Playwright Jonathan Garfinkel has probably gone where no Canadian Jewish writer has gone before — Pakistan and Afghanistan — to create his new play, “Dust.”
Premiering Friday at the Enbridge playRites Festival in Calgary, the drama centers on three women — Canadian, Pakistani and Afghan — and how their lives are affected by the War on Terror. It’s based on hundreds of pages of interviews conducted by Garfinkel and Christopher Morris, the play’s director, in each of those countries.
For Garfinkel, research for the production included living for a month on a Canadian military base in Petawawa, Ontario, where he learned about family members left behind by soldiers.
In late 2010, Garfinkel and Morris spent six weeks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, interviewing locals about how the war had impacted them personally, focusing on those who had lost relatives in fighting or acts of terrorism. Even with contacts in the region, they traveled essentially as tourists, with no fixers and no protection.
They returned to Lahore, Pakistan, last fall to work on the script with well-known Pakistani actress Samiya Mumtaz, who appears in the Calgary production, and to present the work-in-progress to Pakistani actors and artists.
Running for a total of eight performances in Calgary, the show probably won’t be staged in Pakistan because of safety concerns, Garfinkel says.
A Toronto native currently based in Montreal, the playwright is no stranger to provocative subjects. The 39-year-old is best known for his controversial 2008 memoir, “Ambivalence: Adventures in Israel and Palestine,” and a related play called “House of Many Tongues,” which was shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award in 2011. He’s also the author of “The Trials of John Demjanjuk: A Holocaust Cabaret,” staged in North America and Germany.
Currently finishing a novel, Garfinkel recently spoke to The Times of Israel about whom he met and what he learned in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and about the dangers and unexpected pleasures of being Jewish there.
How did you feel about traveling to Pakistan and Afghanistan?
It was an exciting proposition, but I was terrified also. I think it was a general anxiety I had because these places don’t exactly get good press. And it’s not every day that a couple of guys come on tourist visas to these places. Usually you’re embedded somehow, or have some protection. And we didn’t have any of that.
In retrospect, I realize that my fears were not focused, and they were all a little bit unreasonable . . . It’s unsafe — there is a war going on there — but my experience of being in a few different war zones is that it’s always different when you are on the ground.
Did you or anyone else have concerns about your being a Jew?
We were funded by the Canada Council for the Arts to go, and one of the jurors called Chris after they decided to give his theater company the money. They said, “We’re calling you because we had a huge debate as to whether or not we felt morally and legally responsible for your lives. And in particular, did you know that your playwright is Jewish?”
In terms of the Jewish thing, it’s more of an issue in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, where there is more of a Western presence. It’s actually a little easier to hide your Jewishness in places like this. In my mind — and to most people’s minds — my name is very Jewish. But in a place like Pakistan, the Ashkenazi Jewish names aren’t as familiar . . . Physically, there’s no clues to show that I’m Jewish . . . and I didn’t go around wearing a Chai [pendant] in the market of Kabul. But I had written Jewish stuff, and if you actually Google my name, you can easily find out that I am Jewish and that I am concerned with issues of Jewish identity.
Of course, when something like Daniel Pearl happens, you can’t help but think about this stuff . . .
‘She was upset that she had said this anti-Semitic stuff with a Jew in the room’
I was advised by a [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] journalist in Pakistan to say that I was Christian. You can’t say you’re an atheist, because they don’t like that either. On the form I filled out to apply for a visa, I put down that I was a Christian.
Did you take other precautions?
In Lahore, we grew beards and our hair long, and tried to blend in with the locals. But the reality is that we were dressed like people from [a small] village. The people in Lahore have stylish haircuts and fashionable clothes. The army was always stalking us and thinking that we were radicals from the village, and then they’d see our Canadian passports and they’d be baffled and very suspicious.
Did anyone find out you were Jewish?
On the first trip, there was an incident with a woman named Dr. Gulshan, who we were staying with in Rawalpindi [in Pakistan]. Dr. G. is a very charismatic and funny woman, and we got along quite well. But over Eid dinner, she started an anti-Semitic rant having to do with the Mossad and Israel . . . and then she said that Jews believe in the Antichrist. And without really thinking, I disagreed with her. I told her what the Jews believe in. “How would you know?” she asked. So I told her I was a Jew. In the moment, she sort of freaked out. She had never met a Jew, and she was upset that she had said this anti-Semitic stuff with a Jew in the room.
When I came back to Pakistan this last year, we talked about that event again. She said she was very mad at Chris because she had asked him whether either one of us was Jewish, and he said no. She had helped find someone to rent us an apartment in Lahore on our first trip, and the person we rented from had told her he did not want Jews living there.
On the second trip, you were in Lahore to work on the script with local actors. Did they know you were Jewish?
Our Pakistani theater colleagues knew I was Jewish. On this last trip, a lot of people found out. We spent the month living with Samiya in her house with her family. Her father, a Sufi, and I had very interesting conversations . . . He was fantastic to talk to because he was extremely open-minded and curious. He wanted to know a lot about the Old Testament. He also warned me not to give up my Judaism for another religion.
I woke up one morning and one of the servants, who turned out to be a Pentecostal Christian, came into the room. She asked me in broken English whether I was an “Israelite.” She told me she had had a dream that there was an Israelite in the house. I couldn’t say no. She went away very excited. The next day, I got a letter from her inviting me to her house to meet her family. I went, and there were a lot of people there, including a Pentecostal preacher who talked for about an hour about why the Jews are important. One person wanted to know if I had come from Egypt.
Did you ever feel you were in danger?
Nothing bad actually happened, but we did interview the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, in Kabul. For someone who isn’t a trained journalist, and without any protection, I did feel exposed.
One time we drove into the outskirts of Kabul, and it seemed a bit dangerous. Our driver had a gun.
My fears of going to Pakistan and Afghanistan were the obvious ones, like being kidnapped and held for ransom, or kidnapped and killed. But what I hadn’t thought that much about was that Pakistanis are being bombed all the time. It’s not a war against the Jews or the Christians. It’s actually a war also against other Muslims. It’s fundamentalism. Women are in danger. Anyone who isn’t toeing the line of the Taliban is in danger — it’s not just the Westerners . . . The danger is the randomness of the violence.
What was the biggest challenge in conducting your interviews?
The Canada leg was a whole lot easier . . . In North America, people are used to getting in touch with their emotions and expressing things that are not said aloud in other cultures.
In Pakistan, once we finally found people to talk to, it was hard to decipher who they were trying to talk for and to, and to get something about how they felt about the situation.
The most extreme example was when we spoke to a Taliban widow. The interview was organized and supervised by the Pakistan Army . . . It took place in a remote village in Swat, where there was a man translating the woman from Pashtun into Urdu, and then someone was translating from Urdu to English. The woman was completely covered in a burqa, and there were a lot of people all around. So it was hard to know who she was speaking for. Her life was on the line, too. Some of the people we talked to later didn’t want their names associated with the project because they feared for their lives. The stakes are different there.
‘One person wanted to know if I had come from Egypt’
What were the biggest surprises for you about your experience in these countries?
Hospitality in Pakistan is unlike any I had ever experienced. I was surprised by how nice people were . . . People invited us to their homes for tea . . . Also, there was learning just how much religion is a big deal there. It’s a very important matter, and it comes into people’s lives on a daily basis, so you can’t be neutral on it.
You met Zablon Simintov, the last Jew in Afghanistan. What was he like?
He was sort of cranky. I think he’d gotten a lot of press before I met him. He was used to the celebrity status, so he was a little disappointed that I was just writing a play and didn’t have any money for him.
It was sad meeting him. He’s such a lonely old guy living in this little shul in Kabul. He’s wearing a kippah and making his prayers.
He said he didn’t want to be the end of the line, which he actually already is. It didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. He just didn’t want to leave home. I’m sure he’s been to Israel to see his family, but for him, it’s more important to stay in a place that is more familiar to him and that he loves. He’s a stubborn old guy.
In what way would you say you were most affected by going to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and would you go back?
I think that there is something interesting about us Westerners going to these kinds of places and the kind of myths and misconceptions we have . . . Your concept of reality flips on its head. It’s a new way of looking at reality. It’s really affected me. I don’t know how to sum that up. That experience was huge.
I would go back again. Absolutely. It is surprising how attracted to that world I have become. Pakistan is the most contradictory place I’ve been to. Because that part of the world is so important politically, the writer in me is very interested.