Tears are running down Farsad’s face. He calls despairingly for his brother before breaking down, exhausted. “Lights off,” sounds brightly from the background. And where a moment before there was concentrated silence, the applause of hundreds of people now thunders through the room. Farsad bows briefly and gives a shy smile. Scene change on the stage of the National Theatre in Afghanistan.
The Afghan National Theatre Festival, which was held for the seventh time in 2011, is without doubt one of the most significant projects which the Goethe-Institut has initiated and helped to organise in Afghanistan since its reopening in 2003 – after twelve years of closure and as the first cultural institution to return. Today, the Film Festival and National Literature Forum also offer unique platforms for exchange between creative artists from all provinces, who meet regularly, not only in Kabul.
The reconstruction of state structures has been and remains an important step towards a working civil society. In this, it is not culture as an economic factor which is important, but above all the opportunity for different sections of the population to engage in culture and to promote awareness of the common ground in Afghan culture, the importance of education and the involvement of women in public and economic life in schools, communities and public institutions.
Without the funding available to the Goethe-Institut Afghanistan – not least thanks to the special funding from the Afghanistan Stability Pact – these important activities in cultural and education policy would not be possible. It costs money to connect actors from provinces who can often only travel by aeroplane, since the land routes are still too unsafe. However, the fact that theatre groups from Kandahar in the South, Herat in the West, Balkh in the North and Nangahar in the East, with their various dialects, languages and traditions, were all able to come together and exchange ideas in Kabul in 2011, despite the often tense security situation, is priceless, and also impossible to measure against the usual benchmarks of development cooperation.
Unfortunately, the (re)construction of cultural institutions by sometimes uncritical donors and the massive financial support in many areas have promoted a taker mentality and a sense of expectation, which often works against a handover of cultural work to Afghan institutions. Long-term networking and consultancy programmes between German and Afghan cultural institutions could promote a more effective creative and economic attitude towards the institutions and actors.
The search for an Afghan pop idol, much hyped in the media and lacking nothing compared to its Western counterparts, is just part of today’s culture. The internal Afghan debate about the definition of their own values and traditions and the question of what “Afghan culture” actually means are just as important. This kind of self-determined discussion can give rise to crucial inspiration for the development of Afghan society in terms of culture and education policy; customised education programmes and free economic enterprise are particularly dependent on players being able to develop their own intellectual space.
One example of how new ideas can come about from a collaborative approach is the Berlin puppeteer Wieland Jagodzinski, who gave the first of his many puppet workshops in Afghanistan during the fourth Theatre Festival in 2007 and thus inspired ten young actors to ask the Goethe-Institut for support in founding their own theatre group. With these specialist and organisational qualifications, the Parwaz Puppet Theatre is now itself training a new group in Northern Afghanistan for the Goethe-Institut – and is playing to thousands of Afghan children on behalf of large international institutions.
Interest in the German language has continued unabated in Afghanistan; German teaching at universities outside Kabul has been expanded further since 2011. The Goethe-Institut will continue to support this process both technically and in terms of content, and promotes further training in the language and in methods and didactics for prospective and current German teachers.
Mehdi is still at school, but has been coming to the Goethe-Institut regularly for years. He wants to study architecture so that he can help to rebuild his home town of Kabul. If possible, he’d like to take a semester abroad in Germany. Because he enjoys German lessons so much, he has first applied for the Institut’s internal training programme for German teachers. Many of the course participants at the Goethe-Institut, which is one of the largest institutes in the region with up to 1,500 registrations per year, are learning German for practical reasons. They hope to gain opportunities for one of the well-paid jobs in the projects run by German development institutions – or the chance of a scholarship for a university in Germany.
Returning from a four-week language course scholarship, Mehdi was often asked if he wouldn’t have preferred to stay in Germany. “You know, I never would have thought it, but it’s not all beautiful and perfect in Berlin either,” he replies thoughtfully. Young people like him will be able to bring about real change in Afghanistan, if we let them.