Afghan Art and Advocacy
With Yousof Sultani
Nabra Nelson: Salaam Alaikum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, theatre from across the region.
Marina J. Bergenstock: I'm Marina.
Nabra: And I'm Nabra.
Marina: And we're your hosts.
Nabra: Our name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how, with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea, or in Arabic, shay.
Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you'll find kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research and special guests, in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.
Nabra: HowlRound has graciously agreed to let us host a special episode focused on Afghan theatre and advocacy between seasons. So yalla, grab your tea. The shay is just right.
This episode has been especially difficult to put together. The emotional toll of current events in Afghanistan make this a particularly taxing time for Afghan artists and activists. Not only do they have to deal with the deeply felt emotions and stresses of what's going on in their country—in some cases putting friends, families, and themselves at risk—but they also deal with the weight of responsibility as changemakers. Balancing the two is difficult at best and seemingly impossible at times.
As artists, we have a voice and we have the power to make change. But it's in times like this when that power weighs extremely heavily. And both the emotional toll and weight of responsibility only increases the more impacted you are. As non-Afghans, we only have been feeling a tiny fraction of the stress of this moment. And we wanted to have this episode as an offering to artists who are advocating for their community. Many were interested, but did not have the capacity or lost the capacity to participate as an interviewee. So we still wanted to share a bit of their stories and elevate the work that they're doing. In addition, we are so thankful to be joined today by Yousof Sultani, an Afghan American actor and advocate who's been working tirelessly in his art and activism.
Marina: One of the artists that was planning on being on this podcast and helped us so much in reaching out to theatremakers in Afghanistan is Sahar Muradi. Sahar is a writer, performer, and educator based in New York City. She's a founding member of the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association, a collective which “aims to amplify work that critically analyzes discourse on Afghanistan in the U.S. mainstream, where Afghan voices are routinely ignored or reduced to cultural tropes.” She has previously worked for Bond Street Theatre, based in New York City, which has a program in Afghanistan, where she helped establish an all-women theatre troop in Jalalabad under the auspices of Nangarhar Provincial Theater, a three-decade-old, men-only theatre troop there.
In 2012, she and Joanna Sherman, from Bond Street Theatre, worked with young women ages thirteen to nineteen to write a play that reflected their own lives. The group identified education as the solution to all of the issues that they brainstormed, from labor, to violence, to women's rights, and decided to focus the play on that subject. The title was Women For Women, Women Against Women. They ended up performing at five locations to all-women audiences: a support center for widows, the women's prison, an orphanage, and two women's shuras, or councils, in the countryside. Sahar wrote an article about the play for On the Issues Magazine and concluded the article with the following: “At the very end we asked, ‘So how many of you are interested in being part of this all-women's troop?’ Six hands shot up. The revolution had begun.”
Nabra: Before we get to the interview with Yousof, we wanted to include some information on art in Afghanistan, starting with Jollywood. Jalalabad has earned the title of Jollywood by some, for the about thirty films made there a year—a great feat among the challenges filmmakers face. Films need to be made with no budget, one camera, and gender is segregated. Distribution is also difficult since TV stations do not tend to show local films, but rather prefer Western and Bollywood films, which is ironic given the censorship placed on Afghan-made films. In the early 2000s, there were two cinemas in Jalalabad. But according to an article from Afghanistan Today, the government closed the first and the second one was destroyed by a car bomb during the civil war.
Marina: Bond Street Theatre, which is the organization Sahar worked with, began work in Afghanistan in 2003. All of their projects were meant to uplift the lives of women of all ages, and to make sure that all citizens were knowledgeable about their rights and legal protections. They used theatre to spread this essential information. Their website estimates that they engaged four hundred-plus youth in twenty-five provinces in activities to improve their communities. You can see some of their work in videos on their website, subtitled in English.
Nabra: Now I'm going to give you a brief snapshot of theatre in Afghanistan as of 2015, according to an article by Nicole Estvanik Taylor. That's the latest we could find comprehensive info about theatre in the country, and we integrate some other sources, but at least this gives you a good idea of the landscape, quickly.
Kabul Theater was established in 1973 and reopened in 2002, and it hosted a national Afghan Theatre Festival with the University in Kabul. The Mediothek Girls Theatre of Kunduz was founded by a fifteen-year-old playwright, Naseeba Holgar. White Star Theater Company was Kabul's first professional all-women's theatre company, and Kabul's Exile Theatre toured internationally, both of which were partially established by Bond Street Theatre.
Heart's Simorgh Film and Theater staged a play in a women's prison. Aftaab Theatre, founded by Ariane Mnouchkine, staged Western classics and original shows and performed internationally. There was a puppet theatre founded by a group of students from Kabul University in 2009 called Parwaz Puppet Theatre. Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization used Playback Theatre to examine human rights violations. And USAID's Traveling Agricultural Theatre used live drama to teach advanced farming practices and entertain farmers in remote areas.
So it really had, perhaps has, a really thriving theatre and arts scene. We don't know which of these companies still exist or which will continue to exist. But it is certain that the new Taliban regime puts up additional barriers for theatre and arts companies, including more harsh censorship, gender segregation, and oppression of women, not to mention the continued political tension and violence, which put extreme stress on everyday life.
From doing this podcast, there's one thing I'm sure of: that theatre and art persists in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers. But the extent to which artists will thrive, or even survive, at this time is uncertain. As Dr. Azza Karam, secretary general for Religions for Peace, said in a Vice article on the exodus of art and culture from Afghanistan: “Artists are the bells of freedom tolling in any given context. So even when, and if, they flee their work continues to serve as testament to human creativity and resilience.” We will be looking for the growth of the art of the diaspora with the deepest hope that that will include the safe exit of every artist who wants to make that art elsewhere.
Marina: Nabra and I both attended a Zoom talk with Afghan scholars virtually through Stanford a week or so ago. And one of the Afghan scholars made a point to highlight the need to look at small moments of resistance. We see women leading protests and we also see women cooking large meals for their communities who might be organizing in a larger way. These moments are important. And it is my belief that our job is to bear witness to these acts, as we continue to do advocacy and donate to organizations on the ground.
Nabra: As we turn to Afghan theatre and advocacy in the United States, we wanted to highlight the plays that we know of that focus on Afghanistan that are produced here in the United States. Here are some: Sylvia Khoury's Selling Kabul, Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, A Thousand Splendid Sons, which is originally a book by Khaled Hosseini that has been adapted into a play by Ursula Rani Sarma, as well as an opera adaptation, which is premiering at the Seattle Opera in 2022, and another adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's novel, The Kite Runner, adapted by Matthew Spangler. We also found The Great Game: Afghanistan, which is a cycle of plays by some of Britain's leading contemporary playwrights, The Most Dangerous Highway in the World by Kevin Artigue, which is recently done as an audio play by Golden Thread Productions. There's also Blood and Gifts by J.T. Rogers, No Such Cold Thing by Naomi Wallace, and Afghan Girls Don't Cry by Nushin Arbabzadah.
It's worth pointing out that none but the last play on this list was actually written by an Afghan playwright. Nushin Arbabzadah has also written several other plays and commissions, so is definitely a writer to look out for. The final play we thought of actually involved Yousof, Heartland by Gabriel Jason Dean, which I believe is the first play where Yousof actually played an Afghan character. If you think of others, especially by contemporary Afghan playwrights, please comment on our Facebook page. We'd love to get to know more writers.
Now, without further ado, we'd like to welcome Yousof Sultani to this show.
Marina: Nabra and I have had the pleasure of seeing Yousof act many times, including in Guards at the Taj and Ms. Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley, at Milwaukee Rep. The Zoom production of Amir Nizar Zuabi’s This is Who I Am, which we have spoken of fondly on the podcast in the past, and I also saw him in The Doppelganger at Steppenwolf. Yousof has also acted at Drury Lane, The Court Theatre, Interact Theatre, Chicago Shakes, Silk Road Rising, TimeLine Theatre, and many more. He was also in the movie Glass House, and you may have seen him on TV in The Brave, Empire, and Chicago Fire. Yousof is an artist who is also a tireless activist for Afghanistan. And today, we'll get to talk to him about his art, his advocacy, and any intersections that may exist.
Nabra: Yousof, we're so grateful to have you here with us today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Yousof Sultani: I'm excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
Nabra: So first, can you just tell us about your experience and being an Afghan artist in the United States and how your identity has contributed to your career, whether that's with shows that have to do with Afghanistan or elsewise? How has that identity been part of your career? How do you integrate that into your art?
Yousof Sultani: That's a great question. I guess, first of all, I'd have to say being an Afghan American in America and doing the type of art that I do, I've had to allow myself to make changes that I wasn't necessarily comfortable with for other people, or because I was told that it was a way for me to get hired. I had this casting director that came to visit us in college. And this is when I was still going by Yousof. And he came in and saw our head shots and saw my name. And he said, “You should change your name to Joseph because no one will hire you if they can't pronounce your name.” And so being a naive college student thinking when I go to Chicago, if I go to New York, I'd be missing out on opportunities to create art because of my name. And I was being told this by a master of his industry—he's a pretty big casting director in New York.
So I took his word and I changed my name to Joseph and honestly, looking back, I don't know if it had any kind of say over whether I got cast or not. I like to think that it's mostly based on talent and not name, but he did say that people are fickle in the casting room—at least they used to be, before... A lot of things have changed since I was in college—it was about fifteen years ago—and for the better.
I will say that in regards to being Afghan, being an actor, it's always felt like something that I've been fighting against my whole life. My parents, growing up, they thought it was just a hobby, a phase. And I started when I was in third grade. And it's odd that I had a lunch with my theatre teacher from high school just before I moved back to Chicago, maybe three months ago. And I hadn't seen him in maybe twelve years. We contacted each other. And we were reminiscing about things and I told him that my father had just passed away. And then he said, “I guess I can tell you this now because your father's no longer with us, but your father came to see me once in high school, after one of our classes. He came in and we sat down and we had a wonderful conversation.” And I was like, “Really? Why?” He goes, “Well, he asked me to not cast you in any of the shows.”
And I remember hearing that and I was like, “Why do you think he did that?” He was like, “Well, he asked me to let you go play sports. He came to me and said, ‘Don't you think that he's just a better athlete? Do you really think that this is something that... he's going to try to pursue this. Isn't he?’” And my theatre director was like, “Well, yeah, I think he's very good at what he does. And I can't not cast him because he's a student at the school. If he puts himself out there to audition, I'm going to cast the person I find best for the role. And if his name is on the board, then I will absolutely cast him if he fits this role.”
And my father never told me that he went to go see him about that. Since I was very young, my father always tried to get me away from the arts. He always envisioned me as an engineer or a doctor. And those are things that I absolutely could have done, but my passion's always lied in art and storytelling. I think what we do is very empathic. You have to be. We deal in empathy as actors.
But as time progressed and I got older and my dad... I got accepted to the American Academy in New York on a two-year scholarship. And before he left, he had a heart attack, so I stayed home, because I figured if anything would've happened to my father, I'd never forgive myself if I left. So I stayed and I was Hamlet at the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C. And then I decided to take some classes at Studio Theatre while I was there. And I think I really started missing out on the university feel of the things that all my friends were doing, going to class and maybe getting away from home for a little bit and exploring. I think I was a little jealous of my friends for getting to do exactly what I wanted to do. So then I applied to VCU and I went there and I placed up. You have to audition to get into the school and then you have to audition each year to get to the next level. And they allowed me to place as a sophomore coming into this school, which was great.
And then my parents came to see, we did Dracula and I got to play Dr. Seward. And it wasn't until that show that my dad, he had seen me act before, plenty of times, but I don't know what it was about this show that he came and saw me in. And after the show, he shook my hand and he goes, “I understand why you do this.” He's like, “I get it. You're very good at what you do and you have my blessing as long as you're happy in your life; that's all I want for you is to be happy.”
And that was like a big turning point for me, getting my father's blessing. And I think I just tried even harder to do this as a career. And I didn't know any other Afghans who were actors. None. I still don't. I know there are Afghan actors because they're getting these Afghan roles that I'm sometimes missing out on—or at least I hope they're going to Afghans. But even growing up, I didn't know very many Afghans outside of my family, but there's a very vast population of Afghans where I'm from in northern Virginia and D.C. and Maryland.
And then I came to Chicago and they were doing Blood and Gifts at Timeline Theatre, which is a show about Afghanistan. And I wasn't asked to audition at all and they didn't have a single Afghan in the cast. I remember talking to my agent and telling them, “I'd like to be submitted for this. Just something I feel. They probably want someone in the room who can maybe attest to some cultural things of that nature.” And they didn't even have a cultural consultant and I believe their director was white. And this of course is natural over the course of the last ten years and I'm just glad that we're moving in a different direction now with more authenticity and proper representation and having not only intimacy coordinators, but also cultural consultants in the room.
If there is a director who is not necessarily completely, or even at all, aware of the type of things that are contextually in the culture that they're going to be putting on stage. There're some things I can tell you, but I think I should just keep them to myself. Just about shows that I've done that have dealt with Afghanistan and culture and the director just didn't really know. I did this one show where I was a cultural consultant for it, and I was the only Afghan in the play and also a cultural consultant for it. And the director, I had to battle against them because they kept mispronouncing the names of the characters, which is the simplest of things, right? There's Dari spoken in the show, so I was recording all of the lines that people had to say in Dari, so they could hear the pronunciation and we'd have individual meetings with each actress so that I could help them with their Dari.
And then I'd have meetings with the director in regards to clothing and food and behavioral... like there's a scene with a mullah and a woman. And just the proper things you would do in that scenario, that the woman would do in correspondence to what the mullah would do and things of that nature. The most basic of things that I feel like needed to be done right, are the pronunciation of the names. And so when I would tell these actors how to say the names properly, they would start getting them into their heads. And then when it was time for notes, the director would butcher the names to the point where the actors would start using their pronunciations instead of what I've been telling them, because it's the director and they're just like, “I'm confused as to how to say this.”
And that's just names. When you can't even get that right... I just feel like there're some plays that people just shouldn't... that they shouldn't be directing if they don't have that kind of... She's a wonderful director. I'm going to tell you, she's a wonderful director, okay? In case you decide to do your own research and you find out—I have a feeling you'll be able to find out pretty easily. With relationships and stage set pieces and pictures and her vision is beautiful, but she doesn't know much about the culture. She doesn't know much about what the people went through, being there. And she had a cultural consultant originally consulting with her on the show who's a dear friend of mine. And then I was told that she's no longer going to be doing the show and it was at the behest of the director saying she didn't want her, the cultural consultant who's a friend of mine, to do the show.
And Humaira (Ghilzai) is amazing because I did the show with her and Evren Odcikin and she is Afghan and we speak Dari. She helped me with my Dari accent. It's funny because my parents speak fluent Dari as well, so do I, but for some reason, the Afghan accent was always so difficult to me. I could do Arabic, I could do Russian, I could do Irish, I could do New York, I could do South America, I could do South African or Australian, I could even do Iranian, right? For some reason, I just couldn't get the Afghan accent. And I didn't know what it was until I sat down with Humaira and then she ironed it out for me and now it's one of my favorite accents to do.
So that's how important cultural consultants are and that's how important it is to have someone in the room who knows what they're doing in regards to cultural things. And it's a wide net of things that fall under that umbrella but if you don't have someone in that room, then you're really missing the mark because the amount of Afghans that came to see this show. The amount of people that stayed afterwards at the talkbacks and asked questions and, being the only Afghan in the show, I had to go out to these talkbacks every night. I chose to, it wasn't demanded of me. But I had to, just to make sure that all of the people who were Afghan and they saw a connection with an actor on stage who's Afghan and understands the story. And my mother came to see the show, this is after my father's passing, and there's so much of her life that was just mirroring what was happening in the play. And I had family members that came to see it and I think it was the last show Ruth Bader Ginsburg saw before she passed. Yeah. And it's a beautiful play and it's a wonderful book: Thousand Splendid Suns.
Nabra: There we go, we got to the show.
Yousof Sultani: Yeah, you got the show.
Nabra: We had to know eventually. But you bring up so much—you've brought up so much—important information in just that one answer. I mean the importance of cultural consultants and further, really the importance of directors who are entering a space, a cultural space, that they're not a part of. The absolute responsibility of that; they need to do their homework because not only will it create a... it creates a more supportive space for the actors but also, it elevates the art. It simply does elevate the art and the importance of having cultural consultants really have power in the room. I think there's a shift in the American theatre to make sure that cultural consultants are really positioned in a space to have success in that role.
But also, that's a lot of weight on your shoulder as an actor to be playing both of those roles. And I mean, even if there's only one actor who understands that culture, that weight of representation is heavy. To be the one that has to be... to feel like you have that responsibility to be at every talkback because no one else can speak for the culture. Whereas, imagine how different that would be if there was even just one other Afghan theatre artist, whether that be an actor or someone else in the crew or the designers even, that could represent for you as well, or with you. We talk a lot about that on our podcast, but you've really kind of outlined a really perfect example of a lot of these different issues that we talk about.
I'd love to ask about also, a time that you felt your identity was validated in your art making. As you also illustrated in your response, identity is always with us as MENA folks, as folks of color, whether we're playing roles or directing or working on shows that actually reflect our identity or not. When or when not, you're going to invite your family, there's always, even in your case, what name you're going by in any given time. There's so much going on behind the scenes in our own lives, in our art creation, whether we're seeing that on stage or not. And those moments when you actually get to be validated or celebrated are so powerful because we're carrying that all the time, whether the audience or our friends or family or anyone is seeing that, there's an element of identity that's with us all the time—at least in my experience. So I'd love to hear, when has been a time when you felt like you were validated in your identity as an actor or even celebrated in that identity?
Yousof Sultani: Oh, wow. I'd have to say the first time I've ever felt completely comfortable and elated… The thing is that I usually feel like this when I act, I really do. But there's been, I think the first time I was ever able to speak Dari on stage and in Heartland with Evren (Odcikin) doing a play about my parents' homeland and knowing so much about the play even prior to going into it, but also learning so much while doing the play. It was just a wonderful experience and I think... the fact is that as an actor, I like to think that we're able to play a multitude of different roles, right? But any role we've ever played has always... their background wasn't necessarily important or I could play that role because it was an open ethnicity casting. It didn't matter where the person was from, but to actually play a character who was Afghan for the first time in my life, it was unlike anything else because I felt more a part of it than I ever have another role. And playing Nazrullah was beautiful because most of my scenes, in the way that it was written, I speak Dari mostly on stage but it's written in such a way that when I speak Dari, it's repeated by the other English actor back and then Nazrullah slowly starts to learn English as the play moves forward so he starts using his Dari less.
Yeah. But it's such a beautiful story in the sense that it's so poignant and so indicative of what an Afghan life is like, and it's just filled with tragedy, but also such beauty in things, and I feel like all the Afghans that I know in my family and that I've met outside of my family, they're very deep people, they feel. And culturally here, like from my friends, I've had friends who've lost parents and loved ones and dear ones and everybody grieves differently and this is no judgment on anyone. I've gone to funerals where someone's lost a husband or a father and there's grieving and then you leave that space and then they celebrate life, right? Which I find to be beautiful.
When I lost my father, I think that was the... it wasn't the first time I'd lost someone who was very close to me. My grandmother was the first person, my dad's mother, but losing my actual father and going through that grief. And it's not something I ever let go of, it's still there, it's just become easier to manage. But how deeply that loss affected my family and to see how much grief that was just an outpouring. My ex-partner came to the funeral and she had to leave because she was like, “It was just too much. The grief was just too much for me to handle.” And I understood that, I did. And the fact is, we have forty days and forty nights to grieve the loss of someone and that's written in the Quran. And once that time comes, you're supposed to move on with life.
And I think the forty days and forty nights is an amount of time that you are allowed to grieve, to live in your pain and then you have to move on with your life. That's not necessarily what always happens, but it's true. And for some reason, I look at that moment in people's lives, who are Afghan and I'm sure a lot of cultures do this. I know it's something that happens in Judaism as well. But it's just this beautiful thing as well, to really live in those emotions, because I think it's so true that you can't have the sweet without the sour, you can't have light without the darkness. And I think it just makes us appreciate life so much more.
And in doing that show and having my parents come see that show and seeing themselves in that show. And after I did that play there's these books that they gave to these children. My dad was like, “Oh yeah, I've read them. I've seen them. They were real.” And I was like, “I know dad, we took actual pictures out of what... our dramaturg had photocopies of actual pages from some of these kitaabs (books) and they were like two bullets and two guns and four grenades and four grenade launchers and it's just sickening to see that and read that and know that we were, as a country, we were altering the minds of these young, beautiful people in this other country to suit our own needs as Americans.
Nabra: Yeah. To just share for people who are listening, who don't know about this, Heartland is about books that were written and distributed, from what I understand, in Afghanistan by the United States, that really advocated for—
Yousof Sultani: University of Nebraska.
Nabra: Wow. University of Nebraska.
Yousof Sultani: In America. By the CIA.
Nabra: These children's books, with the CIA and distributed them in Afghanistan, that advocated for militancy through teaching math about bullets and guns and this play is about that, partially, I would say.
Yousof Sultani: Partially, yes, of course.
Yousof Sultani: It's a very blurred line in that event. Yeah.
Nabra: Yeah. It's a really beautiful play though.
Yousof Sultani: Did you get a chance to see it?
Nabra: No, I read the script. I read the script, yeah. I wish I could see it.
Yousof Sultani: It was done in five different... It was a rolling world premiere. James took it to a few other cities.
Nabra: Thank you for sharing that.
Yousof Sultani: I was the only person who played Nazrullah who was an Afghan. No one else was Afghan who played the role. I think that show meant something a little different to James and the conversations that we had and the conversations he had with my parents after the show. My parents, they fled during the Russian invasion. My father left in 1979 and then my mother left to join him in Dusseldorf, in Germany, October 24, 1980. It was the passwords for all my dad's stuff: the day that my mom came to Germany to be with him. And they eloped and they were in love and they got married and they came to America and had me and my brothers and sisters, but my dad and my mom, they both lost their fathers very young—about six years old—so they had that connection in that loss and grief. My mom lost two brothers during the war. They were just taken and never seen from or heard from again. They never got to have a funeral with the bodies.
That kind of tragic life was their reality. These are things I only see in movies and watch on TV shows, but my parents lived it in every sense of the word. For them to see it on stage and hear their language being spoken and seeing their food practices and the preparation of tea and the clothing and seeing the letters of the Arabic alphabet on chalkboards and watching a man who's their son praying on stage in front of... They've never seen anything like that before. They've never seen their stories told in that way. There's no other experience ever had, theatrically, that was as fulfilling as that performance because my parents came to see Guards at the Taj and I loved that show. It was, for me, just beautifully written, beautifully directed, staged and I had an amazing partner on stage and they had put my parents' names on their seats.
I guess one of the people were looking through the program and they saw my name and then saw the last name and someone's asking my mom, “Are you related to…” and she was like, “Yes, that's my son.” So, all these people started having conversations with my parents during that show and then the same thing happened to them in Philadelphia when they came to see Heartland. They stayed after the show because they came to opening night so, all these people, they wanted to talk to my parents more than they wanted to talk to me, which is a beautiful thing because they lived it. They were there and they had questions and my parents were happy to answer them.
I think I'd always had their support, but I think that was the moment for them that they realized that the work I do can make a difference and can sway people's feelings and can change a narrative for people. I absolutely will contend that I think because of my background in acting and the relationships I've cultivated, and because I live in an amazing city of artists of Chicago that were constantly fighting for equal rights and for the people who are marginally affected by things that happen in our industry, whether it be Black lives, whether it be trans lives or whether it be advocating for women for more leadership roles or people of color. I think that has all melded itself and constantly being a part of that world has made it very easy for me to just slip into being an advocate for Afghanistan because I've done those things. I've gone to rallies and I've made these speeches.
There was a rally in Chicago for Afghans for Chicago and a few news stations came and we had a big rally; we marched. We had all these beautiful face masks with the flag emblazoned on them and the Afghan flag and I got to make this speech to tell some of the people there about exactly what's happening over there. I'm still doing this. I have of 145 people. There are about 45 different families and I've been working with military contacts, a Navy seal in Florida, and an ex-army Lieutenant in Virginia. We've been trying to raise funds to get these people out. I don't sleep very much anymore because they're 8 hours ahead, so I tend to be on the phone at night talking to them. Some of them are my family. My dad's brother and his family, who I've never met, are in Kabul and they worked directly with the United States government and they have their P1, P2 visa status, SIV as well. They need to leave the country because if they find them, they're going to kill them.
The same with my dad's sisters' children, so my aunt's kids who are my cousins. I've never actually met them either. It's funny, I didn't even know they were in Afghanistan. I always thought they were in Pakistan but my mom told me, yeah, they went back in 2013 and I was in Chicago. These are some conversations and stuff that I wasn't always privy to: what my extended family in other country's doing. I'm sure they didn't know that I was moving to Chicago, you know what I mean? It just never came up. When I talked to my parents, we always talked about our things and when we were together we enjoyed our company, so I never knew. I was putting on social media that I'm looking for Dari speakers because what I was originally doing is contacting these families there and translating for them, so we could fill out their AMCIT forms, compiling their passports, filing their visa status forms, getting their Taksera files and their numbers, their IDs, their badge numbers or if they have verification of employment, if they worked with the United States government or helped with troops. Regardless of whether it was banking or tailoring or transporting people, their lives were at risk. Just weeks of work of talking to different family members and assigning.
I had a team of people helping me do this and the deadline was just too soon. We got maybe 185 people out the day I came on board, but the people that I've been working with personally since then—ever since the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport—it changed everything. Security has been maximized and now the Taliban have realized that there's monetary value in letting people leave the country. Why let them leave for free when we can charge them and make money upon their departure? There are people who are at the airports and these Taliban were letting them through, if they were able to pay $10,000 per person. Who the hell is going to afford that? These people are wearing the same clothes for a week. They're literally sitting in shit and piss in this drainage sewage system outside of the airport because they have nowhere else to go. For these people who've just overthrown the government and have rallied to be the new leaders of this country, they're pretty idiotic. How do you expect people to pay 10... You know what I mean? I personally right now probably could barely afford to take my entire family somewhere for $10,000 a person and then be able to survive with whatever I have left.
It's been such a difficult couple weeks, honestly and then doing this, but I will say going to do this show and being in a rehearsal room and creating with other artists, it's actually an escape for me. Usually I have to go to a theatre or rehearsal and I have to leave all of that baggage outside and then go into that space and just be present. I think that allows me to disassociate with everything else happening, but it's also so hard because these are people's lives. These are real people. This is a real problem. This is a real scenario in which I actually can help change. That's been my priority this entire two weeks that I've been in St. Louis because it started before I left Chicago. The amount of people that have been helping with it is amazing, but it's also me.
There was a family member, two family members who were part of the 145 people that we had on our list and they were assigned to another one of my friends and they were going back from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul because they lived in Kabul, but they fled Kabul to go to Mazar-i-Sharif because that was the only airport that was open. Once Abbey Gate shut down and Northgate shut down in Kabul, they were only letting United States personnel and green card holders into the airport and even then, United States personnel were being turned away. It was incredibly hectic. They went to Mazar-i-Sharif in hopes that they could get on one of those planes and we were told that. My two contacts both told me Mazar-i-Sharif is the move. That's where we were going to be taking people out in flights. That's where we're going to have safe houses and that's where it's the best place for them to be because there's no stronghold over Mazar-i-Sharif in the way there is in Kabul, so lots of families went up there.
Then when they realized that they weren't going to be leaving before the deadline—some of these people still had shops and things and monetary, jobs, back in Kabul. Whether they were a shoekeeper, a shopkeeper or a grocer or whatever they were, they just knew if they had to stay in Afghanistan, then they had to keep making money somehow. I remember speaking to one of them, it was like, “I have to go to Kabul, I have to.” Me telling them, “Can't you just wait two days? We've been told seventy-two hours from now there's going to be a plane.” And there was a plane and they left, but that was a decision they had to make. Ultimately it was the right decision because that plane that was there, that we had with all these names, they chose someone else. They chose another group of Afghans. The amount of people that are trying to get onto these lists, it changes daily.
We've been working with a private philanthropist who's been funding some of these flights but I don't have access to this person personally. All I do is I send the names and verify employment with some of these companies that are now defunct. A lot of these people who worked with United States troops and United States companies and NGOs, they don't exist anymore. They have proof that they worked with these companies, so we had to get all these referrals from the people that they used to work with. Have you read Selling Kabul? It's so incredibly relevant right now. It always has been but in this moment... I just read it again the other night. This needs to be done right now. And the fact that they're starting rehearsals October 25th, I'm like, that's great. I honestly wish they had started in August when we knew the evacuation was coming, but it's exactly what's happening there.
I get emotional when I read that play because I've had these exact conversations with these Afghans in their country and they call me, hopeful. And we made families go out and buy the same outfit, with the same hat color, so that they can be spotted by a young kid in the army with a sniper who's looking for this type of person and wearing this stuff and, “Send us your picture of what you're going to be wearing on the day that we come and pick you up. You have to be ready within fifteen minutes of departure, we can't wait.” It was hectic. A week and a half for some of these people, they slept in the same outfit, day after day after day. Last night I just spoke to two different families and they want updates and the thing is, I know you want updates. I want updates. I call people and now I just feel like a middle man because I'm the translator now and before I actually had a purpose.
Before I was reached out by Ghiridar. He's a private citizen who had been banded together with this billionaire private philanthropist and her friend, Arezo Khostani, and she flew to Qatar because she was able to get 242 people out of the country before the deadline, but they were stuck in Qatar. She needed to go there and they set up a processing bank to help some of these people get their visas, with the intention of bringing them to the United States. When we first started doing this, I was writing referrals for artists, musicians, comedians, journalists, people that I could say, “I worked with the person on this project that I did here in Chicago or in Philadelphia or in Washington, D.C., Arena Stage.” They were helpful to us in doing this and that's all they wanted at the time because it was such a hectic time before the deadline.
They stopped taking proof of visas because it was that hectic. All you had to do was fill out an AMCIT form, you put your passport on there, you'd take a picture of yourself. You'd say where in the country you were and how fast you can get to Kabul or Mazar-i-Sharif and then would tell you what country you were going to be taken to. Whether it was Tashkent or Azerbaijan or Tajikistan, Albania, Romania, Qatar. These people had no idea where they were going to be taken, no idea, but they just needed to leave. And they still do. These men are going door to door, taking girls at fourteen years old and making them sex slaves and forcing them into marriages. They're beating journalists on the street. There are women protesting who are being whipped and chained every day. There are journalists covering that who are beaten and chained and whipped. It's just so brutal.
Nabra: Yeah. It's beyond heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing what's going on behind the scenes. I will say that I've been hearing snippets of this from a lot of Afghans in America who are doing a lot of the same work. There are so many people who are spending their nights working on this advocacy, translating things, writing visas, trying to get in touch with officials, trying to get in touch with some way that people can leave the country. And it's this... There's the vocal advocacy that you're doing with the marches and posting on social media that are so impactful. There's also this more hidden advocacy that's so important for people to know is happening, that so many people in the United States and around the world who have connections in Afghanistan are doing this tirelessly. If you're not part of that, then I personally, I don't know all of the elements that go into that; how difficult that bureaucracy is, and the fact that connected to that bureaucracy are lives. And it's so, so difficult to navigate. So we really thank you for doing that work.
You mentioned, and we'll make sure to put a link, that you're raising funds. Are there other ways that you want to highlight for folks? You say that you have a team. How can we know more about this work that you're doing, and how can folks support that work?
Yousof Sultani: Well, right now I'm reaching out to different charities and donor ships that are set up so I can get a large sum of money. So it's not like a GoFundMe or anything that I've set up in that regard. These are conversations I'm having with theatres, or people who have large amounts of money to spend tax-free. Because I have schematics and a breakdown of how much these things cost, and it's like 1.7 just to get the aircraft. And then you have to get landing permission in a different country. You also have to pay for security from the Taliban. You have to have teams and you have to get a bus together for people to go to travel. So you're logistically paying for everything that needs to be done to get this group of people from point A to point B and out of the country safely. Yeah, it's a lot of money.
And we did have a donor who backed out. I don't know exactly what happened with that. I had to miss that call because I had rehearsal. And I'm supposed to be calling my Navy Seal contact back later tonight. I don't know. I don't know what's happening with that.
The hardest part is I try not to give any of these families hope. It's really hard to tell people we're trying our best. The two contacts I have, they're like, "Oh, I promise you we can get them out," but that's not something I can say to these families. It's not. And what's also crazy is I've had conversations with veterans who've left the country, who fought there and had friendships and have people who they consider family, who are Afghans that saved their lives. And they set up a hotline for veterans coming from Afghanistan so they don't kill themselves. A suicide hotline because they feel like we abandoned them. They have all this guilt. And we did. We left very, very vulnerable people who sacrificed their lives, their livelihood, their families, to help us do what they invaded that country for: to defeat the Taliban.
George Bush said it twenty years ago. We're going to show Afghan people what it means to be a friend to America. We're going to destroy the Taliban, and we're going to usher in a new era for that country. And that just never came to fruition. We went in there and spent trillions of dollars on defense contracts and NGOs. We should have been spending them on training the military, and infrastructure for the city. All of that money, if you just look at the stock markets of Lockheed Martin, Grayon, they've gone up 1000 percent in the last twenty years since we invaded Afghanistan. All of that money went straight back into these rich fuckers' pockets and not to the people who needed it most. Not for the reason we were there. And it's just sad.
And the first two years that we invaded Afghanistan, over $82 billion was spent there. And less than 3 percent of that was given to infrastructure help and with arming the Afghanistan military. And when Biden said in his speech, “They just rolled over and quit,” it was just such a spit in the face of all of these beautiful people there who have been fighting for centuries. And they still do. And the fact that they show up when they don't even have enough money for gas, they don't even have enough ammunition to fight the fucking bastards they're supposed to fight. And then when the United States leaves, they leave $3 trillion worth of ammunition, helicopters, tanks to the Taliban, and just leave. Stinger missiles. It's really absurd, but also not unbelievable.
And I think this is one of the reasons why I feel like I just have to do Selling Kabul. I'm doing my audition tape later tonight after I have that conversation with my contact. And the thing is it's not even right for me in my life right now. For me to do that play, it's not a good time. But it's a need to do it. We close on the 24th and they start rehearsing the 25th. So I wouldn't be able to get there on time.
Marina: No, but talking about the need of art, and sometimes, with everything you're talking about, sometimes the fact that I am focused on theatre makes me wonder: What role does art have in the social change? You talked a little bit about how your theatre training has prepared you in some ways for this community organizing role that you've taken on. But can you talk some about what you feel like the role of art is there? Or also what you would like to see from Afghan theatre and art in the United States going forward from here.
Yousof Sultani: In regards to what I'd like to see moving forward, honestly, I think just more stories. I'd love to see more Afghan stories told on stage, on film, and on TV that doesn't necessarily always revolve around violence. That doesn't always revolve around oppression. Doesn't always revolve around terrorism. It's funny, I auditioned for this for the show that that was on Apple. I believe it was called Little America. Have you guys seen that at all?
Yousof Sultani: In the second season, where this father is walking his son through a market and he speaks—the whole show's in—Dari, and he's teaching his son about the history of Afghanistan and how it became the graveyard of empires. And it's just this beautiful poetic monologue this father delivers to his son about closing his eyes and hearing the rustling of the grocer and the chirping of the birds in the birdcage, and the drumming of the tabla of the musician behind him. And that he'll be able to hear these sounds whenever he wants if he uses his imagination. Because what they just saw was a Taliban chopping off the hands of a young child who'd stolen an apple.
And so he's trying to get his son's mind off of the violence he just saw. And he's trying to convince his son that the English came at the end of the 1800s, and they invaded Afghanistan three times—the Anglo-Afghan Wars—until Afghanistan declared their independence, I believe in 1909. And then prior to that there was Alexander the Great, who couldn't pass Afghanistan. And there was Genghis Kahn who couldn't pass Afghanistan. And then there were the Russians who couldn't pass and overthrow or take Afghanistan. And apparently, I guess now America. Although their reasoning for me there was entirely different. It was there to help, but they didn't.
He tells his son these things in these wars and these powerful people that have come to Afghanistan and just failed. And that one day the Taliban will do the same. That they will fail, and that we have to maintain that kind of hope. And I just think that's such a... it's a beautiful thing, because although it talks about the violence, there's a hope in it. And it's just a beautiful relationship about this father and his son, and they're at a market and they're just joking and they're laughing. And there's the very real reality of violence happening not too far away from them because it's a constant in that country. And so for them, it's daily life. If we saw something like that, I'd be traumatized. I read this article by theNew Yorker not too long ago. New Yorker or… something I don't remember, but it talks about how 85 percent of the country is suffering from PTSD and 75 percent of that country is younger than twenty-five years old. Twenty-five years old, 75 percent of the country. So people aren't living very long.
Nabra: Yeah. It's truly heartbreaking. Thank you so much for sharing all of that use of... That image of art that you shared with us is so potent because it does illustrate that art can bring a different perspective and it can give hope sometimes when it feels like there's no space for hope. But there always is. There's always something, and the absolute resilience that you shared of the entire history of Afghanistan is also so powerful.
Thank you so much for joining us. You've shared so much. It's so incredibly important to listen to these stories, to pay attention to what folks are doing here and in Afghanistan, and find the ways to support. And it takes time and research and effort but it's the absolute fraction of the work that Afghan folks here in this country and abroad are putting into saving lives and supporting the country. And art will be a part of that, and it takes more than art as well. So thank you for joining us and for sharing both of those elements of your advocacy, both through your art and through so much more that you're doing. I know you have already a long night, and so thank you so much for taking this time.
Yousof Sultani: Thank you both so much for having me on the show. It was really nice to see your faces and to talk to you.
Marina: We are so grateful for you and everything you said and all the work that you're doing.
Nabra: Remember to continue to advocate and support Afghanistan with your time and money. Contact your representatives, donate to vetted organizations, support local Afghan restaurants and businesses, and stand with local activists. You can look to Afghan advocates and artists to learn where you can be most impactful. We will also be sharing specific links on our Facebook page.
Marina: As we close, we wanted to let you know a few things. We'll back with season two in spring of 2022. And as Nabra mentioned, we now have a Facebook page called Kunafa and Shay Theatre Podcast. We'll be posting relevant MENA theatre happenings there, and you can check out our new logo.
Nabra: Also, if you read our podcast transcripts on HowlRound, shout out to them for making podcasting more accessible, you know that we hyperlink to artists, theatre, and other sites when we reference them.
Marina: Thank you so much for having tea with us. This has been another episode of Kunafa and Shay. We're your hosts, Marina and Nabra. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of the series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons’ podcasts, and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you loved this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content, on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the Commons.
Nabra: We hope you tune in next time. Thanks for joining us on Kunafa and Shay.
Marina: Yalla, bye.
Nabra: Yalla, bye.