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George Town Festival 2019: Screaming in Silence by Parastoo Theatre Team (Review)

Staging the painful truth of forced marriage in Afghanistan. 

PENANG, MALAYSIA – Performed by Parastoo Theatre Team, a group of Afghan refugees who are based in Malaysia, Screaming in Silence uses the form of Theatre of the Oppressed to raise awareness about child marriage in Afghanistan, following the life of a young girl forced into marriage with a much older man by her father and the community. Performed in Dari, Screaming in Silence was primarily crafted with the aim of simply telling the authentic truth behind this violent phenomena, raising awareness of the many refugees even within Malaysia.

The performance began as a baby is carried onto stage by her sister, waltzing onstage as she promises the child that she will never be living a life that she doesn’t want, full of hope that things will change by the time she grows up. But fast forward 11 years later, and that same baby has now grown up into a young girl, Laily, carrying a trash bag from the dumps, finding a strange excitement amidst her poverty as she expresses joy at finding a dress for her older sister Nazanin, and various paraphernalia to sell.

But the mood shifts when our attention is drawn to Gholam, her sleeping father, and Laily is warned by her older sister to be cautious of the situation. We quickly realise just how awful of a situation this family is in, from the abusive patriarch to being heavily in debt due to his gambling addictions, born from a desperate desire to break out of the poverty cycle, only to fall further into it.

As Gholam’s debt collector Sarwar comes knocking at the door, there seems to be only one solution – to marry off Nazanin to Sarwar’s nephew and sever the debt. The normalisation of how women’s bodies are objectified and monetised is already horrifying enough, and being reminded of how Sarwar himself is part of the problem, with his burgeoning collection of two wives and fifteen children, terrifying. Forced into accepting Sarwar’s proposal, Gholam remains reflecting on his decision, wondering if there’s any other way out.

As the family sits down for a simple breakfast of hot tea and flat bread (accurately emphasising their dire financial status), as Sarwar returns with his sister to broker the marriage. There is nothing but sadness that follows, as the gravity and reality of the situation hits the family in full force, the struggle to accept it evident on the entire family’s faces and in their eyes. As Nazanin learns of her inevitable future, she lets loose an outburst as she expresses her complete devotion to her family, ending her education prematurely just to support the family. In recalling her own mother’s child marriage and death by childbirth, she lashes out at her father, who responds only by scalding her with hot tea.

With the cycle of violence clearly established, Nazanin runs off, with Sarwar none the kinder, only emphasising that Gholam had better see the marriage through. Skip ahead in time to the next scene, and the family is already preparing for the impending wedding, as Laily sweeps the floor. Seemingly innocuous, it is when Laily suddenly grabs her mother’s portrait and embraces it, wishing her mother was still around that touches us, this bond between women and shared pain.

As the wedding procession comes in, so does Nazanin, as she seats herself beside her husband-to-be, the young Javid. But when Javid decides that he would prefer not to marry her, the far older Sarwar takes his place beside her instead, causing Nazanin to scream and launch into hysterics at the thought of marrying him. This only leads to Sarwar and Javid’s relatives to accuse her of being possessed by a jinn, and she is force-fed a narcoleptic to tranquilise her like a common animal, completely against her will. As the marriage pastor enters, he is visibly confused at the scene before him, with Nazanin unconscious. Explaining the situation to him, the family then decides to exorcise her, and surprisingly, the man to do that is the pastor. Putting on a necklace of beads and lighting a flame for his own protection, the pastor becomes a shaman to carry out the exorcism, even if he knows full well this is far from the truth. One is left horrified and disgusted at this supposedly holy man in charge of marriages, and how he allows all of this to happen despite knowing better. The final nail of the coffin then is that he gets paid either way, allowing him to profit off of Nazanin’s suffering, as compensation for his troubles, further revelation of the inherent corruption and flaws within Afghan society.

We are now in an interrogation room, where Nazanin is now placed in military custody, as she is questioned by a female officer. We learn that she has run away from her marriage, equivalent to a crime. Despite her protests and reasoning, even the female officer cannot help her, expressing that she is simply doing her job. It is then that the final twist of the knife occurs in this tale of woe – the officer offers Nazanin a way to be free of the crime by marrying the judge presiding over her case instead. Faced with an unending conspiracy to batter women down one man after another, Nazanin is left with no way out, the horror of society closing in around her as she refuses this plea deal, knowing that she will never escape.

We realise, with sinking hearts, the hard truth that it’s nigh impossible to escape from such institutionalised abuse. Thinking back to the scene at the start of the play, we realise how Nazanin’s promise of a safe home and good future for her sister is merely a wish that will never be fulfilled, thanks to the difficulty of changing an entire societal mindset. As the play quite literally depicts, no matter how loud you scream, no one can or will hear you, choosing instead to muffle and silence your voice until you too give up all hope. There is no clear solution out, until a drastic, revolutionary change happens, and it is all we can do to worry and wonder about the tragic state of affairs in Afghanistan as we leave the theatre despondently.

Performance attended 14/7/19 (Matinee)

Screaming in Silence played on 14th July 2019 at Auditorium A, Komtar, as part of the 2019 George Town Festival.

George Town Festival 2019 runs from 13th to 28th July 2019. For tickets and full programme details, visit their website here

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