Written by Humaira Ghilzai
Khaled Hosseini created my first cultural consulting gig. A theater company was staging the first production of his novel The Kite Runner and he wanted the play to feel authentic. Naturally, when a friend and international bestselling author asks me to help, I say, “Yes!” I jumped in and have since consulted on nine stage productions, several scripts and a Hollywood film.
As a Cultural Consultant, my main goal is to bring cultural literacy for authentic portrayal of Afghan people, their customs and the Dari language. I hack away at stereotypes and generalizations, and spend a great deal of time explaining Afghanistan’s history so there is a better understanding of why Afghans pray differently from Saudis, or how Afghans communicate with their body, and how 35 years of war has affected the Afghan people’s mindset.
I work closely with the playwright, director, costume designer, set designer, props team, production marketing team, voice coach and the actors to achieve authenticity in every aspect of the production. I guide the directors away from using a burka when they’re itching to make a political statement. I encourage costume design teams to avoid Pakistani readymade outfits that can be purchased in Berkeley and instead provide them with photos of Afghan women inside their home, something that is rarely available through an online search.
Most playwrights and artistic directors do exhaustive research on Afghanistan and its people. Reading books and looking at photos without context, however, just scratches the surface of a culture. True to life characters and scenes draw on understanding why people act in certain ways: how their geography, culture, upbringing and history drive their thoughts and actions.
Simple things like references to fish, ocean and seas don’t work well because Afghanistan is a landlocked country. More nuanced issues, like women’s headwear in the Middle East and Central Asia invites confusion and at times creates unintentional biases. You might say, a headscarf is a headscarf, but I’m here to tell you it isn’t. Here is a brief explanation.
An Afghan woman wears a chadar, a cotton headscarf which usually covers part of the head and shoulders, while Iranian women wear the chador, which is a large piece of black, floor-length, heavy fabric that wraps around the whole body, just exposing the face. When in public, Arab women wear the hijab, a thick headscarf that fully covers the head just exposing the face whereas some Afghan women wear the burka, a full-length headdress that covers the face with a small mesh window for viewing the world.
One might say, so what? If the differences are so obscure, who will know the difference? After all, most of us write for a general audience. As a writer, playwright or film maker—in addition to good writing, good grammar, good dialogue, interesting plot—we owe our audience an authentic experience, which gives them a better understanding of a culture they’re engaging with through our art. As a fellow writer, I encourage you to look deeper. If you’re writing about a country you have not lived in for at least 10 years, find someone who has, and I can assure you, your writing will be a lot more moving.
I love the fact that Afghanistan is written about so passionately and so often, but I do wish that authors, playwrights, and filmmakers took the time to consult an Afghan on the authenticity of their work. As I work on my own novel, Unraveling Veil, which is set in San Francisco and Afghanistan, I spend a great deal of time thinking about how my Afghan characters speak, walk, think and interact. I often translate the English prose to Dari just to see if it sounds authentic.
In the spirit of cultural understanding and breaking stereotypes, I invite you to two opportunities to see creative works by native artists.
In February of 2017, American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco will stage the World Premier of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, which has sold over 16 millions copies around the world. The book is adapted for the stage by Ursuala Rani Sarma, a UK-based playwright, and directed by Carey Perloff. I’m the Cultural Consultant on this production. If you want to learn about what Khaled thinks about his book’s adaptation to the stage, see my interview of him.
This fall, Golden Thread Productions presents Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat by award-winning Egyptian playwright Yussef El Guindi. The play shows how the representations of Arab Americans and Muslims in the media are fraught with references to terrorism and backwardness.
I hope that you will have the opportunity to see these plays. Also, I hope to lend my expertise about Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Muslim world to those of you who are writing about that part of that world. All engagements with WNBA members are complimentary if you mention this article.
WBNA-SF member Humaira Ghilzai brings cultural literacy to film and theatre productions for authentic portrayal of Afghan people, their customs and language for an enriched audience experience. Humaira writes the blog Afghan Culture Unveiled and is the co-founder of Afghan Friends Network, a nonprofit dedicated to educating girls, women and boys. Her website is www.humairaghilzai.com