PETALING JAYA, Malaysia — Living in a country that is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Convention on Refugees, Afghans fleeing their war-torn homeland for Malaysia find themselves living in a legally gray limbo with no official right to work or access public services. In such an environment, most Afghan refugees suffer from despair and disorientation as well as desperate poverty. Then came Parastoo Theater, that Afghan refugee playwright Saleh Sepas founded in 2017, to provide them with a therapeutic outlet for expressing their frustrations and explaining their situation to the Malaysian public.
Background to Parastoo Theater’s Founder Saleh Sepas
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Sepas recounted his early life after graduating from Kabul University’s Faculty of Fine Arts in 2004. Supported by the EU, his first project for Afghan Media was a radio program combating domestic violence and empowering ordinary Afghans. After another stint in TV, he joined the BBC in 2008 for the radio drama “New Home, New Life,” which reached half a million regular listeners and still exists. He wrote for and sometimes directed it and knew the actors, claiming it became “real” for him as it addressed ending the country’s “culture of fighting” by educating Afghans in ways they could support themselves and promote peace.
Unfortunately for Saleh, the program also drew the attention of the Taliban, which blacklisted him and planned to kill him and his family, so in 2016 he fled to Malaysia with his wife and children. He claims he lost his citizenship, relationships, and money on his flight, arriving in Malaysia with no friends or funds, or even a pillow. Suffering from depression, he asked himself what he could do for himself and his family and remembered his old friendship with the Emmy-winning Iranian-American dramatist Kayhan Irani, who in 2010 had schooled him in a methodology called the Theater of the Oppressed. Kayhan encouraged Saleh to launch Parastoo Theater and raised funds. Only a few Afghan refugees came forward to participate at first.
Theater of the Oppressed
Speaking to The Borgen Project, Kayhan described Theater of the Oppressed as pioneered by the Brazilian dramatist Augusto Boal, who based this methodology on the Pedagogy of the Oppressed concept of his compatriot Paulo Freire’s 1992 book of that title. Boal incorporated Freire’s principles of popular education into theatrical practice for a drama in which “both actors and audience could speak” for their mutual edification. Kayhan characterized her work as a “TO” trainer as “being in a deep relationship with multiple grassroots communities … to use these tools as a way to mobilize democracy, as a way to mobilize change.”
Kayhan claims that in her teaching of TO, including in Kabul in 2010, she followed Boal’s injunction to “stimulate transformative creativity,” allowing what she describes as the “weaving of theater, storytelling, and social issue analysis … to develop individual and group insights.” She added that transformative creativity is “our birthright … something everyone has within them,” which can “subvert and transform … power relations.”
She concluded by stating herself as “deeply impressed” by Saleh’s work with Parastoo Theater, saying he “is doing this work to reconstitute his soul” rather than just aiding Afghan refugees.
Parastoo Theater’s Achievements
Saleh explained that “parastoo” is the Persian word for “swallow,” a migratory bird that is a messenger of spring. It is also a girl’s name, and Parastoo Theater does much to empower Afghan women refugees through its dramatizations of the harm that child marriage and domestic violence cause in productions such as “Screaming in Silence” of 2018, which gained attention from the Malaysian media.
Parastoo’s first production, staged in 2017, was “The Bitter Taste of History” and addressed the problems that refugees face. Saleh claims that the former play had more than 22 performances with 6,000 spectators and that his productions have done much to persuade the Malaysian public that refugees have knowledge and talent.
Parastoo remained as active as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic when theaters were closed in Malaysia, but it was able to produce some drama on the domestic violence of the period. For example, the 2020 production “I Will Smile Again” addressed the mental health issues of Afghan refugees even before the pandemic; Saleh claims that over 40% of them suffer some form of mental illness such as depression.
With the pandemic now behind it, Parastoo has come back to life with a new production entitled “And Then Came Spring,” which has garnered yet more admiring reviews in the Malaysian press and that of Southeast Asia. Parastoo’s reviewers appreciate its enlightening outcome for both actors and the audience and Saleh emphasizes throughout the interview that acting in Parastoo’s dramas provides a therapeutic outlet for the participants.
Saleh Sepas has made much of his Theater of the Oppressed training, and from all accounts, he appears to be succeeding. Although refugees from all nations continue to face difficulties in Malaysia, Parastoo has a gradual effect on changing attitudes toward more openness and understanding of their plight.
– Hal Swindall