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Ad Astra PerAspera. A Study of the Red Motif in Bina Sharif s Afghan Woman. By: Amal Alleithy. American University of the Middle East

1 Ad Astra PerAspera A Study of the Red Motif in Bina Sharif s Afghan Woman By: Amal Alleithy American University of the Middle East Abstract: From the debris and ashes of a bombarded village in Afghanistan
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1 Ad Astra PerAspera A Study of the Red Motif in Bina Sharif s Afghan Woman By: Amal Alleithy American University of the Middle East Abstract: From the debris and ashes of a bombarded village in Afghanistan during an air raid by the American army, rises a heroine of a scrupulous her mono-act play Afghan Woman, Bina Sharif creates a powerless giant, a sentient observer of murder and genocide, and an unmediated witnessthat provides an onlooker s view of war, death, and murder and an insider s look into Islam-one of the most misinterpreted faiths now. In this play, the playwrightaddresses the challenge of presenting murder and genocide on the stage within an ambiguous family periphery. With nerve and unerring subjectivity, Sharif illustrates the agony and horror of war, the genocidal nature of conflict, and the cruelty that can be produced by the mania of misconception. In a wonderful blend of entertainment and politics, religion and hypocrisy, death and hope, sheillustrates an insightful perception of the Other, whileneither blamingher faith nor fully accusing the aggressor for her heroine s misfortunes. Keywords: Drama, Afghanistan, War on Terror, Murder, Islam 2 Ad Astra Per Aspera A Study of the Red Motif in Bina Sharif s Afghan Woman Despite its ostensible political temperament, Afghan Woman manages to get away from this often unadventurous mode of theatrical discourse. Unlike what Michael Patterson calls reflectionist theatre, Sharif s is an interventionist play that does not only present a replication of reality, but a construal of it that is more meaningful, insightful and illuminating than reality itself (7). The playwrightdoes not therefore strive to portray reality accurately, but she lays it open forreflection and sensible inquiry by presenting a character and a sequence of situations to which the audience can relate but not identify themselves with.thus, this politically charged drama is intended to accentuate the role of the theatre as a tool for enlightenment and analysis. Instead of endeavoring to achieve the naturalistic plausibility that createsa semblance of reality and suspends disbelief in the theatrical experience which might [lead] to an acceptance of existing circumstances (Patterson 10), Sharif s play goes beyond outward representation and probes deeper layers of truth. Based on Bertolt Brecht s juxtaposition between the dramatic and the epic, this interventionist drama presents itself as a narration of events structured into a theatrical framework, although it does not pursue the traditionalformat of exposition, climax and denouement. According to Patterson, interventionist plays are often set in the past or in an exotic, possible fabulous location, so that the spectator may more easily contemplate events at a distance (18). The combination of the striking setting and the spellbinding action taking place on the stage makes the unfolding of the plot emotionally saturated. It also creates a space for the audience for deliberation and scrutiny as they hold a comparison between two different worlds: the one that is presented on the stage and what they hold as their own actuality. The play opens in an apparently bombarded Afghan village following an air raid by the American army during what is known as the war on terror. Only a burned cave appears on the side of the stage and two paintings of the twin towers that were demolished on 9/11 caught on fire are hung on the wall. Qur an is heard in total darkness 3 for a while before the main character, Nargis, appears in the scene. This allows for active listening on the part of the audience who get mesmerized by the recitation of the verses without being distracted by the images and stereotypes equated with light. She performs prayers five times in different parts of the stage until finally she starts speaking to the audience from behind the scrim. Silence and the smell of death and blood control the stage from the very first moment of the play accentuated by the extensive use of darkness, black props, the paintings of the burning towers and the illusion of a mass graveyard with tens of burnt corpses. As the plot unfolds, the audience gets to see the main and sole protagonist covered wholly from head to toes in the traditional Afghan burka. She speaks from behind the burka, sometimes delivering a speech, other times revealing self-talk and most of the time giving a long monologue. The audience quickly knows that she survived a succession of oppressors: the Soviets, the Northern Alliance, the Taliban, the bombs rained down by the US forces (Weitz 2). To swiftly establish the mood of the play, she showers the audience with her blunt thoughts about all the debatable issues that are expected to lurk in their minds and directly plunges into the focal core of the play: I wish the Americans would hurry up, and get rid of the Taliban. But instead, all my neighbors are dead. My children are dead. Children? (Looks for her children all over the place.) Where are my children? (Sharif 5) The picture gets grimmer and more horrendous when Nargis begins to look for her dead children in the fallen debris while the atmosphere of threatening demise is intensified by the flashing lights and the deafening sounds of a new bomb. All shades of red are used in this short scene to paradox the two cultures at war when Nargis remembers how she saw the events of 9/11 in the eye of [her] mind (Sharif 8). She realized when the sky was raining that the tears of the sky were not of water. They were of blood, bright burgundy blood and reminisces the good old days when Afghanistan had a rich culture of plethora and abundance (Sharif 8). She grieves over her long-lost freedom and her deprivation of education and basic rights: We were doctors and lawyers and teachers. We were even artists. Can you imagine that? Being an artist in Afghanistan? (Sharif 12) 4 The whole play is a sequence of prolonged monologuesin which the heroine extensively reveals her hatred of the destruction engendered by the war, but shows how passionately she waits for the liberties to gain in its aftermath in a melange of tragedy and humor. Maria Ghadiali states her belief that Sharif s themes are contemporary, containing the pulse of human emotions love, bondage, pain and aloneness. Her treatment, with its intrinsic sensitivity, is wrought with a certain shyness, an ability to wrestle humor out of suffering (3).Thus, she thrusts the audience immediately into this ethical dilemma and poses a complex question: should people temporarily approve of inflicting murder and death on other people - albeit innocent to get the gift of freedom and the promise of having a voice to be heard? Nargis lays the issue open for analysis: Freedom of speech came from your part of the world. Freedom of thought is the gift from your part of the world. Please speak on my behalf. Don t throw your gift away (Sharif 6).She thus presents murder as twofold: once it is perpetrated by the heroine s kinsmen, and once by the outsider. In both cases, she is always the casualty. But what is more important for her when she survives all this bloodshed and murder is that she entreats her global spectators to undo the silence in which the world has clad her (Star- Bulletin Staff 2). Along with other dramatic devices, the playwright intensifies the horror and grotesquery of murder by the recurrent use of the red motif. Repeatedly, Nargis sees all shades of red around her, signifying the color of the blood of those who died, the fire of the bombs that raid her once peaceful village, the lipstick American working women wear in the morning as they watch the destruction of her village on TV before heading out for work, the fire that burnt the twin towers on 9/11 and the pomegranate of Kabul and Qandahar the cities of old culture, ancient temples, once-luxurious palaces, fountains and exotic fruits. The stark motif presents itself powerfully multiple times in the play as she reflects upon the demolition of the burning towers and as she describes her country as the country of the dead and unburied. She robustly equates between the color of blood and death and the victory of the invader. The higher the rate of the bloodimeter so to speak get, the more assured of victory the invader becomes: Death of the Afghan is the radar, the surveillance which guides the army to the hidden devil (Sharif 7). 5 In this case the monologues do not function as a means of communicating ideas, but rather as opportunities for the audience to ponder and debate the ideas contained in the scenes. In her stream of consciousness talks, the monologistis seen as a social type rather than an identifiable individual whilst remaining credible and believable.her presence on the stage is the sole guarantee for the audience that thousands of other Afghan women exist in the world and undergo the same agony and pain. This is in line with Joseph Chaikin s claim that the actor s presence before the audience is the essence of theatre (77). By the gross physicality of the movements, the harsh language and wild images that fill the heroine s monologues, she could develop what Eric Christ calls a sense of camaraderie with the members of the audience (1). As an interventionist play, Afghan Woman does not merely expose the main conflicts and suggests solutions, but it creates an arena for the audience to make their own findings and indulge into an uncompromising dialogue with the action and the character on the stage.sharif obviously stands in the middle of the ideological divide between her indictment of violence, murder and genocide and her desire to show the immaculate image of Islam. Unable to maintain objectivity, she embraces a very subjective point of view and employs a form of drama that challenges her audience s perception of how the world works. She creates a strong link between religious disillusionment and fanatical violence on both sides of the spectrum. On the one hand, she indicts the Taliban for the injustice they inflicted upon her by the imposition of an even inhuman lifestyle and the application of violent penalties. Thus, she lays open the wound that caused the suffering she lived in for ages beaten up, stoned, shot at in the public when they would celebrate her brain being blown up in a cloud of blood (Sharif 23). The grotesquery and horror of these images, though, lessens the intended effect the playwright wants to create. Being intended for an American audience, the play should have focused more intensely on the war crimes committed when schools and hospitals were shelled either intentionally or by friendly fire. This focus on the horrible acts of the Taliban when they assumed power abates the impact of red motif and renders the crimes and the murder horrible enough to be indicted, but not impeachable. 6 Political theatre theorists hold that the characters in an interventionist play are like Brecht s who are viewed as contradictory, alterable beings - products of social forces (Patterson 32). The playwright s objective of creating these characters is not as much to create empathy for them, but to go beyond their social and political background to analyze and reach conclusions about the issue at hand. That is why characters on the stage employ the alienation techniques that prevent the audience from getting emotionally involved or identifying themselves with the characters. This is what Sharif tries to achieve with her heroine through her portrayal in the black burka that covers every inch of her body. It is worth noting that the playwright unconsciously creates a focal paradox using the burka. The uncompromising application of tradition epitomized by forcing Nargis to wear the burka is meant to be a symbol of oppression and inhibition and the sole cause of her inability to have a voice to be heard. However, the audience cannot but notice that the heroine is freer from behind the thin layer of the burka. She could in fact voice all her agonies, pains, fears and hopes through the limited space of freedom it could secure her. When it comes to her desire for freedom and education, she creates a blatant paradox between what is and what should be. The final part of the play sounds like an intensely penetrating plea not so much to her Western spectators who watch her carelessly through the TV screen to feed on the media-foster stereotypes and images, but to her kinsmen and fellow-muslims: So far you haven t heard Islam saying that you can go and kill innocent victim in the world and say I am doing it in the name of Islam. Islam constantly and stubbornly says, Do not hurt anyone. If you hurt one life you hurt all life. Leave it to me. Leave it to Allah. What is meant to be will be. You cannot take matters of life and death in your hands even if you think; that the person you dislike has done you wrong and you have grievances against him. You simply cannot take matters of life, yours and others, in your hands. Allah says, I am Merciful; I am Forgiving. (24) 7 The play moves quickly to its denouement as the playwright comes to the conclusion that Islam is actually misunderstood by the West and misinterpreted by the East. The generalization she makes in her final statements, though, do not leave much space for the audience to form their judgments. The motif pops up again as she breathes life into the stage with agonizing reminiscences about the casualties of the war and the lives of young people gone to waste. Nargis develops from the shivering, vulnerable creature that resorts to the burnt cave for shelter every time she hears the bombardment of the air raids in the beginning of the play to a giant heroine who strongly and freely voices out her fears. It is leasing to witness this transformation process taking place in front of the audience. Now that she let out her fears and expressed her hopes, she sounds like a gigantic figure that has just ridden itself from the fetters that kept her in moral, social and psychological chains for long, although she never gave up her burka. She stops being apologetic about her stance and her creed and speaks rather proactively and assertively about it. Through her stream-of-consciousness-like monologues, she gains the power of assertion. This new-found authority is reflected on how she explains her stand now. She doesn t find refuge in the cave any more as she stands in full confidence against the bombing that still goes on in the back of the stage. The red fire coupled with her redangry voice as she explains to the world how the prophet of Islam unjustly accused of violating human rights and feminine rights is the champion of defending women. She gives her examples emphatically, not in the way of defense, but as a clarification needed for those who are ignorant of the Islamic culture and beliefs. Only then can she give the world her final pronouncement: The only humanity left between the human beings is amongst the dead people. The only affection, the only warmth left is among the dead people. The living keep on killing. The living keep on living a lie (Sharif 32). This pessimist, gloomy remark places a heavy jolt on the audience s sensibility who leave the theatre with so many voices fighting in their minds. 8 Works Consulted Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Race, Critical Terms for Literary Study. Eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Bernstein, Samuel J. The Strands Entwined: A New Direction in American Drama. Boston: Northeastern UP, Brown, Janet. Feminist Drama: Definitions and Critical Analyses. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Chaikin, Joseph. The Presence of the Actor. New York: Atheneum, Christ, Eric. Woman Crosses Boundaries. The Lantern. Jan. 23, . Davison, Peter, et al. International Dictionary of the TheatreI. Ed. Mark Hawkins-Dady. Chicago and London: St. James, Flax, Jane et al. Feminism/ Postmodernism. Ed. Linda J. Nicholson. New York and London: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc., Furst, Lilian R., ed. Modern Literature in Perspective: Realism. London: Longman Group UK, Gassner, John. Dramatic Soundings. New York: Crown Books, Ghadiali, Maria. Agonies, Struggles and Triumphs of Bina Sharif, India Monitor. Wed. Dec. 23, Vol. 2 (61) 3. Star-Bulletin Staff. Muslim Monologues. Honolulu Star-Bulletin. June 14, Lyotard, J.F. Teaching the Postmodern. Trans. Richard Allen. Ann Arbor: UNI Research Press, Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. New York: Ballantine Books 1970. 9 Millet, Fred. Dirty Facts: American Society in Literature. New York: Modern Chapbooks, Patterson, Michael. Strategies of Political Theatre: Post-War British Playwrights. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, Pradhan, N.S. Modern American Drama: A Study in Myth and Tradition. New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, Styan, J.L. The Dark Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Taylor, Ella. Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in America. Berkley: University of California Press, Wellek, René and Austen Warren. Theory of Literature: A Seminal Study of the Nature and Function of Literature in all its Contexts. London: Penguin Books, Weitz, Jay. The Arts: Veiled Meaning. Columbus Alive. Jan. 23, .
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