Taliban’s Afghanistan in Crisis: For a Free-thinking Artiste, Now Afghanistan is a Stage for Tragedy & Suppression with No Role for Actors Like Him

When asked why people work, the aim to fulfil their hunger, comes in at the top of the list for any individual. However, what if, someone has a passion for something more intangible, like art. This person is treated like an infidel in the society and forced to flee. This is the premise of a currently “cold-storage” script untiringly worked on for over two years by a young 25-year-old Afghan actor and script writer.

Saifullah Jamal (name changed to protect identity), wanted to make a feature film with this path-breaking script in a traditional society like Afghanistan, however, the stage for his dreams came crashing down when the Taliban, one day, finally managed to take over Kabul and everything changed.

Jamal, who was in charge of the artiste union of his province, has been performing on stage in the theater department since his school days and worked professionally in the cinema department for eight years.

“During the Taliban takeover, I was doing a project calling for the reduction of violence through theater performances for the residents of the city where I live. It was quite sudden. All the provinces were collapsing to the Taliban one after the other. When I heard the news of the fall of the neighboring province and the sound of military helicopters landing one in our province, everyone started running away and we also closed our office,” recalls Jamal.

This Afghan artiste has been living in fear under the Taliban regime for a year. Why you ask? Because the Taliban are against any form of free thought.

However, Jamal claims that the Taliban had approached him. He stated that the Taliban had asked Jamal to produce his film, but censored parts of the film and asked him to portray the Taliban government as supporting artistes even when the traditional society was against him. Basically, he claimed that the group asked him to depict a Taliban, which wasn’t against free-thought.

Jamal states that the ground realities differ drastically, which was evident in the way in which artistes fled closing their departments as soon as news about Taliban’s takeover spread. He, too, fled to the mountains with his family to escape the ire of the Taliban.

Jamal narrates his ordeal how life for him had changed for the worse under the Taliban. He said that the script he had been working on for two years could not be produced because of economic and security challenges.

“We were afraid and this fear had originated from the past experiences of the Taliban’s previous reign in the 90s. They were opposed to art and artistes alike. We too closed the gates of our office and each of us went back home. I spent two days in the mountains hiding with my family after my province fell. Then, we moved house-to-house from one relative to another in distant villages,” recollects Jamal.

The fall of a city from the southeastern provinces was not so unpredictable. But, people like Jamal had expected the Ghani government to fight and not give up the capital so easily. “When I heard that Kabul too had fallen, I lost all hope. There was no way to escape because all the roads were controlled by this group. I had no hope to work or survive,” he says.

He spoke grievously of the hopelessness which surrounded him when he heard the news. Prospects of him working diminished as the Taliban do not support any form of art and he was worried about supporting his family of five. after the fall of Kabul to Taliban. “I can’t make any more movies as Taliban had subjected all art to heavy censorship within the Islamic framework,” he decried.

Jamal, now, remains unemployed and is unable to support his own family, his brother’s family and an old mother because all income which had been generated from his acting and the institution that he had helped set up with his colleagues, had dried up. Even though they have land for agriculture, it has not yielded anything due to the drought.

“I can’t make a movie according to the wishes of this group. In this movie, I have depicted all the problems and realities of a traditional society, with all the challenges and opportunities, I can’t portray what I want with censorship,” he explained.

He frankly stated that even earlier, in the Republic era, life of an artiste in Afghanistan was never easy. “In a traditional society, like my town, my profession was not acceptable to many. We have been trying for many years to change their opinion and whenever we get a project or programme, we do everything in our power to implement it, in order to shape a bright future for artistes in the society,” Jamal said.

He stated that earlier when someone graduated from theater and acting, they were ridiculed by people. Women and girls were not even allowed to talk about it and had nothing to do if they were educated and came from this field. According to the actor who worked in the previous government, they did not receive any support from the governor of their province and the government. Jamal was called an infidel by the mullahs and he was not allowed to enter the mosque even on Ashura last year.

However, he stated that the situation had changed in recent years and their efforts had paid off, but with the creation of such conditions, everything changed for Afghan actors and singers. “We were trying to make the art sector progress even if we had to sacrifice ourselves. We had changed the beliefs of the citizens, the government cooperated with us and people were gradually showing interest in art and cinema,” said Jamal.

He stated that two weeks after the fall, due to security reasons and fear of his life, he went to Kabul with a number of artistes and journalists and tried to leave the country with the documents they had.

They spent 20 days in Kabul waiting to leave, but because the airport was closed, they returned to their cities disappointed. “Unaware that everything will change with the fall of Afghanistan. We had to alienate ourselves from what we had loved doing and suppress our passion. Under the Taliban, we didn’t know what to do next,” said Jamal.

After the fall of Afghanistan, many actors and singers left the country; some who have been left behind currently live in secret and do not speak about their profession. Women and girl artistes have also stayed at home. With the arrival of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the broadcast of foreign films has been stopped and even though Iranian serials continued to be telecast for some time, they too were discontinued later on. All this, because the Taliban believes that it is shameful to see women depicted on media and TV.

He narrated an incident when he had worked with a radio station and says, “Before the fall, I was working at a radio station, which stopped working for a while after this group came to power. When it became operational again, I suggested them to restart a comedy programme. I recorded a few episodes and published them. However, we received a warning from the Taliban that serious action will be taken if this programme is published again. The radio team immediately stopped broadcasting it, out of fear for their lives,” Jamal recalls.

According to him, as a citizen, if the Taliban continue with such restrictions and orders and do not cooperate with the public, they will never be able to rule in this country. He believes that girls should be allowed to go to school as with the growth of women, a country becomes prosperous. “Everyone should live freely, wear clothes of their own choice, and work as per their passion,” retorts Jamal.

Jamal adds that if poverty, insecurity, drought and unemployment are not addressed by the Taliban, people will continue to flee the country.

Like all free-thinking artistes, Jamal, too always hopes for a bright and safe future and dreams of the day when he will be able to make films again, act on the theater stage again. Jamal wishes to see a world where Afghan films and cinema flourish.  “I wish that Afghans abroad continue their work and portray the ground realities of Afghanistan under the Taliban regime as compared to the open, restriction-free world earlier,” Jamal wishes.

“Luck wasn’t on my side and I couldn’t leave the country. However, I would like to go back to the days and try to ignite my passion for films and theater again,” Jamal envisions like any true artiste would.

Fatima Farhang
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