Acting Toward Peace

There is a very simple exercise that we do in the Theater of the Oppressed to demonstrate the essence of a conflict: two people stand face to face; one person says, “I want it” and the other person replies “You can’t have it.” They repeat these, and only these, phrases to one another—each person trying to get the other to concede to her will by modulating her voice, moving her body, etc. The battle of wills, one desire against another, is a simple way to define conflict. In the real world conflict is layered with complexity. Competing levels of individual, communal, and systemic will are engaged in battle and the longer the conflict persists, the more fixed the ideologies become. How many marriages have ended because of irreconcilable differences, each partner receding into his or her own narrative structured to cast the other in the worst light possible? How many people arrange their lives around a story they've created about someone or something, rather than in response to actual events, becoming a character seeking distorted goals? Inflate this play to the level of a nation and see how those in power, who seek to consolidate more power, use storytelling as strategies of control.

New social, cultural, and ethical norms are created in order to justify repressive or corrupt laws and systems. Resources are allocated to those who participate in the narrative and kept from those who are “out” of the narrative. Everyday citizens, with little power and resources, must make choices based on sheer survival.  The decisions they make about how to navigate the conflict determines their future. The narrative constructed during times of conflict transforms normative and ethical frameworks into ones limited to the narrow parameters of the conflict. Often people, families, and even communities forget that they have made a decision of convenience and start to internalize the belief systems and ideology they have conformed themselves to. Thus, poverty of thought and imagination, fueled by fear and coercion, enforce the ideologies of conflict. People’s histories and the choices they were forced to make are left out of this narrative. In such a space, artists and culture workers can offer hope, build agency, and create a space where dialogue can occur, new possibilities are imagined, and actions are initiated toward change.

Story and art are vehicles for analyzing the world through multiple lenses and for imagining our responsibilities within that world. As a form of storytelling, the arts open spaces for debate, dissent, and dialogue about the systems of oppression that we experience in our daily lives. Furthermore, engaging the creative capacity of people is essential to any movement seeking to create a way out of the limitations imposed on us by the oppressive society—a society hardened by narratives of in and out, victim and victor. As an artist working in a conflict zone, particularly Afghanistan, the arts represent an extremely important process of self-reflection and social analysis; one that encourages people to think about alternatives to their current situation and helps to melt those rigid borders constructed in conflict narratives—be they personal borders or ones imposed from outside.

I recently led a Theater of the Oppressed (participatory theater for social change) training in Kabul for theater groups from three different provinces. At the end of the training I asked the artists assembled to evaluate one new technique, theory, or tool they learned. One artist from the province of Khost said, “Previously I saw the oppressed as the defeated ones; dead, beaten, or otherwise silenced for good. Now I see that the oppressed are always trying. Their struggle continues.” While this is a very small shift in perception, it is a huge re-evaluation of the role of the oppressed in society. The notion that the oppressed must concede to the oppressor’s might is a notion that is not only set down by the oppressor, the paradigm also greatly benefits the oppressor. Defeat, however, is never permanent, and while the oppressed may suffer many setbacks, it is their will to continue which keeps them in the game. The resilience of the oppressed is one of their strongest assets and, if activated and organized, is the very weapon that will bring about their own liberation. Any attempt to turn around conflict must believe in the capacity of the oppressed to solve their own problems and must strengthen their collective will.

The capacity to dream, articulate that dream, and then act to achieve it fuels liberation—even a dream as simple as wanting to ride a bicycle leads to bigger claims and activities. Working with theater artists in Afghanistan, it took us three, six-hour days of work to uncover simple personal desires they once had. The first two days we had to unload everything that got in the way: war, violence, fear, fighting, chaos, lack of infrastructure, poverty, etc. Though I was trying to get to their desires, the actors were showing me what they had to endure, what the road was like. I kept pushing them, honoring what got in the way but refusing to believe their desires were lost and forgotten. In one creative activity, I asked the participants to come up with an imaginary journey to find a lost desire. The embodied journey would include some aspect of the difficulties they faced in fulfilling that desire. The exercise was to help them reconnect with a deep desire as well as recognize that it was unfulfilled because of external forces.  They were not losers, their dreams weren’t trivial, but they were facing multiple oppressions that kept that dream from becoming a reality In the end, they expressed and remembered some of their oldest dreams: riding a bicycle, learning to swim, studying to be an artist. Creative visioning—coupled with aesthetic, experiential frameworks— is a crucial tool that gives people both distance and familiarity:  the distance allows for a space in which one can articulate desires while familiarity with a complex social mosaic creates pathways to get what they want. Arts-based practices can offer people a way to strategize, to map out the journey from here to there. In doing so, people are not only creating pathways for themselves but also pathways for others in society. In a conflict zone, one’s daily life is taken over by large, powerful forces. The ability to dream within that storm, to create amidst chaos, is a huge contradiction to the oppressive forces that want us to remain hopeless and confused.

When one person examines the world she lives in and subjects that examination to an artistic process, the result extends the artist’s thinking and becomes a sort of artifact attracting wider reflection.. When art is shared it builds relationships, as others are generously invited in to think about and expand on the artist’s personal vision. The exchange starts a process of questioning, analyzing, and processing. We are pulled into participating with the work of art, whether in our own thoughts or in a discussion with others. Whether or not we find an answer or fully formulate an opinion, we have expanded our thinking. We have spent time engaging with possibility and reflecting on the present. This process can threaten the persistence of conflict where perspectives need to remain fixed and solid. Melting certainty with creative experience transforms the ground upon which conflict rests. It forces people to consider a new idea, a different perspective, or an alternative narrative. It challenges us to acknowledge our limits. New thinking brings about new thinking, which brings about new possibilities.

At the end of this recent theater training in Afghanistan, I asked the actors to name one technique, idea, or exercise which they appreciated. Noorwali stood up and said that during this training he was able to think for himself, he was able to analyze problems and make his own solutions.  He said, “we made something out of nothing.”

Artists slowly stir up winds of change. As the conflict transforms, art ensures something green and fresh will be growing out of the rubble.

Is the artist more important (influential?) during—or after—a conflict?  

Artists are important before, during, and after conflict. It is not whether art or artists have a role to play rather, what role do they play? As times change, as goals change, as needs change, art and artists can and should address those needs. For example, during a conflict there might be a big need to call attention to the problem, to draw allies in, to bring information to the larger world. Artists who are engaged in the struggle for conflict transformation can and should apply their talents to support the larger movement. When conflict dies down and there is reconciliation and healing work to be done, artists can meet those needs through various creative tools and formats. Art and creativity is an important part of a healthy, functioning society. All people have to take on a role in transforming society, and all people can use their skills and talents to do whatever work is most needed. So we mustn’t instrumentalize the arts in order to say they are useful or valuable. We need to continually appreciate and engage with art, so that we remember that there is an important function the creative arts have and an important role for artists in this world.

Should artists be held accountable for their actions or inactions in a time of conflict? Why or why not? And if so, by whom?

An artist should be as accountable as any other human being for their action or inaction in a time of conflict. However, like many oppressed groups, artists are either invisible or hyper visible—meaning that their everyday efforts often go unnoticed and underappreciated, or they are singled out and made to feel bad about not using their tremendous power to solve all world problems.

The oppression that is directed at artists means that all art and art-making that isn’t hyper monetized is marginalized and trivialized. To sell a painting for a million dollars or to sell a million copies of a song is considered, in the dominant discourse, to be a success. Everything else is seen as useless and a waste of time. Think about the messages we see and hear that make fun of artists who don’t “make it” in this way. Young people are dissuaded from becoming artists by being told they will never earn a decent living nor find a spouse nor be appreciated and respected. Conversely, artists who are “successful” are derided when they speak up about a political or social issue. They are told to go back to making art, that their ideas aren’t important enough or that, because they make art, they aren’t smart enough to contribute in other fields. To hammer the final nail into the coffin, when times are tough artists are often pointed out and blamed for not doing more to transform society. The belief that art is important and deeply, personally meaningful is not used to uplift arts and the artist in society but used as a way to further blame artists for society’s larger problems.

So, amid these confusing and contradictory messages, how can an artist live and work with integrity? Sadly, most artists are isolated and atomized, unable to deeply use their creativity for powerful social transformation. If we cannot figure out how to honor, support, and appreciate the broad spectrum of creative workers in our society, how then can we point a finger at them for not doing “more”? The spheres of influence and artist can work within and who they can mobilize and reach is different depending on how each individual artist sees her or himself in the world. As long as artists are constantly fighting to just keep their heads above water, we will not see a systematic and fully vibrant engaged arts movement.

I would just like to say that I see all work as having the possibility of being creative and artistic and so we all use our creative capacities, in big and small ways, to contribute to this world. I’d like the intelligence and skills that come from using creativity to be appreciated, highlighted, and trusted much more than it currently is.

Kayhan Irani is an Emmy award winning writer, a performer, and a Theater of the Oppressed trainer.Through theater, storytelling, and art-making, her work creatively addresses real-world issues and builds spaces for interaction, dialogue, and deeper civic engagement.