has plucked the sacred fruit, is accosted by the ogre, and in fearful desperation, promises the ogre one of his daughters in marriage. For our final day, I wanted to plan an activity that was loose and individual as well as cooperative, so they made their own masks.

Girl Jugglers_edited-1I was told I should extend my stay, which I logistically could not do, so instead we have made plans for my return, which includes grant hunting and Dari-learning. I can only believe that somehow the pieces will come together, and I will again be in a deliciously crazy situation with brilliant, brave girls who will be the first in many years to tell a story, be loud and large and take up space in front of everyone. In the grey-brown streets and hills of Kabul, my heart will be bright and full of joy and gratitude.

 

 

I write this on my last day in Kabul, where for the past 10 days I have had the honor and joy of working with children at the Afghan Mobile Mini Children’s Circus and being a supporting team member for Eva Vander Giessen in Afghan Friends Network meetings. I have been able to wear bright clothes, walk by myself to the circus in the morning or home at midday, and been to restaurants where men and women are allowed to eat together (although they are uncommon, and are generally referred to as ‘restaurants for foreigners’, even if mostly Afghans are there). Girls go to school in Kabul, and I have met AFN scholarship students, men and women, who are studying engineering, art, medicine, and so much more in Kabul’s many universities.

However, it is best if women are in pairs or more, and it would be very very dangerous to go out on foot after dark. A German woman I have met is careful not to take the same routes all the time, as sometimes foreign women can be ‘tracked’–I am grateful to look somewhat local (I have been mistaken at first glance for being from here), but I am careful not to make eye contact with men, to physically step out of their way, to shield my face from too much attention especially when I am walking alone.

Kabul is a dynamic place where change is happening, albeit slowly. The provinces, the villages, and so on, are another story entirely, almost like another country. There is tremendous pressure to keep women from becoming educated, often to keep them from ever leaving the house, and these two ideas converge in the suppression of women voting. The pictures following are from Bond Street Theatre, and used with permission.

Bond Street Theatre is fostering an incredible Women’s Theatre Company in Afghanistan for women to reach out to other women —including performances in their homes—to make them aware of their rights and the importance of voting. As Artistic Director Joanna Sherman said, “Theatre brings crucial information to life.”

So, here in Kabul, I am encouraging you to learn about and hopefully support this incredibly important project!I quote Bond Street’s Blog “On the Road” :

This is a time of hope and possibility. A new generation is voting for the first time in Afghanistan, and half of them are women. Women’s right to vote is a hard-earned victory, and yet many women are unaware of their right to vote.This is a time for crucial change. In the past decade, women have made great strides, setting Afghanistan on a promising course. But conservative factions are working hard to reverse these advances and prevent women from enjoying the most basic human rights.

Bond Street Theatre has been working for Afghan women for more than 10 years. We trained four women’s theatre groups to create theatre — by women, for women — to spread the word about women’s right to vote, why each vote counts, and how to register. They are a first in Afghanistan!

These women are role models: they encourage women and girls to speak out. Theatre shows like these have a ripple effect through the community and a huge impact. In order to reach as many women (and men) as possible, we must raise $10,000.

Visit our Indiegogo page Afghan Women Speak Out through Theatre to contribute!

Women’s voice in government and participation in the election is essential to protect and advance their rights!

“This theatre project has given me new courage to speak out!”

(Ayesha, member of Nangarhar Women’s Theatre troupe in Jalalabad.)

More about this Bond Street program (from a press release, used with permission):

Bond Street Theatre has been working toward peace and social improvement in Afghanistan since 2002 through programs that build the capacity of local organizations and promote creative thinking and problem-solving, especially focusing on women and youth. The Election Fraud Mitigation project builds on BST’s 2010-2012 Theatre for Social Development program, which provided artistic and practical business training to prepare local theatre groups to use their skills for public education.

The six troupes will present 70+ performances in multiple provinces between August 2013 and April 2014. Elections are scheduled for April 5, 2014. Performances are followed by direct activities with the audience to explore potential solutions to voting issues. The goal of the project is to use interactive, mobile performances to educate the electorate on the value of a strong, legitimate government achieved by a fair election process and effective fraud prevention strategies.”

How awesome is THAT?!?!?!?

Please at least check it out—the news media is so very seldom about this kind of incredible work.

 

As both my readers know, I believe the arts are how we connect to, discover, challenge, deeply converse with, and transform ourselves, our communities, our world.  In previous blogs, I have looked at Performance as Protest, and highlighted a number of practices and projects in North America and abroad;  below I am sharing two incredible arts movements in the Middle East that foster a growing sense of freedom, empowerment, and “voice”.

The first, from an article by George Azar and Mariam Shahin (link below) is about a performance form called “free running”, which is like parkours and movement improv mushed together. Youth in an isolated and forgotten section of Gaza finsd freedom and a way to speak to the world in a way where the limits become the liftoffs.

Named for the trading clan that once dominated it, Akkad is one of those places where even aid workers, who now visit the Gaza Strip in increasing numbers, never seem to come. It is hardly on the map.

For thousands of years, small cities like Khan Yunis were central to the trade routes that connected Egypt and Africa to Arabia. It was to Gaza City that the Makkan merchant Hashim ibn ‘Abd Manaf, great-grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad, came to trade; he died there in 497 ce while heading a caravan. To Palestinians who relish their Islamic history, the capital of the Gaza Strip is still known as Ghazzat Hashim, “Hashim’s Gaza.”

To the young people who make up more than half of the Strip’s population of 1.7 million, Gaza’s historic role connecting cultures and continents makes up part of an identity intimately tied to the freedom of movement and travel enjoyed by most of the world’s population but routinely, almost universally, denied them today.

It is here in Khan Yunis, in Akkad, that in 2008 Mohammed Al-Jakhbeer and Abdullah Enshasi began practicing “free running.” Jumping from rooftop to windowsill to the ground, running along Akkad’s unpaved, sandy alleys, they found a way to both express themselves and reclaim a sense of freedom in movement.

– See more at: http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/201206/free.running.gaza.htm#sthash.aUCobMS9.dpuf
This second article, by Juliet Highet, is about a movement in visual arts, using silence as a voice. I don’t know how else to describe it. I hope these two projects inspire you and your work as much as they have me and mine.”
“Middle Eastern artists, whether they live in that culturally kaleidoscopic (and ill-defined) region or outside it, are at the center of one of the world’s most dynamic movements in contemporary art.
Leila Essaydi, “Les Femmes du Moroc #7,” 2005. Courtesy of the artist and Waterhouse & Dodd.

Leila Essaydi, “Les Femmes du Moroc #7,” 2005. Courtesy of the artist and Waterhouse & Dodd.

Shadi Ghadirian, from “The Qajar Series,” 1998-1999. Courtesy of the artist.

Shadi Ghadirian, from “The Qajar Series,” 1998-1999. Courtesy of the artist

Their work is suffused by themes of identity, memory, grief, rage and a sense of belonging to ( or alienation from) the place or culture in which they live. The traumatic ruptures of wars, exile and migration that have affected them all are partly responsible—but a different consciousness has emerged in the last few years. What’s new is a cultural confidence and optimism, stemming from the fact of survival and the rising expectations that go with global recognition of the quality of their art.”

Read more at http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/201103/mideast.cool.htm

Girl Gets Water by Lorenzo Franzi

I learned just a few days ago that will be going back to Afghanistan in the fall of 2013, eleven years after my first incredible visit. I have the honor of going over with the Afghan Friends Network, and have begun the flurry of arrangement making even as my mind and heart are in wind and fire.

I have realized that it is hard for many people to understand why this part of the world is so very compelling for me, so I share below an interview I did with Lillie Marshall of Teaching Traveling.

Journey in peace, friends.

“When people ask what I do, I sometimes respond that I belong to the ACTUAL oldest profession—a traveling player. Long before there were ladies of the evening, story-tellers all over the world made their way from one fire to the next. In modern terms, I am ‘a theatre person’ for a living; performer, playwright, mask-maker and teaching artist (which means that sometimes I am teaching my craft, sometimes I am presenting something about my travels, and sometimes I am working with k-12 classrooms to create academic lesson plans that use artistic practices for differentiated learning). In personal terms, I come from a long line of travelers and teachers, and I have restless bones. I continue to work hard to be excellent at my art, at my teaching, and in my travels (my master’s degree is in Theatre, Education, and Social Change) and I am always looking for ways to combine these passions.

Part of what I do is connected to clowning, the kinds of clowning that exist in cultures to bring change or awareness or light. There are many trips that I would love to share with you, but I’ll focus on one for now.

It was February of 2002, not long after the Taliban were ‘ousted’ from Kabul, Afghanistan. I had recently worked with Patch Adams doing some clown therapy in hospitals and orphanages in Moscow. And then, early in February, he called me. A filmmaker in Rome, Stefano Moser, had gotten the idea to bring love and help to Afghanistan, and to make a documentary of what was happening there (Clown in Kabul—you can find it on the web or try this link) with fellow filmmaker Enzo Balestrieri. He reached out to Patch, and the end result was that the city of Rome and a number of other sponsors (I think Coca Cola was one) were sponsoring a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan. There were 20 Italian Clowns from various clown-therapy organizations, one clown from Japan, one from Australia, one from Holland, two from South Africa, one from Argentina, and six from the USA. Those six included 3 folks from the Gesundheit Institute-Patch, his brother Wildman, and their colleague Beach clown—and 3 other lucky individuals, including myself. The Italian military would fly all of us, the Italian film crew, and tons of medical and relief supplies into Kabul (I nearly threw up in the C-17 cargo plane!).

Kabul by Lorenzo Franzi

This was one of the most important and valuable times of my life. It was an honor to be there, with the war still happening around us, but being witness to the recovering spirit of the many Afghan people. You have to remember that these people had been hugely multicultural and successful artists, farmers, and merchants for thousands of years, but that the 30 years leading up to the domination by the Taliban had seen endless invasion, hunger, drought, crop and infrastructure devastation, and the Taliban added onto that a ban on toys, art, the wearing of bright colors, music, performances…when we got there, the response was overwhelming. It’s hard to pick just one memory to share—crowding together with a dozen clowns in one room so falling asleep in the cold was possible? The children missing arms, legs, faces? The sound of laughter and shouts wherever we went? I’ll pick the day of two schools.

That day as we talked at breakfast, the news came about a bomb. This was when some of the US bombs were square, yellow

New Leg by Lorenzo Franzi

packages and the US food package drops were also square and yellow. A yellow package had dropped in a school yard, and a boy had found it. Even though the people were literally starving, the boy did not hide the parcel, nor take it home, but rather brought it in to the classroom to share. They opened it to distribute the food, and it exploded. The children who survived were severely hurt and in need of blood, and there was not enough. So we all donated a liter. I’m 5’6” and am slender at about 130 pounds; losing a liter made me reeeally spacey. But it didn’t matter. We clowned around before and after our turn to give, and then prepared to split up for our work in the afternoon.

That afternoon, Jean-Paul Bell and I were scheduled to spend time and perform at one of the illegal schools for girls and women. As we met the teachers (both men and women) and the students, I was struck by how much courage it took them to continue with the school, knowing that if they were discovered, the penalties would be severe and brutal. We had a wonderful time using several languages and lots of gestures to communicate, and finally it came time for the show, which we did on a narrow strip of floor surrounded by tiers of women, all holding their breath. At first, the learned tension and fear prevented anything but gasps and silent laughter behind hands and scarves drawn across faces; we were the first people to perform in Kabul since the Taliban had outlawed art, and here we were at was an illegal school. Then Jean-Paul did a routine about being a strong man in a circus. He showed his strength, strutted about, and finally came to pick up a balloon barbell. And, of course, couldn’t lift it. So after multiple tries, he began to ask help from the audience. No one would come out. He beseeched, he pleaded, and finally appealed to the littlest girl in the room, who was 4 or 5.

girls watch by Lorenzo Franzi

She got up, looked at him like he was crazy, walked over to the barbell, looked at him again, the picked it up and held it over her head. The room went wild, women cheering and laughing and crying, and the little girl strode triumphantly around the little performance space, barbell and head held high.

I am still experiencing the impact of this trip on my life; I am working on a play about the men who experienced profound facial trauma in WWI and the artists who made masks for them. But radically changed what I taught. When I got back, I wanted not only to be a clown therapist myself, but also to create training programs for clown therapists that benefit the people getting the training as well as those getting the clowning. For example, I have been working with some amazing women in British Columbia on an in-school program for students who are struggling to succeed academically. The students go through a clown process that affects them personally, socially and academically, and then become clown-visitors with the Alzheimer’s and dementia patients in the local elder care facilities. I now spend much of my teaching time working with students, hospitals, and nursing home staff on using clown techniques to improve practice.

I find that my travels always change my art, my teaching, and my spirit. I learn, grow, connect…I am illuminated by the light of a thousand new hearts and minds, by new languages and landscapes, by the everyday thoughts and deeds of other people! I can’t recommend a observant, listening travel (which is not the same as tourism) enough. Affording to do it is the hard part! When I went to Afghanistan, many of my expenses were covered by the project sponsors, and I was able to raise some funds and apply for grants to help cover much of the rest. The best ways to have a meaningful experience and to afford the trip are to either hunt down a work opportunity (teaching English is popular), join a volunteer opportunity (medical organizations, churches, relief projects, Habitat for Humanity, conservation organizations, bird and wildlife organizations all have short term projects that are in a place that is ‘new to you’!), or create your own opportunity—my son and I went to Egypt and Jordan together, and he has since hiked part of the Appalachian Trail, and hopes to work on the Lebanon Mountain Trail next summer. If you are part of a volunteer project, your experience and learning will be terrific material to supplement your teaching or the local school’s social studies and language programs, and there may be some PTA or Teacher Grant funds to support it. There are also grant funds for some kinds of volunteer projects, especially when tied with community or school learning and events. The best way to benefit everyone is to hunt for the volunteer travel projects that best suit you, then begin to imagine how what you do and learn might be useful/helpful to the students or adult learning programs in your community. Dream big!”

 

Photos by Lorenzo Franzi and Holly Adams

In keeping with my recent theme of Performance and Protest (three previous blog), welcome to Part Two of Clowning!

Holly in Abu Dabi, 2001

This little section looks at ‘what is clowning’ and how that was understood early in the history of Islam in the Silk Road countries. Next week’s blog will be another look at Autism and the role arts can play in bridging, but after that will be a third (and closing) bit on Clowns on the Silk Roads. Feel free to contact me for more info! And now, on with the show.

The exchange of styles, skills, characterizations and so forth was (and is) facilitated by the itinerant nature of performers. Three main reasons why performing clowns traveled were:

*The search for new markets

*As part of royal court retinue (they were expected to accompany various court members)

*Self-preservation; as laws changed and social pressure increased, it became in the clowns best interest to keep moving

To elaborate,

The first factor was/is especially motivating for street performers: even if one is constantly developing new material, one cannot earn a living forever performing solely in one town.

Clowns retained by the court traveled with the royal entourage on sojourns and even conquests, in addition to accompanying ambassadors or other court personnel on various journeys.

The codification of Islam, the rising heat of debate between the learned as to the appropriateness of humor, and the widely varying enforcement of Muslim law to combat magic and other unnatural acts against God fueled the practice of roving. Magic and other acts against God sometimes included juggling, balancing tricks, acrobatics, slapstick, and unnervingly accurate mimicry.

 

Men crowd around to watch us clown, Feb 2002, Kabul

In addition to providing impetus for a semi-nomadic lifestyle, the more strident legal measures also compelled many clowns to alter their performance style in order to protect themselves; to quote Gogol, “Even the man who is afraid of nothing is afraid of laughter.” These performers adapted the art of storytelling to create a “once removed” form of clowning, thereby protecting themselves without relinquishing social commentary. At this point many people wonder how storytelling can be clowning- are they storytellers or clowns? Acrobats, jugglers, storytellers, et cetera may also be clowns. They may clown in some moments and not in others. In the same vein, although many clowns wear masks or mask-like makeup, others do not. Moreover, the presence of makeup/mask does not mean that a performer is performing in a clown role. Clowning is a social phenomenon rather than an isolated incident or a set of prescribed actions. It is like a car- if I have a ‘race car’, am I automatically racing? No. I may be buying groceries. If I do not have a ‘race car’ am I never able to race? No. You and I could challenge each other verbally or non-verbally at a stoplight.

To provide context for understanding clown modalities, it is important to understand critical clown elements. For the purposes of this blog, we will use the following parameters to define ‘clowning’:

*There must be both a performer and an audience

*The performers and audience have an agreement; they enter willingly into a space-time in which different social rules apply, a sacred negotiation space

*The performer has a social status outside of the linear and vertical social strata

*The performer communicates a context of affection/caretaking of the audience/community

*The performance instigates awareness and/or change

The first four elements make possible the last, and without the impetus to awareness and/or change (and the awareness may be as subtle as the discovery of wonder), the performance cannot be thought of as clowning. It is the delightful but startling newness that compels this kind of laughter, opening the heart to momentary clarity and the possibility for transformation. In support, I share with you the writings of three great Islamic physicians:

Alî b. Rabban at-Tabarî: “Laughter is (the result of) the boiling of the natural blood (which happens) when a human being sees or hears something that diverts him and thus startles and moves him.”

Imrân: “Laughter is defined as the astonishment of the soul at observing something that it is not in a position to understand clearly (ta’ajjubu n-nafsi min shay’in lam yuqaddar lahâ dabtuhû) . . . The matter and gravitational force serving laughter is the pure, even-tempered blood that is distributed all over the body. Its end is the awareness of the soul, when laughing, of the meaning of laughter by gaining clarity about its purpose as either humorous or serious.” 

Feb 2002, Kabul. Women laugh with delight; we are the first performers since the Taliban came.

Kindî: “Laughter —- An even-tempered purity of the blood of the heart together with an expansion of the soul to a point where is joy becomes visible.”

Without question, the personal discovery of the viewer is usually rooted in an altered social perspective, but it doesn’t need to be. Sometimes the clown is simply evoking awe and delight, reminding us that “There are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. That there could be “more things in Heaven and earth” is at the crux of the debate in Islam as to whether or not magic, circus tricks, clown antics and so on ‘fly in the face of God’. Despite increased opposition at the beginning of the second Common Era millennium, there remained a faction that believed such performances were not the result of invoking the devil or false gods, but the revealing of the measure, beauty and wonder ‘of God’s capacity’.