Kazakhstan fights extremism through art

By Alexander Bogatik

The East Kazakhstan Drama Theater actors perform the play Shyrmauyk in Almaty April 17. [East Kazakhstan Drama Theater photo, obtained by Alexander Bogatik]

The East Kazakhstan Drama Theater actors perform the play Shyrmauyk in Almaty April 17. [East Kazakhstan Drama Theater photo, obtained by Alexander Bogatik]

AKTOBE -- Aktobe Drama Theatre enjoyed enormous success September 3 at the opening night of a new play about a young family that fell victim to terrorist recruiters.

"The play, 'Who's knocking on my door?', was performed in Kazakh, and is now one of Aktobe Theatre's regular performances," the administration of the Takhaui Akhtanov Aktobe Drama Theatre told Caravanserai.

The idea for the play came from the June 5 terrorist attack in Aktobe, when terrorists attacked gun stores and a military base. The play itself, however, was written long before by playwright and Senator Jabal Ergaliyev, and was originally called "Hopes would never come true".

The play is directed by Nurlan Jubaniyazov, who works at the Kuanyshbayev State Academic Kazakh Music and Drama Theatre. The state budget contributed 1.5 million KZT (US $4,300) to stage the play, in which 15 actors, including three school-aged children, perform.

Before performing the play for the public, it was examined by theologians, clergy and law enforcement officers. Aktobe Theater is the first host of the play -- it will be run in other cities' theaters as well as in different institutions, organisations and schools that have a suitable space.

Admission to the play is free. Despite the fact the play is performed in Kazakh, Russian speaking audience also attended showings -- the plot is understandable without words, according to the administration of the Takhaui Akhtanov Aktobe Drama Theater.

The play contains violence scenes and only viewers of age 16 and older can attend.

"Who's knocking at my door?"

The play tells the story of a young family who fell under the influence of foreign missionaries.

Spellbound by the destructive ideology of religious extremism, the family disowns their parents and turn their backs on their ancestors' values. The girl's parents, who married her off to a "jihadist", are not able to recognize their daughter anymore, and she avoids any kind of communication with people who used to be close to her. Her young family then leaves to join terrorists in Syria, where a tough fate and bitter disappointment awaits.

The first scenes of the play show a typical Kazakhstani home, with food set out on a dastarkhan and lovely colourful pillows and fineries on the floor. Events subsequently unfold while marching in combat, with the main characters now living in a military tent, sleeping on backpacks instead of pillows. Instead of friendly conversations with relatives, sounds of shouting and screaming can be heard.

In August, actors began to dive into their roles -- men grew their beards out and wore pants that exposed their ankles, while the actress wore the hijab every day.

"I have friends who espouse non-traditional Islam. I'm trying to understand them and talk with them to get deeper into my role. Of course, you get a little nervous that you won't get it exactly right, and then others will get it wrong," Kenes Kemalbayev, an actor at Aktobe Province Drama Theater, said on a KTK TV video story that aired August 11.

The main characters' dialogue contains many Arabic words, so actors had a hard time speaking their parts. The theater sent several educated elders to city markets to convince adherents of non-traditional Islam and individuals at risk of going down the path of extremism and terrorism to view the play.

"Out of respect for the religious sensitivities of Muslims, we asked the actors to pronounce Arabic words flawlessly. At the same time, we selected actors and actresses who don't partake in any harmful activities -- non-smokers and non-drinkers and also those who perform the religious ablution, the ghusl," Nurlybek Jubatkan, the general manager for Aktobe Drama Theater, told Vremya newspaper in an interview on September 4.

Reaching hearts through art

The play made a powerful impression on viewers, media reported. According to reviews, the most eerie and tragic impressions came during scenes showing the main characters' despair, and at the moment when the terrorists turned their automatic weapons on the auditorium.

According to the play's director, Jubaniyazov, it is necessary to speak to the public about the suffering of families who lost their loved ones because of recruiters.

"I've been thinking to put this play on for a long time. It talks about how important family and parents are to a person. You can't turn away from your parents or become a fanatic. You can't kill and in the same breath speak of fairness. Today, extremism is a first-order problem, and we will talk about it through art," Jubaniyazov told Caravanserai.

Alisher Majit, the chief expert of the city's youth engagement department, said everyone should see the play -- schoolchildren, college students, people of different profession, including law enforcement officers.

"I believe the play is a prevention tool, not a way of stopping terrorism, so they need to show it to everyone. But it would be better to turn it into a film!" Majit told Aktobe Times.

Art as a prevention tool

Kazakhstanis has a growing tradition of discussing the problems of extremism and terrorism through art.

In 2013, religious extremism was central in a play performed in the provincial drama theater in Atyrau. The play follows a man who falls prey to extremists while studying abroad; after becoming a fanatic, he breaks with his family. His mother, who cannot endure separation from her son, the shame and worry he causes, dies. Only years later the young man realizes his mistake.

Last year, actors at the East Kazakhstan Drama Theater put on the play Shyrmauyk (Spiderweb) at the behest of provincial heads and the Religious Affairs Department, and performed it for convicts at six prisons in Ust-Kamenogorsk. The play follows a young man who left for a foreign country to become a mercenary for a terrorist organisation. He pays for his radicalism with his freedom and understands his mistake only in prison.

This April, the East Kazakhstan Drama Theater performed the play in schools and state organisations -- in the Konkordiya Kazakh National State University, the Nur Mubarak Egyptian Islamic University, The Academy of Kazakh Sport and Tourism, and the Almaty Criminal Affairs Department.

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