Small Steps towards Change: A parable from Azerbaijan

By Marc Weinblatt for “The Higher Source”, April 2000.

A little over a year ago, I had the incredible opportunity to lead 2 weeks of community-based theatre work in Azerbaijan — a former Soviet republic bordering Iran and the Caspian Sea. For those who are unfamiliar, Azerbaijan has been in brutal political-ethnic war with neighboring Armenia for over 10 years. The situation is not unlike Bosnia or even Israel and Palestine. While the fighting appears to have stabilized in recent times, it is clearly a tragic situation for the region as well as the good people of both countries.

Azerbaijan2smThe primary tool I used was a array of techniques known internationally as Theatre of the Oppressed (T.O.) Originally developed by Brazilian, Augusto Boal, T.O. is used all over the world for social and political activism, conflict resolution, community building, and therapy. It is designed for non-actors and is immensely accessible to any population for deepening self awareness, problem solving, and empowerment.

In Azerbaijan, my workshops were set up with 3 groups of teenagers plus 1 group of adult women — all Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s) — refugees within their own country. It is important to note that despite the fact that the people live in conditions of poverty, they do not identify as peasants. In fact, before they were ethnically “cleansed” from their “Motherland” where they lived for generations, they had respectable jobs and nice homes. Now they live in huge refugee camps — in mud brick huts, prefabricated metal units, and tents. They have lost everything. One elder man I met told me, “This was not how I expected to live the final years of my life.”

Azerbaijan1smAs always with my workshops, we explored issues of importance to the participants. Our only theme was “Life as IDP”. We worked primarily non-verbally with the human sculptures of Image Theater. Images appeared: guns pointing, grieving over a dead relative, covering eyes, waiting in bread lines, praying to Allah, arms raised in solidarity. I was struck by the consistency of these images. With every group I worked with, again and again, the exact same images kept recurring. Everyone had the same story. Everyone. It was all very simple, very clear, and very difficult.

In only 2 weeks, we obviously did not solve the problems of IDP’s nor changed their outer world in any substantial way. Therewere, however, several tiny victories for which I returned to Pacific Northwest proud and encouraged. This is not a culture used to expressing their opinions out in public. Even making a creative sound and movement was a tremendous stretch for them. To a certain extent, this is true for many new groups I work with but magnified 10 fold in Azerbaijan. My first session with the women was particularly challenging for me.

They chatted and giggled constantly, covered their mouths in shame, and I thought, simply weren’t into this weird stuff I was asking them to do. As I relievedly starting packing to leave after this session, the Azeri staff came up to me and shook my hand — “Congratulations! A miracle! Never did we think it possible that you could get these women to do this kind of work. We are amazed.” The next day went much smoother. Little by little, they gave themselves permission to be loud, to be different, to let themselves be “heard”. What had been for me a disappointing and superficial session, had been for the participants a very deep experience.

I tell this story, in part because I promised to raise people’s awareness when I came back to the United States. I share it here because it reminds me of my own impatience with my own journey. Certainly my life is easier and more privileged than those whose story I laid out. But, like many of us, I struggle with my own inner demons and internal “oppressors”. And, perhaps like some of you reading, I want to heal it all NOW. I dream of big, cathartic transformations and quick results. However, this is not usually the case. When I let go of outcome and pay more attention to the moment, I find that I actually notice the “little victories” — the small steps that move me forward in life.

This lesson was first introduced to my consciousness about 10 years ago as a participant in a week-long Orgodynamics personal growth seminar. Towards the end of the workshop, I had not experienced the huge transformation I had (naively) set myself up for. Our final structure was one in which, individually, we were invited to “dance our dance” to music we blindly pulled out of a grab bag. As I reached into the bag, I wished for African drums — something BIG and dramatic so I could move my stuck energy. Laughing at this, the cosmos gave me Tibetan chants with virtually no change in dynamics. I barely moved in the 10 minutes the music lasted. Resistance, frustration, and excruciatingly painful throughout until I finally accepted my plight. It was then, at the end, that I experienced a wave of bliss. I had indeed danced my dance. Desiring the path of the hare, I realized mine was the path of the tortoise. When I stopped resisting the smallness of my experience, I recognized just how “large” it was. And I got my transformation.

I was reminded of this again in Azerbaijan. Though the situation was much grander, the metaphor was the same. Small steps can lead to magnificent change.