At Home With Afghan Playwright, Mr Zahir Mohseni

March 18, 2012

It was a chance encounter of sorts. I had gone to the Afghanistan Embassy on Friday (16 March 2012) at 11am – having only received a confirmation email one day earlier – and had met up with Mr Advisor (name withheld as permission was not sought), who so kindly said he would support my research undertaking. In fact, he would be writing a letter to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in Kabul to issue me an official letter of invitation. However, he mentioned that Afghans are not on the e-system: they are not good with emails. As such, it might take up to one month for the offices in Kabul to process this request. He even suggested getting my friend, Omar, who lives in Kabul to help me meet up with them in person to expedite this. He then told me about Mr Mohseni, an Afghan playwright residing in London. He passed me Mr Mohseni’s contact number – but in my mind, I wasn’t sure I would call him. I have never been a telephone-type; I have been in cold call situations from banks and insurance companies, persistently asking me to buy policies I never wanted, which I found hard to shirk off. In the same way, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience this man by calling him out of the blue.

My usual modus operandi in such situations is to send a text message. An SMS allows the receiver to ignore you, or reply you at his or her convenience. While it may be arguably construed as being less polite than a phonecall, I find it less intrusive.

On Saturday while I was at Paiwand, one charity NGO dedicated to the Afghan community in London (which I will write about later), I casually asked an Afghan teacher, “Which is better in your culture? To call or to send an SMS to someone I don’t know?” The reply, “It’s better to call.”

So I plucked up my courage to call Mr Mohseni. Funny why I would say “plucked up my courage”. I guess I found myself in the same position as cold callers, and didn’t want to be rejected in that way. Besides, the only available time I was free to meet up with him – if he was willing – was Sunday morning. That wasn’t nice. I was giving him less than 24 hour’s notice to make himself available for me. So I didn’t quite like where I was coming from – I don’t like to impose on others – but I dialled his number anyway, just to see where Lady Luck would take me.

On the other end of the line was a gentle voice. Surprisingly, Mr Mohseni said he was not well, so asked if I could come to his house to meet him instead. The phonecall took less than a minute but he kindly obliged to a stranger’s request.

Naturally, I was thrilled. I was immensely grateful at these turn of events – how each one led to the next with incredible success and ease.

I arrived at Mr Mohseni’s house at the stipulated time. A kind demeanoured man greeted me at the door and invited me in warmly. After I sat down, I asked him how he was doing (again). This, I have learnt from my Persian and Afghan friends that their asking is not the casual “How are you?” (unlike the American and British counterparts who ask this question, having the same performative function of “Hello”), but it is a serious but sincere affair to connect with each other – by finding out how you are doing, how your family is coping, how well you are managing in your job, and the list goes on. It’s a simple “How are you?”, but when punctuated within the first three minutes of an encounter, it is a way to connect on an intimate, personal level.

So, in response to my repeated ‘How are you?’, Mr Mohseni told me he had just suffered from a cardiac infarction two weeks ago, and is now recuperating at home. My heart sank. Here he was, recovering and panting breathlessly between phrases and utterances, yet he showed a hospitality beyond measure to a stranger.

A cold draft came through. Mr Mohseni shuffled across the living room to close the windows. I asked if I should sit nearer to him. He then asked if I could not hear well. I told him I didn’t want him to speak louder than usual. He thanked me.

Then after some tea and snacks, Mr Mohseni shared about his work and what he thought about the situation in Afghanistan. He was schooled in Persian Literature and had found out about a historical woman in the 8th Century Shamsi (Islamic calendar, equivalent to 14th Century Gregorian calendar) who ruled Herat in Afghanistan. Under her leadership, society flourished, including schools, culture and the arts. His play “Gawharshad Begum”, named after this Queen, was based on this historical period of matriarchal leadership.

A long conversation and many video clips later, he shared a music video by Farhad Darya, the UN National Goodwill Ambassador for Afghanistan. He interspersed this by saying that the Afghan people in the video have stopped to look at the flag. It was a song calling for patriotism, an anthem calling for one united Afghanistan regardless of class, occupation and ethnic lines. As he spoke about the song, a passion and a pride so overwhelming enveloped me the hairs on my hand stood on ends. I was given an insight to a dream of many Afghan cultural activists. The song. His play. There was a nationalistic call to arms – not to fight, but to unite. There appears to be a yearning to recover its rich and diverse histories and a pining for a cohesive, harmonious and conflict-free nation. I felt incredibly moved.

Upon deeper reflection, especially for a cultural outsider, I realised I was confronted with something more important, more tangible: the Afghans’ intimate face-to-face conversations upon which friendship and love are founded. (For my very first writing about Omar’s sacrificial love, read blog at ). Now I understood the implicit meanings of Mr Advisor’s words:  that they are “not good with emails” does not imply their lack of IT-competence nor their inefficiency. Rather, it meant “We get things done based on trust. And trust can only be gained through face-to-face interactions. I now know you – and because of that, you are my friend.”

As we ended our session with possible future meetings, I asked myself why this famous playwright would entertain me. I had nothing to give nor offer him. According to some perceptions, my research is after all a “private affair”. There was nothing to be gained for them, at least in some Afghans’ perspectives.

A five-hour bus ride to London was inconsequential because in the scheme of things, just within fifiteen minutes at the Afghanistan Embassy in a face-to-face meeting, Mr Advisor had reassuringly helped me. And despite Mr Mohseni’s heart condition, he spent one-and-a-half hours with me that morning, examples of generosity that are more telling of the Afghan culture than all the other activities and stories put together. A face-to-face conversation is crucial. Only then, will there be a beautiful and intimate heart-to-heart experience for which I am immensely grateful.

Now, I can truly be at home with them. Or as a matter of fact, they, with me.

Mr Mohseni and me, in his London home.

Kheili mamnun, Mr Advisor.
Kheili mamnun, Mr Mohseni.
Tashakur, Afghanistan.

(Note: This was written on 18th March 2012. There was no response from one of the two mentioned persons in the blog — which meant no approval in using one name — so I have decided to use a pseudonym instead, and posted this almost 3 weeks later.)