02/06/2023, 18.31
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The Parastoo Theatre gives Afghan refugees a voice in Kuala Lumpur

by Hal Swindall

After fleeing his country in 2016 because of threats from the Taliban, Saleh Sepas set up a theatre company that uses the "theatre of the oppressed" methodology to raise awareness of the problems of Afghanistan and its people. As "silent listeners", refugees can thus become protagonists and face their traumas.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) – Playwright Saleh Sepas left his native Afghanistan after receiving threats from the Taliban and found refuge in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where he founded the Parastoo Theatre in 2017.

Using the “Theatre of the Oppressed" (TO) methodology, he educates the public about the plight of refugees, giving them a voice for others to hear and therapeutic outlet to cope with their own suffering.

Before Malaysian theatres were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Parastoo staged plays about domestic violence and unemployment among Afghan refugees, drawing thousands of spectators with a major impact on local media.

The UN High Commission for Refugees in Kuala Lumpur recognised Parastoo Theatre in a country that is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

A graduate from Kabul University's Faculty of Fine Arts in 2004, Sepas began working in Afghan media for a radio programme supported by the European Union aimed at fighting domestic violence and empower ordinary Afghans.

After a brief stint in TV, he joined the BBC in 2008, working for radio drama "New Home, New Life", which still has about half a million regular listeners.

For Sepas, this experience was “real”. Not only did he personally know the actors but he also wrote for the programme and occasionally directed it. For him, it was a way to address his country’s “culture of violence” while educating Afghans to work for and keep peace.

The programme’s success meant that the Taliban decided to kill him and his family; in 2016 he fled to Malaysia with his wife and three children, leaving behind everything he had built in Afghanistan.

In Kuala Lumpur he had no money, friends or work, and suffered despair before contacting Emmy-winning Iranian-American playwright Kayhan Irani, who in 2010 had trained him in the methodology of the Theatre of the Oppressed (TO).

After Sepas told her about his idea for Parastoo Theatre, Irani offered encouragement, but also started a fundraiser.

Conceived by Brazilian playwright Augusto Boal, TO aims to educate the audience and help performers to speak with their own voices.

Recalling her time in Kabul teaching TO, Irani describes the experience as the “weaving of theatre, storytelling, and social issue analysis” to help the actors and their audience gain insights from each other.

Sepas notes that while refugees are usually "silent listeners”, his actors have managed to find an expressive outlet through TO.

“Parastoo” is a Farsi (Persian) word that means "swallow", a migratory bird that is a messenger of spring; it is also a female name, and the Parastoo Theatre addresses many issues related to women's conditions, like domestic violence and child marriage.

Titled "The Red Soil of Kabul”, Sepas’s upcoming production seeks to “educate the audience, raise awareness about the violation of human rights, and highlight the child protection challenges in war circumstances,” he said.

It is the “true story of the events that took place when the government of Afghanistan fell on the 15th August 2021.”

His troupe  works every day for the “empowerment and upskilling of the refugee community, mental health support, [and] raising awareness about child protection and human rights”, while providing a “beautiful connection” between refugee and Malaysian communities.

In other words, “Our goal is to be the voice of the voiceless, to tell the untold stories, [to] entertain and educate the audience.”

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