Being a refugee and having gone through the devastation of having to flee his country and start from scratch in a new land has not robbed Afghan playwright/theatre director Saleh Sepas of his zest for life, his kindness for others, or his hope for the future.
After two long years of prep (interspersed with stop/starts due to the pandemic), Saleh’s new play And Then Came Spring – a collaboration with Instant Cafe Theatre – is set to be staged from July 22-24 at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
“This play is about those among us who are oppressed and don’t have a voice. Those who are in isolation, without any rights. It is a story about the people that we don’t really take any notice of; a seemingly unimportant few who have no supporters around them, who are trying their best and are really frightened about the challenges they face every day,” he says, full of conviction.
It is not the first time Saleh is doing something like this. With Parastoo Theatre, which he founded in 2017 here in Kuala Lumpur, he has written and directed several plays including A Bitter Taste Of History, In Search Of Identity and Screaming In Silence.
Last month, together with Iranian documentary filmmaker Amin Kamrani, Parastoo Theatre presented Converging Paths at PJPAC.
Saleh, 39, fled to Malaysia half a decade ago with his family. After an initial period of depression, frustration and isolation, he slowly but surely started turning things around, not just for himself, but for his family and the community around him – refugee and non-refugee alike.
Saleh, who strongly believes that theatre is a form of therapy, began using theatre as an outlet to help the refugees cope with their daily struggles.
“Remember, these refugees were not actors then. When we first started, many of them had mental and emotional issues, and there was a sense of hopelessness enveloping us all,” explains Saleh.
“But theatre was like a medicine. When they began acting on stage, they started to have feelings of hope again. There was now an audience, and a platform to say something what’s more is that they found that people were actually listening, and wanted to know more about their situation.
“With Parastoo Theatre, we were creating opportunities for them to come out of isolation, to develop their talents, to be engaged in activities that were allowing them to be seen and heard,” he adds.
“There was real power at work here.”
Life of a refugee
In 2016 because of conflict and persecution back home, Saleh, together with his wife Masooma and their three children, left Afghanistan and sought refuge here in Malaysia. They were, and continue to be, among thousands of others who have done the same.
Malaysia hosts some 182,960 refugees and asylum-seekers and 2,661 of them are from Afghanistan, according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
“I had lost everything. My family was in a very bad situation,” he shares. “I didn’t have money, I didn’t have a job, we didn’t have a place to live in, my children were sick, I didn’t know anyone here things were really horrible.”
Though he was consumed by a deep sadness for leaving his country, there came a point when Saleh decided he had to do something to support himself and his family here.
“I could not wait for an NGO or someone else to come along. If you want to change your life, I thought, then you must start with yourself. And so I did just that.”
Saleh was born and grew up in Afghanistan; he studied Fine Arts at Kabul University and had been writing and directing with various media organisations, including BBC Radio, for 10 years, before arriving on Malaysian shores.
“I advocated and supported the Afghan community, especially women and girls, because they don’t have any opportunities for education, are not allowed to drive and have many other rights curtailed. In Afghanistan more than 90% of women are oppressed.”
In the Malaysian capital, Salleh had started Parastoo Theatre (“Parastoo” means “Swallow” in Persian, the beautiful bird whose true home is the sky, and is also often used as a pet name for young girls), through which he hoped to help children and women affected by war to find a voice.
The director uses “Theatre of the Oppressed”, a methodology created by the Brazilian dramatist Augusto Boal, based on the idea that theatre should inspire revolutionary change in society.
“In the beginning it was very difficult. None of the refugees believed in the arts. They told me it was a waste of time. They would rather play games on their mobile phones than spend any time rehearsing. But when they came and saw the plays, they loved them.”
Saleh credits his US trainer/cultural activist Kayhan Irani and Lilianne Fan of regional humanitarian organisation Geutanyoë Foundation for supporting his initial foray into theatre here. He had hoped then, as he does now, that Parastoo Theatre would be able to reach out to the wider refugee community to help them overcome their various challenges. Saleh also hopes that his plays will “open the eyes and minds” of audiences to what the refugees have to endure.
His wife, the bright-eyed Masooma, 30, once an achorwoman for media back in Afghanistan, takes on two roles in Saleh’s upcoming play and says that being part of Parastoo Theatre has made a world of difference for her.
“Before, I went through a lot of hard times. But theatre helped me a lot. First, it made me busy. Then I could see see a lot of people who are kind and good. I found a lot of friends. The situation totally changed for me before and after theatre,” she says.
Theatre for social change
This is the first time on stage for 36-year-old Sayed Hassan. Once a fruit seller in Iran, he never dreamed he would ever act in front of an audience!
“It’s hard!” says Hassan, who plays the role of the doctor in And Then Came Spring.
“But I now can understand better what women in Afghanistan go through. I had always heard about these things, but never really felt it the way i am feeling it now in the play.”
Saleh’s new play And Then Came Spring, which he has co-written with much-loved local theatre personality Jo Kukathas, is a sequel to 2018’s Screaming In Silence.
“That show was about women’s rights and child marriage, and because Malaysia is not spared of this phenomenon, I feel many people will be interested. (According to Unicef, between 2007 and 2017, approximately 15,000 cases of child marriage were recorded in Malaysia, occurring in all communities across the country.) This play is more fleshed out, has a larger cast, and digs deeper into many subjects such as gender, being a refugee, women’s rights and community challenges,” he says.
Saleh enjoys working with Jo and reminisces about how they first met.
“It was 2018, and Mahi (Ramakrishnan, a refugee rights activist from Beyond Borders), introduced us.
“We met and Jo listened to my ideas. She didn’t talk much then, but after that we met many times. I invited her for our show, she invited me for her show. In 2019 we had a performance called Blank in which she stitched together performances by two refugee actors and three Malaysian actors – it was the first performance that we worked together. It was very good,” says Saleh, grateful for the opportunities that have come his way.
And Then Came Spring was also awarded the Boh Cameronian Grant for New Productions 2022.
When asked what he does in his free time, Saleh says very modestly, “I find food and non-food items to distribute to refugee families.”
Though he loves Malaysia, he says that he is always on edge.
“For me, there are two sides to being here. The level of culture here is very good – people from all religions living together and respecting each other. My country needs this. People here have also been very kind to us, and I have many Malaysian friends, like Jo. We work together and learn from each other. I don’t feel alone as a refugee anymore.”
On the flip side, he says, is the ever present knowledge of his refugee status.
“I am ‘homeless’ and my future is dark. I cannot stay here forever. And even now, when I walk on the streets outside, I am afraid because it is very difficult for a refugee to ever feel safe.”
But Saleh is not one to dwell on the negatives for long. In fact, in the near future, plans are already afoot to open an arts centre for refugees in a mall in KL, and he’s been busy ironing out those details, making things happen.
Saleh shares with enthusiasm: “There will be all sorts of classes here – photography, documentary making, music, theatre, film. Right now, there isn’t such a place for refugees. And there are so many of us who want to learn. So our classes will be open to all refugees from all communities.
“There will also be a library so they will be able to read, and present their ideas online. We want to connect refugees with other communities through books, through reading, knowledge and the arts. We want to give people hope for the future.”
More details here.