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Shahid Nadeem’s Acquittal in New York

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Nadeem, who had himself spent a year in prison in Pakistan, created a play based upon an activist like Gauhar, who is arrested and temporarily placed in a cell with three other women, none of them are upper-class intellectuals like herself, who are there for various other crimes. One, forced into marriage as a girl with an elderly man, abused by him and his son, and unable to escape or gain a divorce, killed her tyrannical husband with an axe. Another is carrying a child born as a result of rape and refuses to allow it to be aborted, as the authorities demand. A third is serving as a kind of hostage for her son, who stole from their mutual employer and cannot be found.

Author Nadeem at curtain call. Photo: Fawzia Afzal-Khan

The play begins with the four women each in her own world, consciously or unconsciously separated from the others, but as the evening progresses, their barriers gradually dissolve until by the time they gain various forms of release, they have formed strong emotional ties and provide critical support for each other.  The intellectual (Zahia Zaman, played by Aizzah Fatima), the character presumably most like members of the audience, leads us into the play, blending narrator and character as she describes her situation and remarks in astonishment and irritation about the cramped quarters, the lack of fresh air, the poor lights, and the absence of decent toilet facilities, all this ignored by her resigned and indifferent cellmates. The simple set, by You-Shin Chen, is minimalist but quite effective, being essentially a dark grey real wall with a single small barred winder near its top and a few rough tables and benches in the acting area.

The first cellmate to tentatively approach the newcomer is Jannat Bibi (played by Shetel Shah), mother of the runaway boy, who asks Zahia, as an intellectual who knows how to write, to compose a letter of appeal for her son. In her lengthy and rather rambling dictation, we learn of her life of deprivation as a servant. Later each of the other two women, the murderess Jamila (played by Gulshan Mia) and the pregnant Marium (played by Salma Shaw), will, under different circumstances, present what are essentially monologues introducing themselves and their reason for imprisonment. The alternation between these monologues and the scenes of growing support and understanding among the women make up the basic rhythm of the production.

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