Arts & Culture

Theatre that teaches our hearts

By Lorraine Graves

Published 4:45 PDT, Fri September 20, 2019

Last Updated: 12:28 PDT, Fri October 4, 2019

Life is good. You go to university or perhaps work or practise medicine. You have a car and a family and the freedom to decide your destiny. 

Then it all changes. Your modern country becomes a theocracy. No woman is allowed to go out to work. No girls can go to school. You cannot even leave your house unless accompanied by a man in your family. 

It’s not the fictional world of Gilead in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It is Afghanistan. 

It’s a reality Murwarid Ziayee knows only too well. (See her impressive bio at the end of this article.) Now living in Canada and preparing to move to the Lower Mainland, she grew up in Afghanistan in Kabul at a time when she describes life as relatively stable. 

“I was working and my two daughters were going to school and kindergarten. My husband had a good job. I was enjoying my work,” Ziayee says.

Arts Club started its fifty-sixth season on Sept. 18 with Ursula Rani Sarma’s play, A Thousand Splendid Suns. 

Just as the characters in the play, utterly convincingly played by the entire cast, lived where individuals had significant freedom. So too was Ziayee’s life. 

When asked how her life changed in the time she lived in Kabul, Ziayee gives a thoughtful answer, “I have been part of Afghanistan’s story for my entire life time—before, during and after civil war, during and post-Taliban. So, I have seen Afghanistan in many stages—a county relatively in peace and stability—to totally broken and bringing it to its knees and rebuilding back.”

Based on the popular novel by Khaled Hosseini, the Arts Club production prompted an entire book club to attend. One spokeswoman said while the timelines were altered the dialogue was directly as written. She said the older, abusive husband seemed to be much older in the book but otherwise, the play followed the book very closely in ethos and details. 

Ziayee’s life parallels that of the characters in the Arts Club’s production.

She comes from an educated family and was studying at university in Kabul with her parents’ support before the Taliban came to power. 

“When I was a child and then later as teenager in the eighties and early nineties, I saw my mother and aunts working outside the house alongside my father and uncles. I was going to school and then joined the university without any fear. We were having a normal life—like people in other parts of the world—study, work and have fun time. There was no code of clothing, no street harassment, no violence,” she says. 

So too at the start of A Thousand Splendid Suns we see the characters enjoying family life even though the older brothers have been killed fighting during the earlier Russian invasion. We meet the father, an academic who loves books of poetry, the beloved 15-year-old daughter, and the mom who humorously says that when she went to marry her husband, neighbours said he was a good man if anyone needed a book of poetry read. The play has humour though the subject matter is serious. 

Many women’s lives changed the way the characters’ lives did, many women including Ziayee.

“Then suddenly civil war started. The country fell apart. Everything was destroyed—hundreds of thousands were killed. The university was closed. Most people were unemployed. Most of the factories were closed and so were many other organizations. We were trying to survive that harsh life. The Taliban took over and the situation got worst. The women were locked down from all outside activities—school, university, employment,” Ziayee says. 

A Thousand Splendid Suns with simple but panoramic sets, movingly shows the reality of the change, particularly for women. Under the Taliban punishments included amputations, beatings, and beheading for activities considered normal and healthy in Canada. 

“I know what life looks like in an atmosphere of fear of losing your life, parts of your body, or your close ones. I know how much pain you feel when the Taliban lash you on the street for simply being a woman. I know how it feels to bury your books and notebooks in fear of being caught by Taliban.”

The family in the play also buried things in the garden, like the incriminating and banned television. Inside their house, in a vivid moment that shows the contrast, the young son keeps begging his big sister to let him be Jack. All becomes clear when she finally gives in and then she plays the role of Rose with him, from Titanic. Even when banned, people risked their lives to glimpse the outside world in secret. 

The family in the play, try to leave Afghanistan more than once during the desperate times.

Ziayee made the decision to leave for her children’s sake. It meant leaving all her friends and local support group and moving to a new country, a new language, a new culture. 

Ziayee says, “I didn’t want my daughters to live my life.”

She came so her daughters could live in safety and get an education. 

She says she was one of the lucky ones. Already working in Kabul for the organization Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan,  cw4wafghan.ca she eventually immigrated with her family to Calgary where she works with the Canadian side of the women’s group aimed at helping the moms, daughters and sisters still living in her homeland. She is moving to our area to continue to work with the same organization and to help the Afghani women here who work so hard to integrate into Canadian life. 

The Taliban turned Afghanistan into a country where women, girls really, are married off to pay debts at an age when Canadian children are contemplating the risks of talking to that boy in the school hallway, or worrying about wearing cool clothes. They turned it into a country where generations of women have grown up unable to read, sign their name or add simple numbers. 

Ziayee wants to change that, both for immigrants to Canada and back in her homeland, “Literacy is also the key to freedom— freedom from the limitations that have been imposed on one’s life, dismantled one by one, one letter, one word at a time, often only mastered ever so painfully,” she wrote in a recent article published at medium.com well worth reading. 

One note from this reviewer. I normally make extensive notes while watching a play. It gives me quotes, impressions, and technical information I notice throughout the performance to use when I write up my article. A Thousand Splendid Suns so engrossed me, sucked me into the Afghan world, that my notes are scanty. 

It is a play with laugh-out-loud humour. It is also a play that comes close to ripping your heart out. 

One patron said that she goes to so many plays, returns home and thinks, “Well, that’s it. But this was fantastic. I am going to tell all my friends to go see it.”

She added, “I don’t ever cry at movies but that made me cry.”

Another pointed out that this play will speak to many Canadians, “I’m a mother. The fear of losing a child is so real. It’s also appropriate for anyone who’s ever been in an abusive relationship. It’s got universal appeal.”

Another stand-out at the post-premier reception, in addition to the veggie and cheese platters donated by Granville Island Hotel’s Dockside Restaurant that tasted notches above the usual slabs of cheese and moist vegetables, were the cheese cake tarts donated by Anna’s Cake House. These creamy tarts were rich and not too sweet, just like the ending of the play. 

Ziayee's ending is a new beginning, laden with sweetness and hope, while tinged with longing for better days for her birthplace. 

“I still keep my hopes for a peaceful Afghanistan and I try to advocate to the world as much as I am able to, to not let the country fell down again.”

 “We want Canadian people and the people in world know that we also deserve a normal life. Here, I feel lucky to see my daughters walking to school freely, doing sports, taking extra classes and enjoying their life in a peaceful environment. I want the same feeling for every mother in Afghanistan.” 

School teaches our brains but theatre educates our hearts.  

With pathos and a sprinkling of humour, A Thousand Splendid Suns teaches our hearts much. 

On at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Theatre, 2750 Granville St, Vancouver through Oct. 13. 

For tickets go to artsclub.com or phone the box office at 604-687-1644.


Bio for Murwarid Zaiyee

Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan Senior Director 

Murwarid provides program management and maintains strong connections between the country office in Kabul and the Canadian Board of Directors. Prior to moving to Canada in 2018, she was CW4WAfghan's Country Director in Kabul for seven years, managing the day-to-day operations, including monitoring, evaluation and reporting on our projects. Throughout her career, Murwarid has demonstrated deep knowledge and commitment to women's rights in her country. She has worked with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) as a National Gender Affairs Officer and National Human Rights Officer. She has worked closely with the Ministry of Women's Affairs and served in the Office of the President as Program Officer with a focus on analysis of women's rights. Murwarid has a BA in Political Science and Law from Kabul University. She is a leader and advocate for women's rights and the recipient of the 2015 CW4WAfghan Champion for Education Award, in recognition of her many achievements, her dedication, knowledge and passion for advancing education for Afghan women and girls.

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