Walking in Their Shoes: An Interview with Suns Cultural Consultant Humaira Ghilzai

By Elspeth Sweatman

For everyone on the team at A.C.T., accurately portraying Afghan culture onstage is an essential part of telling the story of A Thousand Splendid Suns. “True-to-life characters and scenes are forged from an understanding of why people act in certain ways: how their geography, culture, upbringing, and history drive their thoughts and actions,” says cultural consultant Humaira Ghilzai, who joined the Thousand Splendid Suns team for the world premiere in 2017 to help A.C.T. achieve their goal of authenticity. “The main role of a cultural consultant,” she says, “is to bring cultural literacy to a project in order to create an authentic portrayal of Afghan people, their customs, and their languages.” During the development of A Thousand Splendid Suns, we spoke with Ghilzai to get her insight into Afghan culture.

Cultural consultant Humaira Ghilzai. Photo by Sutter Morris.
What does a typical Afghan family look like?

In general, an Afghan family consists of two parents (divorces are not very common), their children, and the children’s grandparents. For most families that live outside of a city, when a son gets married, he brings his wife into his parents’ home. When a daughter gets married, she joins her husband’s household.

In seventeenth-century poet Saib-e-Tabrizi’s poem “Kabul”—from which A Thousand Splendid Suns takes its title—Afghan women are the “suns that hide behind her walls.” To me, this illustrates the power of Afghan women. How powerful are women, within the family and within society as a whole?

Afghan women run the household, manage the family budget, and raise the children and arrange marriages for them. In Kabul today, around 30 percent of women work outside of the home. They have a significant impact on their children’s thinking, education, health, and social norms. There is an African proverb that captures the role of Afghan women perfectly: “Educate a boy and you educate an individual. Educate a girl and you educate an entire village.”

How important is theater and art in Afghan culture?
Storytelling is something we grew up with. Afghans have a long history of oral storytelling. I remember our family sitting around the radio and listening to weekly radio dramas. It’s a big part of the culture, along with poetry and proverbs. People often recite poetry to make a point or share a common experience.

(L to R) Nadine Malouf, Denmo Ibrahim, and Nikita Tewani in A.C.T.s A Thousand Splendid Suns (2018). Photo by Jim Cox.
What are some common misconceptions about Afghan culture?

People apply their own filters to another culture, another world. If I say an Afghan woman can’t go out without a burka, and you put an American woman’s filter on that, you might say, “Oh my god, this woman is a prisoner.” But that burka allows that Afghan woman the freedom to go about her business, to take her kids to school. If a woman is wearing a burka, she can move freely around a bazaar because no one knows who she is. The burka is not considered a terribly negative thing among women outside the major cities of Afghanistan. Because Americans are not familiar with it, it’s hard to put themselves in an Afghan’s shoes and look at burkas with the Afghan value system. But doing that is the only way to actually make sense of this or any other culture.

Do you think theater can help us address these misconceptions?

Absolutely. If it’s created with the community it represents, then it’s really powerful. Stories are the way people connect with each other.

A Thousand Splendid Suns runs through July 29 at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about Afghan culture? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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