In honor of National Poetry Month, Kojo explores new collections by local poets and finds out how poetry impacts our lives amid social, political and cultural upheaval.
In this new play by Charles Randolph Wright, an American hip-hop star and an Afghan interpreter navigate romance in chaotic, war-torn Afghanistan. The young woman has an intriguing past, having posed as a boy in order to attain the freedoms and status of a male in her society. Issues of race, religion and culture emerge in this complex love story. We speak with the playwright and an Afghan woman, now a student at an American university, who consulted on the script.
- Faheema Eissar Student, Hanover University, Indiana; Volunteer Administrator, Initiative to Educate Afghan Women(IEAW)
- Charles Randolph Wright Resident Playwright, Arena Stage; Director, writer, producer of film, television, and theater
Clip From “Love In Afghanistan”
In this scene, “Show Me Afghanistan,” Duke, an American hip-hop artist (Khris Davis), asks Roya, an Afghan interpreter (Melis Aker), to take him off Bagram Air Force Base and show him the true Afghanistan.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's an unlikely love story. A hip-hop star travels to Afghanistan to perform for the American troops and he falls in love with an Afghan woman working on the U.S. military base as an interpreter. He learns that she undertook a practice known as bacha posh, in which girls are dressed as boys to be less restricted in what they can do and where they can go. The plot takes a number of twists and turns but it's a window into life in a country we know mostly through a long war, and perhaps one we do not know as well as we think.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss this is Charles Randolph Wright. He's a playwright, screenwriter, director and producer for film, television and theater. He directed the hits "Motown: The Musical" on Broadway and "Sophisticated Ladies" at Arena Stage. He's currently the resident playwright at Arena Stage. His new play "Love in Afghanistan" is on there through November 17. Charles Randolph Wright joins us in studio. Welcome. Good to see you.
MR. CHARLES RANDOLPH WRIGHTThank you very much. It's great to be here.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Faheema Eissar. She is a student at Hanover University in Indiana. She's also a volunteer administrator at the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women IEAW. That's a nonprofit that helps Afghan women pursue studies in the U.S. She advised Charles on the "Love in Afghanistan" script. Faheema Eissar, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. FAHEEMA EISSARThanks for having me.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for our guests, call us at 800-433-8850. Charles, tell us a little bit more about your new play. We don't want to give it all away because I was fascinated in the twists and turns and how it unfolds and how I was wrong most of the time when I was guessing. But what's...
WRIGHTI love that you were wrong, first of all. That's fantastic.
NNAMDIMost of the time. What's the story?
WRIGHTWell, I -- the story is about a hip-hop artist who travels to Bagram Air Force Base to perform for the troops. And there he meets this -- he sees this Afghan interpreter, this woman who is stunning and pursues her. And it's a Romeo Juliet kind of love story where it's this instant attraction for the two of them in an unlikely place. And then through this story you discover different things about them. We talk about the masks that people wear -- that all people wear, the different sides of performers that what they must do to perform, who they must be.
WRIGHTSo in the story telling itself you discover different aspects of these people. And what I loved the most I think is that I have four people on stage that you really have never seen on stage before. You don't have these types of characters typically in a play in this country. So it's the Afghan interpreter, her father who is also an interpreter, the hip-hop artist whose mother is British Jamaican. So these four worlds collide in this journey in, I guess, unexpected ways, since you didn't know where it was going. So it is unexpected.
NNAMDIFor people like me who have seen and enjoyed your work before and who do not live inside your head, you've directed a number of hit musicals and plays. You've written, produced and directed television and movies. But we do want to know, how did you end up writing a play set in Afghanistan?
WRIGHTThis is so unlike anything I've ever done. It's completely out of my comfort zone. I was here directing the play "Ruined" two years ago. And I read an article about the practice of bacha posh, which is about young women dressing -- young girls dressing as boys for various reasons, for education, for safety. But it affected me so much I couldn't get it out of my head. And I started pursuing these stories online everywhere I could find things about this. And Bacha posh translates as dressed as a boy.
WRIGHTAnd I thought, how do I tell this story? I want to write this play about this. And I went to the head of Arena Stage, Molly Smith, and I said, I have this idea. I can't get it out of my mind. I have to do this. And she just pushed me. She said, go. And it's been very raw for me. It's been a place that I didn't know. And because of it, it had an entirely different approach to this. I planned to go to Afghanistan this past summer. And because of different sanctions, because of different things I could not go.
WRIGHTAnd, as I say often to Faheema and to people, Afghanistan came to me. And so I was very fortunate to meet -- now Faheema's my daughter. I have adopted her officially and -- well, unofficially, I should say, if she will allow that.
NNAMDII was going to say, show me your papers.
WRIGHTExactly. I'll create a paper. And I've met so many people who have helped me in this process discover how to tell that world authentically. But I tell it through the eyes of this character who goes there. So he's an outsider as I am.
NNAMDIFaheema, I don't even need to be here because Charles just very smoothly introduced you into this conversation. You advised him on this script. And it's my understanding you were happy to have that chance. What do you think about how Afghanistan is portrayed generally in the media in this country?
EISSARWell, first thing when I came here in 2009, I was watching a movie -- TV. It was news on the TV and the headline was 'war with Afghanistan -- war in Afghanistan.' And all they showed was the soldiers who were shooting and hiding behind the walls and, like, walking around with heavy armor. And I was like, seriously, this is the picture you have of us? There's a country with millions of people who live normal life who are normal people. It's not war all the time. It's not all war. That's what I really wanted to say. It's not all war.
EISSARExcuse me -- there are so many things happening that people do not see. And very -- I was very excited to hear this from Charles when we met and he explained what he was thinking. And I was really surprised and shocked at what he was thinking and wanting to do, because it was a totally different view on Afghans, and especially Afghan women. Because when I introduce myself to people as an Afghan girl, people look at me in shock. And several times jokingly people have asked me for passport because they cannot believe like I'm a...
NNAMDIYou are not the stereotype that we have come to accept of what an Afghan woman is supposed to look like. But your meeting with Charles was fortuitous in more ways than one because we mentioned the practice of girls dressing as boys. It turns out that you yourself were bacha posh when you were younger.
MR. DONALD BLANCHONFirst, can you talk a little bit about that practice and why is -- I mean, how...
NNAMDI...how did that come about?
WRIGHTI know. it's -- I told you, the universe decided to give me a gift, that's it. I mean, the long story -- the short story is a friend of mine -- I went to study in London my junior year in college. And the guy sitting next to me, we ended up becoming roommates, several of us in London. He went and lived in Kabul for six years. And ended up writing this book "Shakespeare in Kabul." Qais Akbar who wrote the book with him -- that's Stephen Landrigan -- Stephen is one of these connectors that knows everyone in the world. I'm sure you two have been at a party somewhere.
WRIGHTAnd he said -- I told him about this play I was working on and he said, my goodness -- I just remember him saying, oh my goodness, the way Steve would say, I just met this young woman who is exactly this. And that's how this happened.
NNAMDISo it's not only that you do not look in the stereotype Afghan appearance that we've come to expect in the United States. You also had the experience of being bacha posh. Can you talk a little bit about what that is and why it's done?
EISSARWell, as you said in your introduction that it literally translates as girls dressed as a boy. And people do it for various reasons. Families decide to -- decide for one of their daughters to be a bacha posh and -- for various reasons. Sometimes it's because they want to think that they have a son. It's more higher status to have a son. In families who have more daughters, they really want to have a son. So they want to -- maybe sometimes I think that they want to create this illusion in front of them that they have a son, because they so desperately want a son. But in my case...
WRIGHTAnd you have to have -- it's honor -- you know, to have a son is honor. And that's the thing that's...
EISSARAnd also it's protection too that -- like it's safer to have a son going and coming out of your house than all daughters. But in my case it was very...
NNAMDII was about to say, typically it's the parents who make the decision but you are atypical in a variety of ways.
WRIGHTIn every way.
NNAMDIIn your situation it was not your parents. Can you talk about why you chose to take on the role of a boy?
EISSARAs I say, it was totally different in my case. My parents never asked me or pushed me or even discussed this with me that whether I want to be one or not. Because I have three wonderful brothers that my parents love and I love them dearly. So we did not have a lack of boys in the house. But I was rebellious in so many ways. And I thought that there were so many restrictions on girls. And I couldn't just accept them. It was so hard to...
NNAMDIWhat could you do as a boy that you could not as a girl?
EISSARYou could wander on the streets freely.
NNAMDIYeah, that's something we do like to do.
WRIGHTAnd when you think about how -- the thing that amazed me is that in families that don't have boys, they can't just go shop. They can't run errands. They can't do various things in the streets.
EISSARDuring Taliban, yes.
WRIGHTYes. During that timeframe, which is partially when the character in my play grows up, you know, it's the thing of those restrictions. At first it was for education. When I first read about this I thought boys would get the education. But there's so many different levels. And when I met Faheema it was extraordinary to then decide to do it for so many reasons.
EISSARYeah, in my case it mostly was that I could not accept most of the restrictions that was put on me as a girl. And I -- for a while my father always wished -- he still does -- that he wished I was a boy. And maybe that was partly -- it played into myself conscious that I decided to pursue this. And when I decided one day -- I had long hair, both my parents loved it but one day I go outside and come back with extremely short hair. And I just decided to go outside with pants and shirts, which was very unlikely.
EISSARAnd my parents did not say anything. The first time I did it I was kind of trying to see their reaction. And they did not react so bad. They did not even react surprised. But the entire time that I was outside of my scarf, outside of my skirt, that typical girlish dress that we have to wear, I felt the freedom. Not because the scarf was so much on me but still I was a different person. People did not look at me weird. People did not check me on the street. They did not stare at me, as I was not wanted to walk on the street. And I was like, this works.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us and you're wondering what we're talking about, we're talking about the play at Arena Stage "Love in Afghanistan" with Charles Randolph Wright. He is the playwright. He's also a screenwriter, director and producer of film, television and theater. He's currently the resident playwright at Arena Stage. This play "Love in Afghanistan" is on display there through November 17.
NNAMDIHe joins us in studio with Faheema Eissar. She is a student at Hanover University in Indiana. She advised Charles on the "Love in Afghanistan" script. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What's your impression of life in Afghanistan based on how it's portrayed in the media here, 800-433-8850? Charles, that brings me to my next question. How did your impressions of Afghanistan change through working on the script and learning about Faheema and her story?
WRIGHTIt's interesting. When I first started working on it I never had a title. And they kept saying, we need a title. And Arena was about to put out the schedule for the next year and they said, Charles we need a title by the end of the day. And I thought -- and they said, well let's call it "Afghanistan." And I said, no because our image -- my image of Afghanistan is war. That's the image. And I said, there's so much more that I've discovered.
WRIGHTSo love in -- I said, it's about love in Afghanistan. And I went, oh that's the title, "Love in Afghanistan" because it's love of country, love of people, love of family and then this young love that happens between these unlikely two people. But I started to realize the beauty of this country. And the people that I've met from there are all extraordinary and they have -- the thing that impressed me the most is how much they do love their country and that they want to return and help this country as opposed to running away from it. And it's something that I thought about in this character, when I was writing about. Because our perception is, you know, we're the great American saviors.
WRIGHTWe want to go in and save you. But the people that I've met, they're the ones that will change their world. I mean I expect Faheema to be the president of Afghanistan. And I will come and be a celebrity there. How's that?
NNAMDII've heard the line somewhere before. I'm blanking on where.
WRIGHTAnd it happened in the script because of that. It's completely that.
NNAMDIFaheema, when you were in your late teens you chose to dress like a woman again. What brought you to that decision?
EISSARWell, answering that question I always think about why I started to be a bacha posh was that I could not accept the picture of a girl that my society gave me at that time. But as I grow up, I became a boy on many levels. I was freer. I could do many things that I normally could not -- I could stay back, I could just go outside and all these things. But what happened was I never became a son to my parents. And I realize for awhile there is this contradiction, there's this paradox in you, that you keep thinking that who really are you and what do you really want from yourself?
EISSARAnd so I started thinking about it, and I thought that when I decided to change, when I was between 19 and 20 years old, I thought that, well, that picture of a girl is what the society gives me, but what is a picture of a girl that I want to give back to my society? And that is how I came to accept myself more and more consciously become a woman, a girl that I could not probably be before I was bacha posh. I just took it for granted that, oh, I’m a girl. And I hated myself on so many levels, but…
NNAMDIThat's one of the fascinating things that "Love in Afghanistan," explores, or I should say reveals, that her perception, whether we're talking about in the play, the Afghan interpreter, or in real life, Faheema, is that her perception of what she wants to be as a girl or a woman…
NNAMDI…was influenced by the fact that she was bacha posh and had experienced what it meant to live as a boy.
WRIGHTShe talks about, at one point, about having zero -- you have nothing, then you're given everything and then you have it taken away again. And I thought, what is that? How does that feel to be entitled, to have all the things that you get, that kind of freedom, and then to have it happen? When I first started writing this, this character just came to me, both of these characters. And what was astonishing was to meet Faheema, who when she first read the script said, actually, I'm both Duke and Roya, that she was both of the people, which I guess is appropriate.
WRIGHTAnd she helped me really put a face on the people, finding this identity. And the hip-hop character in the piece is from an upper class family. His father's a lawyer…
NNAMDIHere in Washington, D.C.
WRIGHTHere in Washington, D.C. His father has a law firm in D.C. The mother is British Jamaican. But he is pretending to be this gangster rap artist. So he has these dual identities, one that he uses to perform, the one that he really is. He meets this woman who's boy and girl. So they're relationship happens on many, many levels. And that just exploded as I started working on it.
NNAMDIGot to take a break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. There's some interesting questions from callers that I see coming up. If you'd like to call the number's 800-433-8850. Did you know about the practice of bacha posh, girls dressing as boys? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the play, "Love in Afghanistan," currently at Arena Stage through November 17th, that's at 1101 6th Street, in Southwest D.C. Frankly, you can't miss it. Joining us in studio is Charles Randolph Wright. He is a playwright, screenwriter, director and producer. His most recent play is the aforementioned, "Love in Afghanistan." He's joined in studio by Faheema Eissar. She's a student at Hanover University, in Indiana. She's also a volunteer administrator at the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, that's a non-profit that helps Afghan women pursue studies in the U.S.
NNAMDIShe advised Charles on the "Love in Afghanistan," script, but she was not the only person you turned to. You heard from a lot of people, including former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Talk a little bit about that.
WRIGHTWhen I first started writing this, Molly saw Janet at the theater. She had gone to…
WRIGHTMolly Smith from Arena Stage. And many people -- it's amazing to be at Arena because you turn around and there's a Supreme Court Justice and there's a congressman and there's the head of Homeland Security.
WRIGHTAnd so she saw her and said, Charles Randolph Wright's working on this play. Would you look at it? And she said yes. And I thought, when will she ever read this. She doesn't have time to read my play. And I hadn't even finished it. It was my very first draft. And they sent it to her. I was in Los Angeles, actually working with Mr. Gordy on "Motown." And I get this call saying we have notes from Ms. Napolitano. And I said what? And so I said email them to me. And they said no. No, we want to send it to you. I said can you just email me the notes?
WRIGHTAnd they said no. And so they sent me the script and it had post-its throughout the script. And it was astonishing. And in the letter to--at the beginning of this she said, this sure beats reading briefs. And I thought, you know, and a lot of things -- she would say I've never seen a person like this. I don't think that she would -- and then she would say, well, perhaps she is. She's unusual. This could happen if you do this or different things. How could someone leave the base? What happens on the base?
WRIGHTSo I had many questions and then through her there were several people -- Doug Wilson, brought in several people to help us. And different people from the military, people who had been at Kabul, people who had been in Bagram, really helped authenticate and validate things that happened in this, so that what the characters go through could actually happen.
NNAMDIAt what point in the process of this creation did you meet Faheema?
WRIGHTI had written the script. I think I had just finished the main draft, because it took me forever to get to the end. I couldn't decide how I wanted it to play out. And I had just finished it and the door opened and she walked in. It literally was that way. So I had created the story, I had created the world and then I met her and we started working on it. And she gave me a D when she first read it.
NNAMDII was about to say, did you also mark up the script yourself?
EISSARThe first time I read it I was like this is a D paper.
WRIGHTShe gave me a D when she first read it.
NNAMDIAnd what do you give it now?
EISSARNo. I would not.
NNAMDIHere is Matthew, in Annapolis, Md. Matthew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MATTHEWHi, hello. Okay. So I have a question for Faheema, is it?
MATTHEWYes. Okay. So there are not a lot of people…
EISSARIt's very hard to hear.
MATTHEW…in my school from the Middle East.
NNAMDIOh, Faheema -- let me put you back on hold, again, until we can get her earphones properly adjusted so she can hear you, because right now she's not hearing you very well. But that shouldn't stop others from calling. The number's 800-433-8850.
EISSARThat's better now.
NNAMDIYou can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. See how quick that was? Matthew, you're back on. Go ahead, please.
MATTHEWHi, hello. Okay. So my question is, going to school in America right now, do you think that people are really misguided about just the concepts of Islam because from what I've talked to with other people, there's a lot of talk of like misogyny and everything. And I don’t really believe that. What is your opinion on that?
NNAMDIYes. Just put her right in the middle of the most controversial issue that we have in the country right now, the view of Islam that is held by Americans.
EISSARWell, a lot of people just hearing that I'm from Afghanistan, they just ask about how is it that I'm here, I’m doing this. Like, I go out with my friends and I do the normal college stuff.
WRIGHTWe won't ask what that means.
NNAMDIRight. We won't.
EISSARBut I do get this a lot, that people are misguided on so many levels, that they have very few information about Islam, about an Islamic society. I have lived in, for the longest time. I get a lot of questions, but most of the time I just refuse to answer. But it's very unfortunate that a lot of people have a very, very narrow, stereotypical -- especially in Indiana and Kentucky, that I get to see a lot of people. They have this stereotypical idea that it's violent, it's all about hatred, it's all about killing, it's all about this and that. And I think I do not want to get into it a lot.
NNAMDIBut I think the point that she's trying to make is that -- and this comes out in the play also -- that yes, you live in a society that can be violent, but people live lives that are remarkably normal in that situation because you cannot live out of fear. The other point I'd like to make that one can learn in the play, is how much more people in Afghanistan know about life in America, than we know about life in Afghanistan. Charles, the play addresses a number of political issues, but one that stands out in particular is that of Visas to come to the U.S.
NNAMDIWe've talked about the Visa issue on this show. Presumably, this affects a number of Afghans. Can you talk a little bit about that and why you chose to make it a part of the storyline?
WRIGHTI intentionally chose to make the characters interpreters, first of all because of communication, because of language. And in that process I discovered all of the Afghan interpreters, I mean there have been 8,000 interpreters. They've been promised Visas by our government because they are interpreters and they've been helping our government. Unfortunately, a lot of times many of them are targeted by the Taliban as traitors. And their lives are in jeopardy. They're places in these situations and many of them want to leave, unfortunately, because they can't have the life that they would like to have there.
WRIGHTAnd they're unable to. They have not been able to get these Visas. And I thought I want to deal with this. I want to place this out there because we have been there for 12 years. Afghanistan is no longer over there. They're part of us. And it's really important to me that people that come to this play see that. That we are linked, in whatever way that is, and so we have a responsibility to help and take care of people that we now have this bond with.
NNAMDIOnto Brian, in Herndon, Va. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANYes. Hi, Faheema, very fascinating discussion. I've just returned from being two and a half years on the ground in Afghanistan and I worked interviewing local Afghans with a U.S. government program from about Kandahar down to the border of Pakistan and then Helmand, down to the border of Pakistan. So I'm just fascinated about this girl/boy thing. How that could possibly work. It's extraordinary because even young men in the areas that I was in, face danger of assaults from other tribes. So I'm just curious about how this could be that a girl could dress up as a boy and then still be safe.
NNAMDIAnd you were there for two and a half years and were completely unaware of this phenomenon, Brian?
WRIGHTYou probably saw many young women, and they obviously were very successful because you didn't realize that someone like Faheema, you didn't know.
EISSARWell, especially the place that you've been there, Brian, that is a very traditional society. You will not see a lot of women out. Down to Kandahar, that place, I do not think if you have ever seen a woman walking around there, let along having a woman dress as a boy because it's mostly the tribal thing is that some tribes -- the Pashtun tribe, particularly, they have very strict tribal codes that play into this. And for me I lived in Kabul and I have a very liberal father and my mother is very supportive. And so the society was more open and I could -- it was freer and safer than the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
EISSARAnd so I could play around with this and I knew many other girls who did the same. I never got along with them because I was thinking differently and they were thinking differently, but, yeah, I got away with it very safely and nobody found out. Some people -- I would walk on the street and they would bet on me and I hear, I bet she's a girl, I bet she's a boy, I bet she's a girl.
NNAMDII can imagine.
NNAMDIBrian, thank you very much. We're running out of time very quickly, but Charles, what is it that you hope people take away from this play, apart from an evening of enjoyment and enlightenment?
WRIGHTA different view of somewhere that is not right in front of us. That we must be a global society. I think we, especially as Americans, become very myopic, we're very insular. We live in this box. And I think we no longer do that. And what better place to deal with that than in the theater? That we must open our minds.
NNAMDIYou are Arena Stage's playwright in residence. What does that entail?
WRIGHTIt entails being able to -- it entails getting paid to write. I mean it entails eating, but it also entails -- what was so great about this program -- there are five of us who are resident playwrights -- that I was able to do a piece that I normally would not do. "Love in Afghanistan," I was open at Arena to try anything possible and to step out of the comfort zone, as I mentioned earlier. I was able to write about a world I didn't know and now a world that I have come to love and people I've come to love.
NNAMDIThat's funny, Molly never asked me to be a playwright in residence.
NNAMDICharles Randolph Wright is a playwright, screenwriter, director and producer for film, television and theater. He directed the hits, "Motown," the musical on Broadway and "Sophisticated Ladies," at Arena Stage. He's currently, as we mentioned, the resident playwright at Arena Stage. The new play, "Love in Afghanistan," can be seen there through November 17th. Thank you for joining us.
WRIGHTThank you so much.
NNAMDIFaheema Eissar is a student at Hanover University. She helped and advised Charles on the "Love in Afghanistan," script. Thank you so much for joining us and good luck to you.
EISSARThank you. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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