During an arts festival in the southwest Asian nation of Turkmenistan two years ago, Seattle actor K. Brian Neel bonded with members of a theater group from Herat, Afghanistan.
They shared hotel breakfasts, watched each other perform and joined in a farewell banquet capped by dancing.
At one point, in what appeared to be a brief foray into diplomatic platitudes, Neel declared that theater should transcend political boundaries, and artists needed to stick together in a global community.
This month, as the Taliban took over Afghanistan, those words take on new meaning as Neel reconnects with a member of the theater group who, as he fears for his life, has gone into hiding. In a series of communications — with gunfire overheard in the background of one call — the Afghan actor has reached out to Neel for help, explaining that he, his wife and their daughter have been on the move to escape the Taliban.
The Seattle Times is not identifying the Afghan actor because of concerns about his safety. He says the Taliban are moving swiftly to consolidate power in the western Afghanistan city of Herat, about 500 road miles from Kabul, where most remaining international journalists are based.
“They are trying to arrest the people who have been working for democracy — the civil activists,” the actor told The Seattle Times.
Neel has sent messages to State Department contacts to try to help along an application by the Afghan actor for a Special Immigrant Visa he hopes can be issued based on aid work his friend has done with U.S.-based groups. And he has sought out people in the Seattle arts community to raise money to help finance travel for the actor and his family.
“I made the choice to step up and dive into this,” Neel said. “And once you start, you can’t stop. It takes over your life. I really do believe that artists are all kin in this world.”
But like many Americans now trying to assist people to leave Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Neel, so far, has not yet had much success amid a difficult U.S. evacuation effort that has forced many Afghans — especially those hiding in the provinces — to make wrenching choices about how to proceed.
Theater office burned
Taliban leaders in Kabul have repeatedly said they will offer a general amnesty to those who worked with the old Afghan government and the U.S. government. But the Taliban’s actions have many alarmed.
Last week, the Taliban set a fire inside the group’s theater office, according to the actor, who said it was singled out for retribution by a conservative religious leader in Herat who has opposed their work. Themes of some of the group’s plays staged in Herat and other parts of Afghanistan included encouraging respect for women’s rights.
Herat is the third largest city in Afghanistan, capital of a province that borders Iran. It sits along a narrow but fertile oasis in a river valley, and its fall to the Taliban during the second week in August was part of a major offensive that culminated in the takeover of Kabul.
In Herat, the Taliban already are making new rules.
English has now been banned from being taught in Herat schools, and women can no longer teach in boys schools, according to the actor.
“We didn’t believe that the Taliban (would) control Afghanistan. … We were trying to change our community in the right ways — to a positive place,” the actor said. “Twenty years of achievements, they have been damaged, destroyed.”
Hiding and waiting
Neel is a longtime member of the Seattle theater scene involved in directing, performing and acting. Two years ago, he traveled with an ensemble from theater simple in a State Department-sponsored trip to a weeklong international art festival in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
There, the Seattle group performed “Caravan Chronicles,” a play that explores the meaning of family, those bound by blood and by choice, and is set against the backdrop of a vintage Airstream trailer.
The Afghan theater group put on a play centered on a tree that needs water to grow and survive.
Early in the festival week, the head of the Afghan troupe approached Neel to offer thanks for all the United States support for his nation — an expression of gratitude that surprised Neel, and served as initial introduction to the group.
In his August communications with the Afghan actor, he has heard a mix of bewilderment, anger and fear at the withdrawal of the United States, and the changes in Herat.
The actor has considered uprooting his family to head to Kabul. But once in Afghanistan’s capital city, they would have to make their way past a gauntlet of Taliban to try to get to the airport, then hope his documentation — still lacking final visa approval — could secure him a seat on a plane.
For now, he is staying away from Kabul and trying try to keep out of view of the Taliban. He says he only rarely goes outdoors. He bundles in clothes and glasses to try to disguise his appearance. Though the Taliban may not recognize him, he is worried about people he calls “collaborators” who could point him out to the new regime.
“I am afraid of these people. This is a big problem,” he said.