'A Thousand Splendid Suns' is a journey through 3 decades of Afghan life
Last month, the Seattle Opera held an event called “Jashin: A celebration of Afghan arts.”
The event was created to highlight Afghan history, culture, and arts — topics that can be lost between constant news stories of war and violence. It was also created as a way to lead up to the opera’s newest production — the world premier of "A Thousand Splendid Suns."
On a February day, Kabir Mokamel stood in front of a series of photos depicting painted murals.
"The piece is actually about this Afghan girl. She's actually living in the U.S. now," he explained. "She's bringing to the U.S. a richness — historical, cultural, and art."
The mural is of a young girl, holding a brightly colored map of Afghanistan. Next to her is the phrase: “I will build you my homeland.”
Mokamel, co-founder and creative director of the artist-activist group ArtLords, was in Seattle showcasing artwork included in "Jashin: A celebration of Afghan arts,” a multi-faceted production and performance celebrating Afghan history, culture, and arts.
Alongside ArtLords' exhibition of rescued artworks was an embroidery project by local Afghan women, a documentary about the Afghan National Institute of Music, and a performance by a celebrated rubab player.
ArtLords was established in 2014 in Kabul, Afghanistan. It began as a group of friends, artists and activists who wanted to represent an Afghanistan that looks beyond warlords or drug lords and considers the country’s vast artistic output and rich cultural history.
"We are trying to actually gather our strength back and do something positive and creative for Afghanistan, which is needed more than any other time," Mokamel said. "The country has a lot to offer in terms of culture, art, or history to the rest of the world. It was a beautiful country. And still, it is a beautiful, beautiful country with a lot of potential."
The Jashin celebration was also created as a way to introduce Seattleites to the Seattle Opera’s newest production — the world premier of "A Thousand Splendid Suns."
Originally a novel by Khaled Hosseini, "A Thousand Splendid Suns" tells the story of Mariam and Laila, two Afghan women.
Over the course of three decades, the audience watches as Mariam and Laila are brought together under Taliban rule. They face unimaginable hardships and sacrifices, but find strength in one another.
"This one is a grand opera — truly the magnitude of it, the length of it, the orchestration is out of this world," said Ashraf Sewailam, a baritone who plays Hakim in the production.
Sewailam said he is happy to be part of the world premiere of the new opera. Having grown up in Cairo, Egypt, he said it is exciting to be sharing part of his culture.
The production is the operatic directorial debut of Afghan film producer and director Roya Sadat. Sadat said she drew on her own experiences to inform the opera.
Sadat lived in the same town as one of the main characters growing up. Like the characters, she has spent her life working to create space for herself, and her art.
The novel on which “A Thousand Splendid Suns” is based came out in 2007. So much has happened in Afghanistan since then, but Sadat said the operatic version retains its timeliness.
Sadat said she takes energy and inspiration from the women standing up to the Taliban in Afghanistan now.
"They're the only people who stand for their rights and they're really courageous, they are really brave," she said. "They stand for themselves."
Sewailam said he is also thinking about how the play will be received. But for him, this story goes beyond Afghanistan.
"The plight of female oppression is universal," he said. "That's the takeaway — that we have to remain vigilant about about women's rights and women's dignity."
"A Thousand Splendid Suns" finishes its run at the Seattle Opera this Saturday. You can find more information about the Opera, and how to get tickets, at this link.