Shakespeare in Kabul
Stephen Landrigan & Qais Akbar Omar Rupa
In 2005, when a motley group of Afghan actors performed William Shakespeares Loves Labours Lost in a dusty Kabul garden, it was the first time in three decades that men and women were taking the stage together. In post-Taliban Afghanistan, this was a symbol of hope, an indication that things were finally changing for the better. The optimism would be short-lived, however, as Afghanistan soon saw the country return to a spiral of violence, but the play was a bold celebration of a new Afghanistan that the actors believed was taking shape around them and for that fleeting moment, it gave the people a glimpse of what the future could/should be.
Former journalist Stephen Landrigan and writer-cum-carpet trader Qais Akbar Omar teamed up with French actress Corinne Jaber to bring the play to life, and Landrigan and Omar collaborated to write this incredible, true story. When Jaber, who directed the play, finally zeroed in on Loves Labours Lost, it was adapted for an Afghan audience by translating the play into Dari from a Persian translation of the original.
The book gives us a vivid account of how the play was brought to stage, and the challenges it faced along the way. For instance, when Jaber first met Afghan actors to talk about the plays of Shakespeare and informed them that he had written both tragedies and comedies, the actors were quick to assert that they wanted nothing to do with tragedy.
We have lived tragedy for three decades of war. We want to do comedy, said one actor. Another said: When we do a tragedy we will write it the way it happened: the planes came, circled high in the distance above us, then dropped bombs The whole ground shook, and it felt like an earthquake. That is our tragedy, and we will write it.
Many of the actors had seen loved ones killed or wounded and were too close to tragedy for comfort. As Omar writes, one day when Jaber asked the actors to talk about their experiences in the war years, they were reluctant and one of them retorted: Why should I give you a headache with my sad stories Our history in my lifetime is nothing but war. Why should I bore you with that
The memories of the years of war and violence were difficult to forget and the actors and actresses would often exorcise ghosts of the past in discussions with Jaber and the rest of the cast and even during rehearsals. When the time came to audition actresses, women of all ages turned up in groups, having thrown open the cage of the burqa after the Taliban rule. One, Parwin Mushtahel, arrived late, apologetic but blaming the delay on the terrible traffic jams that clog Kabuls streets several times a day. She said she wanted to do an improvisation of a widowed woman who lost her husband and son in the civil war, and was going to commit suicide. Her performance was so real and chilling that everyone had tears in their eyes. As Omar writes: For 15 years, day after day, year after year, I had lived through what Parwin had just described. Now, how could I stop my tears from falling Parwin and her husband were later thrown out of their house by relatives for acting in the play, and in a chilling replay of what she had improvised during auditions, her husband was killed.
Jaber, who didnt know Dari, depended on Omar to translate what the actors were saying during auditions, discussions and rehearsals. Once an actor asked Omar to teach Jaber some manners as she interrupted the actors mid-sentence, irking the good-mannered Afghans no end.
The play was received well with the Afghans and foreigners watching it clapping, cheering and screaming with laughter, but then like in lifeand in Shakespeares writingthe scene begins to cloud. And violence and tragedy and bias against women visit Afghan life every day.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer