As the Taliban once again assert control of Afghanistan and push women further out of public view, a female Afghan filmmaker is working thousands of miles away to help bring to life a wildly popular tale of two heroines living in her homeland, including under the group’s first reign.
The world premiere of Seattle Opera’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns” opens Saturday evening. It is based on a novel by Kabul-born author Khaled Hosseini that explores the inner worlds of Mariam and Laila over decades of Afghan history, some with stark parallels to the present.
The women, born nearly two decades apart, forge an unlikely bond as they share an abusive husband and navigate struggles facing them and their country. It’s a story of hardships, injustices and loss, but also of deep love, endurance and one big decision that, ultimately, alters both their lives and leads to the survival of only one.
It was supposed to be a story of a bygone era — until the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 dramatically changed that.
For the opera’s stage director, Roya Sadat, who lived under Taliban’s first rule and made a professional name for herself after the group’s 2001 ouster, that reversal is deeply personal.
Born in the city of Herat, she happened to be in America when she learned that her birthplace had fallen to the Taliban in 2021. Just like other historic events in Afghanistan colored Mariam’s and Laila’s lives, that takeover has once again reshaped Sadat’s country and, this time, turned her into an asylee in the United States.
“I was actually never thinking that one day I will leave Afghanistan,” the 39-year-old said. “When I heard this news, I was in shock. And I just said: ‘no, no, no, it’s not possible.’… It was like watching a terrible movie.”
In that moment, Sadat added, directing “A Thousand Splendid Suns” took on a new meaning.
“Suddenly, the topic changed in my mind, that ‘Oh my God, now this story is going to repeat again. Now, maybe, a thousand Laila and Mariam are going to be in the same situation,’” she said.
In her director’s statement, Sadat writes about becoming “homeless” in the blink of an eye and describes how the goal of her work has evolved.
“My task was no longer to simply portray the universal pain, struggle, and perseverance of women through the story of two Afghan women,” she said. “It became a duty to convey an unparalleled injustice to which my countrywomen are condemned.”
Mariam and Laila have captured the imagination of composer Sheila Silver for a long time. She felt like she knew them and wanted to tell their story. She listened to the book in 2009 and recalled tears streaming down her face as one of the women faced her death.
“This is what heroes are made of, people who make sacrifices for others that they love and so that was what drew me in,” Silver said. “It was about the love and bonding and resilience and strength of these two women.”
And in that sense, she found their tales universal. “It’s their humanity that we’re celebrating,” she said. “It’s a story of that time with incredible parallels to this time today.”
Hosseini, the book’s author who lives in California, wishes that wasn’t the case.
He had hoped the story of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” would become a relic of the past, maybe a “cautionary tale.” But instead, he said, “what’s going on with women today is a cruel deja vu.”
He lamented that the international spotlight on Afghanistan seemed to have faded. He hopes the opera’s audience will be moved by the music, but also that the production, even if in limited ways, can spark conversations about the situation there.
“I’ve always thought of the arts as our most powerful … teachers of empathy,” he said. “I hope that this opera is an expression of the collective struggles and sacrifices of Afghans over the last four decades, particularly Afghan women.”
Despite initial promises, the Taliban have increasingly imposed restrictions on women and girls with an expanding list of bans that included barring them from universities and schools beyond the sixth grade. That has sparked an international uproar, deepening Afghanistan’s isolation at a time of severe economic turmoil.
The crackdown on women’s freedoms harkens back to when the Taliban ran Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 — and to a somber part of Sadat’s own life under the group.
She no longer could attend school. She turned to books, sometimes borrowed from relatives or friends, to expand her world. Home doubled as a school of sorts, where her mother and an aunt would teach her different subjects.
Through it all, she clung to hope.
It was under the Taliban, that, sitting on her family’s kitchen floor, Sadat started writing a script that later turned into her first movie. At the time, she said, she didn’t have electricity; the kitchen fire provided the light she needed to write.
Toward the end of the Taliban’s reign, a relative helped her get a spot in a class that trained women in nursing. There, Sadat said she helped organize small cultural groups that produced theater critical of the Taliban’s treatment of women; to avoid getting caught, classmates would be on the lookout inside a stairwell to alert others if Taliban members approached.
After the Taliban’s fall, Sadat and her sister co-founded Roya Film House, a company that has produced films and TV dramas.
Working on the Seattle opera, she said, has been of special significance.
“In creating the atmosphere of this work, I have tried to show the people the beauty of Afghan women’s lives — the parts of that world they do not know and the people they have not seen,” she said. “I want to evoke Kabul in the old years, full of songs, poetry, music, color, and joy. Throughout Afghanistan’s history, even on the path of pain and suffering, is the radiant face of a woman who shines.”
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