Performing Molière in Afghanistan in the 1970s
Mohammad Ali Raonaq is the first translator of Molière’s plays from French to Dari. Having had his education in France, Ali Raonaq returned to Afghanistan in the 1950s.
From then on, the translated works became popular among the actors of that time. In the documentary by Alexandra Paraboschi, ‘Afghanistan: Reconstructing Through Theatre’ (see link), Ali Raonaq recounts:
This was so appreciated and applauded, that prime minister, at this time Prince Daoud said: “Now the Afghan theatre progressed a lot, the place where you work is too tight. You need a suitable and spacious house.”
And that was how Kabul Nandari (see previous blog) was born. Ali Raonaq served as the theatre manager at Kabul Nandari (Kabul National Theatre) from 1953 to 1959. For more than 20 years, Raonaq’s translated works of Molière were studied and played by high school students.
The Molière’s comedies, as you know, are classical and beyond space and time. I remember after having directed “Scoundrel Scapin”, somebody told me: “I don’t know how you wrote the Geronte’s dialogue, but in our street there is a person quite alike in words and acts.” That is the miracle of classical plays. You can find a lot of Geronte in France as well in Kabul.
At the same time, Guy-Michel Carbou, a French teacher in the French High School in Kabul (from 1970-1977) who was also the director of the pupils theater company, also recounts:
I, at once, founded a first and at the time, the only pupils theater company, and more incredible for this time, with the contribution of both, boys from the Esteqlal High School and girls of the Malalai High School. In a society where boys and girls lived permanently separate, we’ve got a kind of alchemy, something healthy, very healthy. We had to make up our mind: Let them play in French and therefore the audience will shorten, or play the Molière’s comedies in the Dari translation. We choose this last solution. In this situation, the only person to be contacted was Mr. Raonaq.
Carbou continued and said that he approached Raonaq with modesty as he was a skilled and cultured man, even though Raonaq’s daughter was in his pupils theater company. His daughter, Farida Raonaq, was a student at the Malalai High School. In the same documentary, Farida recounts:
In 1976, we were 3 or 4 girls playing “Scoundrel Scapin”, in the High School Esteqlal studio. For us it was quite fantastic to play.
Hafiz Assefi, her co-actor in that production, also reminisces in French:
The French-Afghan pedagogical center of the Esteqlal High School had a very modern theater. It has been opened in 1972. It was perfectly fitted out with audio and lighting equipment, we had everything we needed to play specially the Molière’s comedy: dresses and properties.
In 1974, we set up “The doctor in spite of himself”. I played the Sganarelle character. This enabled us to make acquaintance with Molière, his language, his wit and believe me it fitted perfectly the Afghan taste. Not only because Mr Raonaq achieved a perfect translation and adaptation work, but also because it’s a human language, it’s something that hit, wit and jokes are understood everywhere. Some nights we had full audience and people were bent with laughter. That worked perfectly.