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The Mother of a Country: One-Woman Show Tells the Story of Benazir Bhutto

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani Prime Minister and the first female leader of an Islamic state, was assassinated in 2007. Her death came weeks before an election that might well have returned her to power. She's the subject of a one-woman show at this year's Fringe Festival. WNYC's Arun Venugopal sat down with Anna Khaja, the Pakistani-American creator of "Shaheed: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto." Khaja explains why Bhutto is just one of eight characters she decided to feature.

Anna Khaja: I selfishly intended to only play Benazir Bhutto. I think I kind of resemble her. The actress in me who's always striving for more thought it would be a good fit for me. But as I started my research, I started to realize it's not just about who she was on the inside. It's about who she was to so many different people. She was revered. She was despised. And she was a complicated human being, so I thought the best way to communicate who she was and what she meant to Pakistan and what she meant to the world was by showing all these different aspects of her.

In your portrayal of her, she is constantly weighed down by this burden knowing that her death is imminent.

That's right. She was giving her daughters their birthday gifts a year later. She knew what was most likely going to happen. She gave up being a mother. She gave up her life to in some way keep her father's movement of bringing democracy -- real democracy -- to Pakistan.

One of the biggest laughs in the audience came during your portrayal of one of your characters, Condoleezza Rice. You suggest she was this preachy, smarmy woman who really talked down to Benazir.

I included Condoleezza Rice because I wanted to make it clear to the audience the pressure that Benazir was under in those last days of her life. The United States had clearly told her that she needed to follow through on her commitment, but [former president of Pakistan Perez] Musharraf wasn't meeting his end of the commitment. He wasn't protecting her. He certainly wasn't welcoming her. And, in a sense, the United States wasn't doing anything to support or protect her either.

You have this character Afshan, she's this 13-year-old student at a madrassa and on one hand, she's really sweet and wide-eyed and very naive, but she also goes around beating up prostitutes. I'm just wondering, what does Afshan tell us about the future of Pakistan?

The future of Pakistan is precarious. You know, I based that on a true story. At a girls' madrassa, they have something called agitation day and a group of girls went out to the red-light district and they found a brothel owner and they actually called in cameras and radio stations. They made that prostitute stand in front of them and read a statement saying that she was corrupting Pakistan. That's frightening to me. Now, madrassa just means school, but these fundamentalist madrassas are so scary and I think a lot of the problem comes down to the fact that there's no public education. And these schools offer free clothing, free school, free shelter, free education. And it's very tempting.

The fact that you put in this 13-year-old sounds almost like a comment on the country itself. It's almost like neither is really a full fledged adult in charge of itself.

That's right. It never has been. There's a theme running throughout my play, I think, about fathers and daughters and also about Benazir being a mother to Pakistan. I think that every character in my play except perhaps Condoleezza, sort of by the end of their monologue, disintegrates or becomes very small, becomes this child looking for a mother figure in Benazir. Pakistan is a broken country that's looking for leadership and I think that's why the people adored her so much because she represented that to them -- that hope.

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