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Photo: Rosa Furneaux
Haroon Ebrat reaches for his notepad, where he has written down audience requests. The entrepreneurial immigrant runs Afghan Theatre TV, a Farsi-language variety show, out of his garage in suburban California.

I’m impressed how this immigrant from Afghanistan took it on himself to keep his culture alive by broadcasting a variety show from his garage. Many viewers have responded with gratitude.

Jeremy Lybarger writes at Pacific Standard, “Afghan Theatre TV operates out of a soundproof garage 40 miles east of San Francisco. … It’s an unexpected setting for a studio whose Farsi-language variety shows stream online 24 hours a day to more than a million viewers a month, according to the station. But much about Afghan Theatre TV is unexpected, starting with its credo that politics and show business don’t mix. …

” ‘We entertain,’ says Haroon Ebrat, the network’s 66-year-old founding impresario and star. On most afternoons for the last six years, he’s shuffled out to his garage in house slippers to host the live call-in shows that have made him famous, or at least recognizable to the Muslims who mob him, groupie-like, in restaurants, supermarkets, and parking lots across the Bay Area. The calls — 500 an hour, Ebrat says — come from all over: Canada, Germany, Russia, Australia, and many of the dozens of other countries that make up the Afghan diaspora. …

“Afghanistan has been in a quasi-permanent state of war for over three decades, historically exporting more refugees per year than any nation besides Syria. Most Afghans decamp to neighboring Iran or Pakistan, but approximately 124,000 live in America. …

” ‘He has preserved the culture of Afghanistan,’ says Ebrat’s 36-year-old daughter Shabnam, who hosts a call-in show of her own, often accompanied by a local psychic who counsels callers about work and love. Such preservation has come at a cost, both literal and cultural.

“Afghan Theatre TV is a family business, as are many of the more than 3,000 ethnic media outlets. … In between these segments of original programming, the station airs Afghan music videos and concert footage, and on some nights local musicians perform traditional songs like a live house band (hence the soundproofing). Ebrat, a prolific filmmaker, also screens the movies he’s made, which are ultra-low-budget mash-ups of comedy, action, and music starring him and his family.

“The station boasts a handful of Bay Area advertisers — kebab shops, halal supermarkets, Muslim-owned tax services — but Ebrat relies on his children to keep the lights on. (Shabnam is a real estate agent; [older brother] Burhan works with cars.) …

“Ethnic media, produced by and for immigrants, faces unique challenges. The relatively small niche audiences, for example, can discourage advertisers. … Even large outlets struggle to survive. Channel 18, a multilingual network that broadcast out of Los Angeles for more than 40 years, filed for bankruptcy in 2012 before finally shuttering its international format in 2017. …

“Part [the] experience includes reckoning with cultural disagreements within the same family. Shabnam Ebrat has become a target for older or more traditional Muslims who see her appearance — dyed-blond hair and make-up — as an affront to God. She doesn’t wear a hijab either. On Instagram, where her selfies reach about 23,000 followers, commenters debate whether or not she’s going to hell for posing in miniskirts and bikinis. …

“There’s the added stigma of being outspoken in a society that, to many Western onlookers, muzzles women. In Afghanistan, some women have no public identity of their own. They’re referred to simply as the wife of, daughter of, or sister of. …

“Overall, though, politics are absent from Afghan Theatre TV, where the maxim is that entertainment brings people together and politics drive a wedge. Haroon is more interested in the zombie horror movie he has in production than he is in discussing the White House. His only stated political aspiration, however vague, is to restore peace in Afghanistan.” More.

Seems like a good idea to stick to entertainment. One thing I’ve noticed while working with Afghan refugees, whether their first language is Farsi or Dari, is that individuals are, well, individualistic. Like groups everywhere, Afghans may have attitudes that diverge a good bit.

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Photo: David Bedard
An example of the resurgence of indigenous theater is
Our Voices Will Be Heard, directed by Larissa FastHorse. It was performed at Perseverance Theatre in 2016 in Alaska. 

Another way that culture gets shared, revitalized, and preserved is through theatrical performances. Alaska and Hawaii, in particular, are seeing a resurgence of indigenous theater.

As Frances Madeson writes at American Theatre, “The pace at which producers of Hawaiian and Alaskan Native theatres are creating original offerings specific to their lands and peoples and mounting them on their mainstages ranges somewhere in the giddy spectrum between prestissimo and full-tilt boogie.

“ ‘We’re experiencing a Native arts revival right now,’ said Alaska Native playwright Vera Starbard, whose autobiographical advocacy play Our Voices Will be Heard was performed in Juneau, Anchorage, Hoonah, and Fairbanks. …

“Part of the exhilaration comes as a result of resources to match the rhetoric of support for Native theatre arts. In 2016 Starbard was granted $205,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to sustain her while she creates three full-length Alaska Native plays over three years. …

“There is also an attitudinal shift by institutional gatekeepers toward inclusion of Native theatre artists, some of whom have been maintaining the vision for a very long time with minimal support.

“The first Hawaiian-language play presented at the Kennedy Theatre at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa was in February 2015, ‘in the theatre’s 51st season,’ said Tammy Haili’ōpua Baker, who wrote it. … She repeated for emphasis: ‘Half a century to get anything Hawaiian on that stage.’

“But now that the vessel’s been unstoppered, there’s a growing groundswell of audience demand for shows with Native-centric realities and expression.

“ ‘The success of Our Voices was completely community-driven,’ said Starbard. …

“Tlingit actor and playwright Frank Henry Kaash Katasse said he sees a category shift. ‘Indigenous stories are now seen as American stories.’ …

“Katasse teaches theatre in schools to Alaska Native kids, and encourages them to take acting seriously. ‘They didn’t even know this was a career option,’ he said.

“Indeed, to keep pace with demand, artistic directors Harry Wong III at Kumu Kahua Theatre and Eric Johnson at Honolulu Theatre for Youth (HTY) on Oahu, and Art Rotch of Perseverance Theatre in Juneau and Anchorage, are prioritizing both actor training and play development. …

“In Fairbanks, Alaska, [Allan Hayton, language revitalization program director at Doyon Foundation] pursues theatre as a vehicle for cultural and linguistic survival.

“ ‘We are restoring balance,’ Hayton said. ‘In indigenous tradition theatre is performed to achieve something for the people and balance for the world in the natural environment. Theatre is a healing art form in which we can address very serious and difficult issues safely, and offer a larger healing for society.’ …

“For Starbard, Alaska Native theatre artists literally standing on thousands of years of storytelling tradition have nothing to prove.

” ‘Our goal as Native artists and theatremakers is not to develop this “uncultured” audience so they can come in and understand what a Western theatre is like. I think that’s the attitude taken sometimes,’ she said, choosing her words with great care. ‘I’m proud of Native artists who are pushing back against this mindset. It’s not about how we can help our people adapt to the Western theatre, but how we can help Western theatre to be an even more dynamic and beautiful thing.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Magda Saleh collection
Egypt’s first prima ballerina, Magda Saleh, as she is today and in ballets of
the 1960s and 1970s.

I like to include stories about Egyptian culture whenever I see them because of my special connection to two naturalized citizens who were born in Egypt. Here is an intriguing New York Times article by Brian Seibert about an Egyptian who excelled at ballet and even performed with the Bolshoi in Moscow.

“Once upon a time, the Egyptian ballerina Magda Saleh danced the dream role of Giselle in Moscow as a guest star with the mighty Bolshoi Ballet. …

“Recently, in the elegant Upper East Side apartment that she shares with her husband, the American Egyptologist Jack Josephson, Ms. Saleh, 73, recounted how her life had been ‘punctuated’ by shifts in Egyptian political history. …

“In the era just before she was born, Egypt was no longer a protectorate of Britain, but British influence was still high. Her father, who would become a prominent academic, studied agriculture in Scotland and brought home a Scottish bride, Ms. Saleh’s mother. Their children spoke English and Arabic at home, French at school. …

“Her first ballet teachers were British, and she traveled to Britain to study ballet. By then, though, Egypt had undergone a revolution and soon it was at war with Britain. Young Ms. Saleh was called home, where she discovered that her British instructors had left.

“But the Egyptian government was now friendly with the Soviet Union, and new teachers arrived. In 1959, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture created an Academy of Arts, with a Higher Institute of Ballet, and imported teachers from the Bolshoi to run it.

” ‘This was unprecedented in Egyptian history,’ Ms. Saleh said. ‘We have this very ambiguous attitude toward dance and especially women dancers …

“ ‘None of this would have been possible,’ she continued, ‘but for a confluence of time and circumstance and one man, the first minister of culture’ — Tharwat Okasha, an army officer with vision and tenacity. …

“Ballet education came filtered through translation, with old Russians who had fled to Egypt during the Russian Revolution converting the instructions of the newly arrived Soviet dancers into broken Arabic.

“Yet the school developed rapidly, and in 1963, Ms. Saleh and four other female students were offered scholarships to study at the Bolshoi in Moscow. She was 19 — or ’19 going on 11,’ she said, ‘because we were so sheltered.’ Now they were on their own in the bitter cold of the grim Soviet capital, sitting on radiators before class to thaw. …

“The experience was tough. ‘But character forming,’ Ms. Saleh said. ‘The Russians taught us with love. Not love for us. Love for dance. They instilled this in us.’

“Back in Cairo, diplomas in hand, they wanted to dance. So the ballet institute mounted ‘The Fountain of Bakhchisarai,’ a 1934 Soviet ballet about a Polish princess abducted by a Tatar Khan. The Egyptian public loved it. The president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, awarded the dancers the Order of Merit.

“Even more meaningful to Ms. Saleh was the praise of a poor old man after a performance in the southern backwater of Aswan. ‘People had insisted that Egyptians wouldn’t accept Egyptian ballet,’ she recalled misty-eyed. ‘But we were right!’ ”

Read more and see some lovely pictures at the New York Times, here — and also here, at Ahramonline.

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Photo: fractalx via VisualHunt.com
Street art outside Nottingham Playhouse. The city has a plan to integrate arts and culture into all aspects of life.

What do we know about the city of Nottingham? We know about the sheriff, I guess, and his adversarial relationship with Robin Hood. But did we know that modern-day Nottingham is really into the arts? A website called Arts Professional wants to enlighten us.

Christy Romer writes, “Nottingham has committed to embedding culture in education and healthcare as part of an ambitious ten-year vision for the city.

“By 2027, the city aims to make ‘culturally-inspired lifelong learning’ available for every person in Nottingham, and establish cultural programmes, research and partnerships that enhance health and wellbeing.

“The vision … aims to achieve national and international acclaim for the quality and diversity of locally-produced artistic work.

“ ‘Culture will unlock potential in our city. The next ten years will continue to see a transition that takes the city from its industrial, manufacturing past, paving the way to reimagine the city for generations to come,’ the [Cultural Statement’s] foreword reads. …

“Plans include supporting schools to develop a world-class cultural learning offer and giving every person opportunities to access creative skills and careers. …

“The City Council also aims to work in partnership with public health professionals and local commissioning groups to understand and enhance the health and wellbeing of the city’s residents. …

“The city announced its bid for the European Capital of Culture 2023 title in August.” More.

Alas, the Brexit vote to leave the European Union means that UK cities will not be eligible. Here’s hoping that Nottingham’s worthy ambitions are not derailed by Brexit and that the UK government will help the city find the resources to carry out its plans. (One has to wonder if the ramifications of leaving the EU was ever fully thought out.)

AmeliainHull, it sounds like Nottingham wants to give Hull a run for its money!

Art: Louis Rhead, “Bold Robin Hood and His Outlaw Band,” New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1912.

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Photo: eGuide Travel
The highlands of Papua, New Guinea, are among the isolated places that linguists search for speakers of dying languages.

I’ve blogged before about linguists and others who are trying to preserve languages spoken by only a few people. The belief is that there is intrinsic value in such endangered languages and that they are key to understanding cultures. Recently I saw that one group is focusing on a particular manifestation of rare languages — their poems.

Fiona Macdonald writes at the BBC about the Endangered Poetry Project.

” ‘They fly to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and there they take a bus for three days and then they hike over a mountain and then they take a canoe and then they get to this little bay with 300 people,’ ” she reports, quoting Mandana Seyfeddinipur, head of the Endangered Languages Archive at London’s SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies]. …

” They are ‘PhD students of 25 with a digital camera, a digital audio recorder and solar panels.’ …

“ ‘They live with the communities for months at a time, and develop social relationships, and talk to them and record them, and then they come back and they give me this SD card. … ‘The only record that we have of this language is in this tiny SD card.’ …

“The newly launched Endangered Poetry Project aims to tackle [language] loss at another level. ‘Languages are dying out at an astonishing rate: a language is being lost every two weeks,’ says the National Poetry Librarian Chris McCabe. ‘And each of those languages has a poetic tradition of some sort.’ …

“The project has issued a call-out to members of the public, asking for poems written in an endangered or vulnerable language. ‘In the first week, we’ve had over a dozen submissions in about 10 languages,’ says McCabe. ‘That includes poems in Breton, and poems in a dialect of Breton called Vannes. We’ve had a poem in Alsatian, and the Sardinian dialect Logudorese. We’re interested in these variations in language in different places as well, which can often be markedly different from the established language. …

” ‘You get a focus on place – in poems we’ve received from Sardinia, for example, there’s a focus on the mountain range there,’ says McCabe. ‘It shows you where people felt drawn to for inspiration in the landscape. Also, the style of a lot of Gaelic poems is very lyrical, and often uses repetition, a lot like a song. In that poetic tradition, you see how the division between poetry and music is quite slight – they often cross over between one and the other. The poetry tells us a lot about what kind of artistic experience people like, as well as what’s important in their geography.’ ”

Lots more here. Very interesting stuff.

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Photo: Talia Herman for The New York Times
Girls wearing traditional dance attire on the Yurok Indian Reservation in Klamath, Calif. Young people are learning to make regalia the old-fashioned way, from materials like elk and deer sinew.

As dedicated tribal members revive customs that were once disparaged, young people are responding. For youth from the Yurok tribe in California, hands-on creation of traditional dance materials has been the starting point for an awakening of cultural pride.

Patricia Leigh Brown writes at the New York Times, “The gathering known simply as ‘Uncle Dave’s camp’ begins at daybreak on the pebbled banks of the Klamath River, the age-old spruce and redwoods on the bluffs shrouded in mist.

“Here on the Yurok Indian Reservation near the Oregon border, so remote that certain areas have yet to receive electricity, young male campers sit on cedar logs while keeping tabs on a river rock heated in a fire. The rock, hand-hollowed and chiseled with basketry patterns, contains a molten glue made from the dried air bladders of sturgeons.

“The syrupy concoction is a crucial ingredient for making feathered headdresses, hide quivers, obsidian-blade sticks and other forms of ceremonial dance ornaments, or regalia, that are at once works of art and living conduits to the spirit world.

“The fishing camp that David Severns, a tribal member, started over 20 years ago has grown into a grass-roots culture camp dedicated to making regalia the old-fashioned way, before mail-order. The source is nature itself — elk and deer sinew, baleen from a whale stranded in the river and delicate fibers from wild irises culled from forested high country. It is part of a broader revival of ancestral ceremonial practices, including dances and songs, among native youths. …

“ ‘Regalia is collective medicine,’ said Mr. Severns, 54, who spends most of April through October sleeping under the stars with the campers and his wife, Mara Hope Severns, 49, from the Kanatak tribe in Alaska. ‘To make them, you’ve got to have a pure heart, because the character of a person is reflected.’ …

“Each spring, Mr. Severns and the young men erect the camp from logs that have washed downstream during winter rains. Soon, the stretch of river known as ‘Blake’s Ripple,’ for his maternal great-grandfather, springs to frenetic life. It’s a place where finely-crafted cedar boxes holding eagle and condor feathers are hollowed out with an adze, and brothers braid each others’ hair. …

“ ‘You wear your culture,’ said Melissa Nelson, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa who is an associate professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University and president of the Cultural Conservancy, a native-led indigenous rights organization. ‘Young people are hungry for meaning,’ she added. ‘The opportunity to do hands-on work with abalone, clam beads, pine nuts and other materials is a thread to a healthier and more sustainable way of being in the world.’ …

“To the Yurok and other tribes, the regalia, resplendent with abalone and the scarlet crests of woodpeckers, are a dazzling life force. ‘It’s just another bird until you pray for it, burn a root for it, have a dance leader bless it — then it’s regalia,’ Josh Meyer, a camper turned teacher, said of the eagle feathers he was assembling on the beach for the Brush Dance, a healing ceremony for sick children. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service makes eagle, condor and some other feathers available for religious and cultural use. …

“ ‘Spirituality is the basis of who we are as a people,’ said Susan Masten, a former president of the National Congress of American Indians who served as Yurok tribal chairwoman. ‘For young people, a strong sense of culture and spirituality helps with whatever they face out in the world.’…

“Mr. Meyers, the teacher, grew up with alcohol in the family and a lot of anger. ‘A lot of us didn’t have father figures in our lives,’ he said. ‘We looked to Dave for that.’

“On his exquisite regalia box, Mr. Meyers chiseled a triangle pattern meant to suggest the back of a sturgeon, burnishing it with a torch to give it a coppery patina. ‘I showed up one day and never left,’ he said of the camp. ‘Making regalia is a big part of who I am.’ ”

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Floyd Davidson
Genuine “Eskimo Kiss.” Iñupiat sharing a kunik at a Nalukataq festival in Barrow, Alaska.

For Asakiyume and others interested in inventive efforts to preserve the culture of marginalized groups, this New Yorker story may be of interest.

“Iñupiat people, a tribe native to Alaska, did not have a written language for much of their history,” reports the magazine’s Culture Desk. “Instead, for thousands of years, their culture was passed down orally, often in the form of stories that parents and grandparents would tell and entrust to their children.

“In recent years, those stories, and the lessons and values and history that they contain, have become harder to preserve, as the young people of the tribe, growing up in the modern world, have drifted further and further from traditional ways.

“[A new] video, which originally appeared on ‘The New Yorker Presents‘ (Amazon Originals) and is based on a story by Simon Parkin, is about a recent experiment in transmitting Iñupiat culture through a new medium: a video game … in which an Iñupiat child travels across the wilderness to find the source of the bitter blizzards that have been hitting his village.

“Before they began building the game, E-Line developers travelled up to Barrow, in northern Alaska, in the deep, dark cold of January, to meet with tribe members and to lay the groundwork for the project. The resulting game is called Never Alone. …

“Never Alone was created through a highly collaborative process: ‘We’ve had everybody from eighty-five-year-old elders who live most of the year in remote villages to kids in Barrow High School involved in the project,’ Amy Fredeen, the C.F.O. of E-Line, told Parkin. …

“As Clare Swan, who sits on the tribal council that had to approve the project, recalls, ‘We just said, “Shoot, of course it’s difficult.” Anything that’s worth it is.’ ”

More at the New Yorker, here.

I imagine that elders and students got a thrill out of this project in different ways. I would love to know to what extent their feelings overlapped. Did the elders care more about the preservation aspects and the children about making modern media?

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