Fighting the Forces of Darkness
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Fighting the Forces of Darkness

Afghan actress Parwin Mushtael relives her struggle against extremist intolerance in Human Cargo’s The Road to Paradise.

Actress Parwin Mushtael, pictured in her native Afghanistan, portrays a character based on herself in Human Cargo's The Road to Paradise  Photo courtesy of Red Eye Media

Actress Parwin Mushtael, pictured in her native Afghanistan, portrays a character based on herself in Human Cargo’s The Road to Paradise. Photo courtesy of Red Eye Media.

The Road to Paradise
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street)
Runs to Nov. 28
$20 – $37

What is especially significant about last Friday’s Paris attacks and the Charlie Hebdo massacre earlier this year is that they were not just blows against the West, but against Western culture and a diverse, open society. The Paris targets—a concert venue, ethnic restaurants, a soccer stadium—were likely chosen in part because they represent modern values antithetical to the ignorance, hatred, and fear that drive Islamic State and other extremists.

Parwin Mushtael has come face-to-face with that ignorance and hatred in her native Afghanistan. It led to the murder of her husband and forced her to flee the country with her young children, first to Pakistan and then to Canada. The reason for her family’s persecution: she was a prominent actress and a representative of female empowerment.

Happily, Mushtael has been able to resettle with her kids in Toronto and to continue practicing her art. She relives her story in dramatic form in The Road to Paradise, a three-part play from the Human Cargo company, presented by Crow’s Theatre and opening tonight at Buddies in Bad Times.

The play, written by Jonathan Garfinkel and Christopher Morris, dramatizes the Afghanistan war from the perspective of women and children, focusing in turn on a young Pakistani suicide bomber, an Afghan immigrant, and a Canadian soldier. Along with Mushtael, the impressive cast includes Pakistani film star Samiya Mumtaz and well-known Toronto actress Christine Horne, also currently to be seen in Paul Gross’ Afghanistan war film Hyena Road.

Mushtael herself was known in her homeland for her work in theatre, film, and—most controversially—television. “After the withdrawal of the Taliban, I was the first woman to appear on TV. So I was singled out, of course,” she says, speaking in Dari through interpreter Omid Ahmad. “The Taliban had just been defeated and left Kabul, but that [oppressive] environment still existed. No one had the courage to even leave their house. That’s the reason I got famous—I was known all over Afghanistan for being the woman on TV.”

And for the Islamic fundamentalists, who believe a woman acting is shameful and immoral, that was an outrage. She received death threats and was once physically attacked in the street. Her husband, a taxi driver, was harassed for not keeping his wife at home. One evening in December 2008, the backlash turned tragic. He was lured from their house by a man who insisted he wanted to talk, only to be shot to death in the street.

As chance would have it, just two months previously Mushtael had met with Morris, Human Cargo’s artistic director, who was in Kabul seeking participants for the project that would become The Road to Paradise. “After my husband was killed, the first person I called was Christopher, to tell him I couldn’t do the play,” she says. “I couldn’t speak English; all I could say to him [in English] was, ‘My husband is dead,’ and then I started crying.”

Morris was able to find a translator and learn what had happened. He and another theatre colleague, German-Canadian director Corrine Jaber—who had worked with Mushtael on a daring Kabul production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost—were able to help her escape to Pakistan. Morris wrote about her plight in the Canadian Actors’ Equity newsletter, which spurred members of Calgary’s theatre community to raise funds for her. After seven uneasy months in Pakistan, she and her children, Sara and Ahmed, were eventually able to immigrate to Canada.

“When I got to Toronto, Christopher helped me again,” Mushtael says. “He found me a house, he bought me dishes—he helped me in so many ways I can’t even mention. I didn’t know anyone in Canada, so anything I needed I used to call Christopher and his wife [Gillian Gallow, the show’s set and costume designer]. I’m very grateful to them for all they did for me.”

Morris, in turn, asked Mushtael to share her experience for his project. The slowly evolving play had begun at CFB Petawawa, where he had interviewed soldiers and their families, and he had visited Afghanistan to do the same with that country’s army. “But once this event happened with Parwin, it was very clear that the Afghan section of our play had to change,” he says. “Her story became all-encompassing—it felt like the important story to tell.”

Parwin Mushtael in a scene from The Road to Paradise  Photo by Chris Gallow

Parwin Mushtael in a scene from The Road to Paradise. Photo by Chris Gallow.

The play, initially known as Petawawa, then retitled Dust, had its premiere at Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects as part of the Enbridge playRites Festival (the venerable new-work showcase that also recently spawned Nicolas Billon’s Butcher). For that rough first version, Mushtael’s role was played by Deena Aziz. The new iteration, extensively rewritten by Morris and Garfinkel and renamed The Road to Paradise, has Mushtael performing her part in Dari, with English surtitles.

The actress says she’s perfectly comfortable reliving her painful story onstage—and besides, it isn’t just hers: “It’s the story of many women around the world, and especially in Afghanistan.”

Indeed, Mushtael has long cast herself as a representative of modern Afghan women, defying the strictures against her sex imposed by the Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalists. When the Taliban were in power, she ran a school for girls out of a room in her house. Eschewing the traditional burka, which she hated, she once appeared in public disguised as a man. But her most defiant gesture was to pursue an acting career.

“I had to do it for the other Afghan women and girls,” she insists. “I wanted to lead, to show them the way. To show them that a woman can work, a woman can go out and pursue her dream. And [as an actress] I wanted to portray the pain and problems that Afghan women face in everyday life.”

She claims those who opposed her, including members of her husband’s family, are victims of Afghanistan’s turbulent modern history, going back to the Soviet occupation of 1979-89. “This is the result of 35 years of war in Afghanistan—we have these many illiterate, ignorant people who are against the improvement of society,” she says.

Since leaving her country, Mushtael has been able to continue acting. In 2012, she re-teamed with director Jaber and her Afghan theatre troupe for an international touring production of The Comedy of Errors, which played Shakespeare’s Globe. And her daughter Sara, now 16, has also caught the acting bug. “She wanted to know why Christopher didn’t cast her in the play,” Mushtael says with a laugh.

After its run at Buddies, The Road to Paradise will have single performances at the Aga Khan Museum on Dec. 2 and CFB Petawawa on Dec. 5. Morris would also like to tour it to Pakistan, where it would be hosted by Mumtaz’s home company, Ajoka Theatre in Lahore. It’s just a matter of convincing the Canadian arts councils that provide touring funds. “They have obvious safety concerns,” Morris says. “But it’s important that we share the work with the communities that we’re doing it for.”

He’d also love to take it to Afghanistan, but for Mushtael that’s out of the question. At the suggestion of returning to her native land, the actress emits a rueful laugh. “Right now, the situation isn’t good enough for me,” she says. “There’s still danger and risk.”