Hjalmar Jorge JOFFRE-EICHHORN: Act with Empathy


Hjalmar J. Joffre-Eichhorn, co-founder of the Afghanistan Human Rights Democracy Organisation, talks about Forum Theatre in Afghanistan as a participatory tool for emancipation and empathy. He explains that they play theatre games with victims of war, especially widows, to explore issues they face in their lives. A play is then developed, and acted out, showing problems with widowhood, unemployment, exclusion, marginalisation, and discrimination. The members of the audience are then invited to participate to find a solution to these problems. He says this is empathy in and through action.

In conclusion, Hjalmar reminds us of Dante’s poem, which – if transposed to the Afghan situation – helps define empathy:

It’s walking together with the victims of Afghanistan
in the forests
in the mountains.
To use theatre to create spaces
where the tears of pain
of hardship
of violence
of loss
of torture –
where these tears can be transformed into energy –
into energy to change the country
into energy to create peace in the country
into energy to create a more democratic and more just and more beautiful society
We believe that theatre can make a difference
We believe that we can walk together in the mountains and in the forests.

Hjalmar is inspiring, and the work done by the AHRDO is incredible. During my visit to the organisation in December, I am profoundly touched by their commitment towards social change. Their outreach is strong and commendable.

Empathy, according to Hjalmar, involves a shared partnership with a disenfranchised community, especially by sharing in the pain of another. Etymologically, the word “empathy” was coined in 1858 by a German philosopher, Rudolf Lotze, as Einfühlung (from ein “in” + Fühlung “feeling”), a German translation from the Greek empatheia (=”passion, state of emotion,” from en “in” (see en- (2)) + pathos “feeling” (see pathos)). A term used in a theory of art appreciation, it maintains that “appreciation depends on the viewer’s ability to project his personality into the viewed object” (see Etymology Dictionary).

If that were the situation, how and where does empathy come about if it is a projection of one’s personality into ‘the other’? Theatrically, through the Forum Theatre scenes, I know portraying a series of scenes leading to a point of rupture and tragedy would tug at people’s hearts, but at what point does “empathy” set in? Does it come from the outside (ie. watching a film/play, or listening to a song), or does it come from the inside (e.g. from memories)? If a member of the audience had little shared memory with the situation played out in the Forum scene, he or she would show little empathy, and therefore, not feel obliged to participate. How does a theatre-maker “tug” at one’s heartstrings since the qualitative composition of one’s background (ethnic, class, religious, social, political and emotional) are rarely universal? And, ethically speaking,  should they?

This then raises other questions on theatre-making:

  • What elements are being used to create dramatic tension to effect an emotional shift in audiences’ feelings?
  • What affective quality is being envisioned?
  • How do external media (e.g. theatre and music) influence one’s projections, since it becomes an external-internal-externalised trajectory?

I believe empathy is, to a large extent, closely tied up with values.

  • When we talk about social transformation, are we referring to a change in “values”, just like moving from x-value to y-value on a graph?
  • Whose values are we holding on to?
  • Are these values society’s values – and should they be questioned and by whose standards? – or are these values personal?
  • Can there be a truly “personal” value independent of familial and social influence?
  • Are clashes in values necessarily stumbling blocks to social transformation?

I have no answers to these. My questions continue to emerge as points of inquiry. Hopefully from the Afghan forests and mountains that I have come to admire and love will I find poetry, music, and dance. Maybe “empathy” is that projective feeling I want to “own” at that point in space and time, and it is one way to “find” myself.