With just under four weeks until Sahar Speaks opens at Theatre 503 we continue our series of interviews with the company that are bringing the stories of female journalists from Afghanistan to the stage. We spoke to Sonali Bhattacharyya, playwright, whose new play ‘Behind the Blast Wall’ explores the relationship and experiences of mother and daughter Sparghai and Ghuncha in Afghanistan under Soviet, Taliban and American occupation.
“I was keen to be involved in the project – to continue to give these women a voice, and to listen to what they have to say.” – Sonali Bhattacharyya, Playwright
Had you heard of the ‘Sahar Speaks’ project before you were asked to be involved in this production?
I hadn’t heard of it until Steve Harper at Theatre 503 first alerted me to the project as he thought I might be a good fit for the stage adaptations. I read the pieces on the site straightaway and was struck by the honesty and bravery of the women journalists. I thought many of the pieces were ripe for a stage adaptation, especially as we don’t see feisty, opinionated, educated and politicised Afghan women like this on U.K stages, possibly any stages!
Tell us a bit about your play.
My play is called ‘Behind the Blast Wall’, and it’s an adaptation of Sparghai Basir Aryan’s piece ‘Kabul in 1979 and 2016: A Mother and Daughter Reflect on Change.’
What excites you most about telling this story?
I was excited by the challenge of dramatising what is quite a personal and reflective piece of journalism. Sparghai’s writing is full of irony and pathos, as she reflects on the damage the Soviet, Taliban and U.S occupation have wrought on her country. I had to find the dramatic heart of the story in order to tell it – the big, overarching theme, as well as the conflict.
Is there any resonance with any personal experience for you in the story?
Yes – I’m the child of a refugee and an economic migrant, so the themes of having to leave your home to seek safety, and always wanting to return, really chimed. I also strongly identified with the self-mythologising of the characters, as I recognised it from my own family. I mention in the play how important it is to be able to create your own mythology when you’ve lost everything, in order to maintain your sense of who you are.
Have you ever adapted a real-life account before?
I’ve never adapted a piece of journalism before, it’s been really interesting. I’ve felt a great responsibility to tell Sparghai and Ghuncha’s story with as much emotional honesty as possible. That is, not to give a verbatim account of the Huffington Post piece, but to be sensitive to the heart and subtext of Sparghai’s writing, and to try to write the surprising, engaging, and enjoyable play her story deserves.
The over-arching theme of all of the stories of the women who have written them is the curtailment or complete embargo on their freedom of speech. Did this affect the way you approached writing the play?
It’s why I was keen to be involved in the project – to continue to give these women a voice, and to listen to what they have to say.
What are you most looking forward to about the your play being staged?
I always like to experiment with form and how the story is told, so it’s always exciting but also nerve-wracking to give my work to a director and actors for the first time.
Has writing this play changed your world view in any way?
I’ve learned there are many parallels between how some Afghans view their occupiers with how my family viewed the British occupation of India during the Raj. It’s reminded me of the unifying nature of anti-imperialism. It was really good to read these women’s well-informed, articulate and ultimately hopeful views on this subject.
Follow Sonali on Twitter: @fullfatchicken | See more of her writing on her website: www.sonaliwrites.com Sonali is currently writer in residence at The Coterie: https://www.thecoterieplatform.com
Book now for Sahar Speaks: Voices of Women in Afghanistan at Theatre 503 October 15th & 16th 2017 at 7.45pm.
Each performance is followed by AfterWords: A Post-Performance discussion with a panel of specialists on Afghanistan.