The view across Kabul to the Hindu Kush mountains beyond
In 2005, everything seemed possible in Afghanistan. The Taliban were gone. A new government had been elected. A cultural renaissance was energising the country. An actress visiting from Paris casually proposed to some Afghan actors in Kabul: Why not put on a play? The challenges were huge. It had been thirty years since men and women had appeared on stage together in Afghanistan. Was the country ready for it? Few Afghan actors had ever done theatre. Did they even know how? They had performed only in films and television dramas. Still, a company of actors gathered – among them a housewife, a policewoman, and a street kid turned film star. With no certainty of its outcome, they set out on a journey that would have life-changing consequences for all of them, and along the way lead to A Night in the Emperor’s Garden.
Below is an extract from A Night in the Emperor’s Garden written by Qais Akbar Omar and Stephen Landrigan.
How Do You Stage Shakespeare After Decades of Taliban Rule?
“I’m older than all these young and talented actors,” Qader Faroukh said graciously as he indicated the others seated on the kilim. He was dressed in a black suit and red tie. Everyone else was wearing jeans and shirts. “Not that I knew Alexander Sahib personally…” The others chuckled.
“But I was trained at Kabul University before the civil war started.”
“And I was, too,” Nabi interjected, with a hint of competitiveness.Qader Faroukh ignored Nabi’s interruption and made the point that theater in Afghanistan really started with the introduction of the performing arts program at Kabul University in the 1960s.
Nabi added, “We studied with teachers who had come from the United States, Europe and Turkey. Some of my classmates went to those countries for advanced training after they graduated.”
One of the other actors told Corinne about the modern, fully equipped theater the Germans had built in Kabul in the 1970s.
“I can take you to it,” Shah Mohammed offered. “People try to put on shows there, but there are holes in the roof from the rockets that hit it during the civil war − you can have a good view of the sky while you watch the play.”
Faisal mentioned how the Russians had established a modern performing arts centre in the 1980s, when they were occupying Kabul. “The Kabul police and fire departments had their own theater companies when the Russians were here, and they put on a lot of shows. It was a beautiful place. The shows were good. We used to love it when our parents took us there.” No more. After the Soviets left in 1989, the Russian center suffered heavy damage and subsequently became a wasteland haven for drug users.
The actors who had studied at Kabul University told Corinne about the plays that they had done there by Aeschylus, Brecht, Shakespeare, Molière and other foreign playwrights. They relished the opportunity to talk about these writers after so many years with so few opportunities to discuss them. Corinne was intrigued. She had had no idea that classical plays like these had ever been performed in Afghanistan.
Corinne suggested, “Let’s do a series of movement exercises.”
Everyone stood up. They all looked excited to have an opportunity to learn something new. Corinne led them in the stretches and vocal exercises that actors in France did, then asked them to impersonate animals. Nabi slunk into the crawl of a lion, as if he had been raised in a pride. Qader Faroukh, without doing anything, projected raw animal power behind a façade of calculating calm. A distinguished-looking middle-aged man with the gravitas of a prime minister and a deep voice to match, he was cast a few years later as a retired Afghan general in the film, The Kite Runner. He was well chosen for that part.
Kabir Rahimi impersonated something with wings. A bird? A butterfly? A bat? He affected an uncertain look as he sought somewhere to land, then total contentment as he settled on his perch. It was all precisely rendered with an economy of movement. Corinne was entranced.
Shah Mohammed threw himself into his improvisations as if he were engaged in hand-to-hand combat. He rolled on the ground, made big gestures, was wide-eyed one moment and terrifying the next. Adding to the illusion was the U.S. Army jacket that he was wearing; he had bought it in the Bush Market, named for the American president, where items that “fell off the trucks” heading to the American military bases were sold for almost nothing.
As the session wore on, Nabi’s group of actors and Qader Faroukh’s appeared to be competing. When Nabi looked displeased about something, everyone in his faction followed suit, even if they were not sure why. The same seemed to be true of the other group when Qader Faroukh appeared dismissive. Still, they absorbed every word that came from Corinne, “like a dry sponge in water” as Faisal said later.
After little more than an hour, however, everyone had to go home. Clouds had darkened the sky earlier than usual, and chill air was suddenly sliding off the mountain behind the Foundation, as happens at high altitudes such as Kabul. Someone had turned on the lights that ringed the garden. Birds recently arrived with the spring were flying from tree to tree, looking for places to roost.
As the session was ending, Nabi announced to Corinne, “If you were with us for six months, we could challenge the whole country.” The other actors voiced their agreement.
Corinne told them that if they were interested in continuing what they had started, she would be happy to come back the a gathering of players 15 following day. They all agreed, then lined up to have their photos taken with her, in groups and by themselves.
Everyone said their goodbyes, but before they left Corinne told the men, “Please bring some women tomorrow.” She was determined not to let Taliban values prevail. There was a great silence. Finally, a few of the men said they would try as they headed out of the garden into the lane.
Everyone was in a hurry to get home. Shops were clanking down their metal shutters. Youngsters were running to nearby bakeries to buy fresh naan flat bread for their families’ dinners. The muezzins in the mosques were calling for evening prayers. The air was filled with smoke, dust and the smell of sweat and open ditches. And possibilities.
Parwin Mushtahel was cooking rice, meatballs and sabzi for her family’s evening meal when she received the call from Nabi Tanha.
After the usual formal greetings, he said, “I want to talk to you about something important, but I think you’re busy. I can hear the sound of cooking.”
“I can spare a few minutes.”
“There is a woman from Paris at the Foundation. I went to see her this afternoon. She wants to meet some actresses.”
“Maybe she has some kind of a project in mind. Maybe Robert does. Nobody has said. I told her that I’ll find her a few actresses. I called you first. Can you come tomorrow afternoon?”
“I’ll try. Thanks for thinking about me.”
“There is no need to thank me, Parwin jan. You’re like an older sister to me. You’re always in my thoughts. I will let you go now so you don’t burn what you’re cooking. I can even smell it over the mobile. I’ll see you tomorrow. God be with you.”
“God be with you, Nabi jan,” Parwin laughed. Parwin carried the food into the living room where a large TV sat on a low table at the far end. The floor was covered with traditional Afghan red carpets. Photos of Parwin with her husband and their children enlivened the walls. Parwin had hidden her family’s photos for the five years when the Taliban were in power. She had stitched some of them inside their mattresses and quilts to keep them safe.
Her husband Tawab sat cross-legged at the head of the eating cloth she had spread on the floor. Their four-year-old son Ahmad sat on his right and their daughter Shogufa, who was two years older, on his left. Parwin sat opposite Tawab. She and the children politely waited for Tawab to take the first bite. Then they followed his lead.
In quiet times like these, Parwin felt herself filled with the happiness that came from simple things. Her husband treated her and their children well. She knew that after they finished eating, he would ask the children what they had learned that day in their kindergarten. They were not a wealthy family, but they had what they needed: two rooms and a small courtyard outside with a well in the center. A few small peach and apple trees grew along the wall near the gate. They rented the rooms from her sister and brother-in-law who owned the house and lived in another part of it.
After they had eaten, Parwin collected the dishes and took them to the well to wash them. Then she lit a fire in a very large samovar. An hour later, she poured the boiling water into buckets and tempered them with cold water before carrying them to the bathroom. She went to the living room where Tawab was playing with Ahmad and Shogufa and told him, “Everything is ready for your baths.”
When Tawab had finished pouring one small bucket of warm water over his head after another, Parwin washed the children and then herself. Then all four of them went back to the living room and settled themselves in front of the television.
Before going to bed, Shogufa and Ahmad wanted to watch Bulbul. It was the first truly Afghan television series in the years since the Taliban. Bulbul was a former drug addict who had stopped smoking hashish and opium. He was now fighting the opium growers and encouraging boys and girls in his village to go to school. He had become a wise old man from whom everyone sought advice, except his wife, Gul Chera, who always nagged him.
Shogufa and Ahmad loved watching Bulbul because they had met him. Though Parwin had explained to them many times that they should call him Uncle Nabi, they still addressed him as Bulbul. Parwin and Tawab had another reason for enjoying Bulbul. Two years earlier, Parwin had fulfilled a lifelong ambition of becoming an actress. She quickly found work making advertisements for television. Her first ad for a washing machine led to offers from many other companies who wanted her unaffected, maternal manner to help sell their products. Among the ads on Bulbul that evening were three featuring Parwin.
Tawab enjoyed watching his wife on TV. He was proud of her for being successful. After the Taliban had been toppled, he had encouraged her to chase her dream. She had auditioned for a few film companies, who all showed interest in her. That had increased her confidence enough for her to audition with the professors of the Kabul University Theater Faculty. They gave her a role in the first play produced at Kabul University after the Taliban. It was broadcast on national television and made Parwin famous overnight as the first woman to appear on Afghan television in a play. The television audience readily identified with her character, a woman who had lost everything in war and then gone mad.
Tawab had never told any of his relatives that his wife was acting. Neither television nor electricity had yet reached the rural areas where they lived. In his relatives’ minds, it would be shameful for a woman to be seen on television, where men outside her family could look at her. In their village, a woman almost never left her home, and then only when accompanied by a male relative.
While they were watching Bulbul, someone knocked on the metal gate to their courtyard.
“Who could that be at this time of the night?” Tawab asked. His relatives from the countryside often came to spend the night when they needed to be in Kabul to do business or to see doctors. They showed up unexpectedly, though usually not so late. Perhaps it was one of them.
Parwin peered through the window and saw Tawab’s older brother with his son. She hastily looked for her headscarf; her in-laws would expect her to have her head covered. Then she went through the DVDs among the pile near the TV, found one of the Bollywood actress Kareena Kapour and quickly slotted it into the TV. Ahmad and Shogufa protested that they wanted to watch the end of Bulbul.
“Get up and go to your beds,” she said softly as she ushered them to their bedroom, saying, “We’ll see Bulbul another night.” She did not want her in-laws to catch sight of her on TV. If Tawab’s brother did, he would share that news with the rest of the village and make things difficult for Tawab. It was always a big worry for her when they came to Kabul.
Parwin ran to the courtyard to welcome the visitors. Then she went to the kitchen to make them tea. They talked until midnight, with Kareena Kapour dancing and singing, and Parwin anxious that her in-laws would ask to switch to the local TV channel. Thank God they never did. They enjoyed watching Kareena Kapour too much, one minute in a Bollywood studio, and the next somewhere in Switzerland, Toronto or London.
Parwin woke up before sunrise and did her morning prayers in her room. Her husband and in-laws did theirs in the courtyard. Then she lit the fire in the samovar to make tea. She woke up her daughter and son, dressed them, and ran back to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. As she chopped scallions into small pieces, she worried anew that someone might turn on the TV. She worked as quickly as she could, cutting up tomatoes before stir-frying them with the scallions into a dozen eggs. Then she took everything to the living room. Tawab had already spread the white cloth on the floor. Everyone was gathered around it, sipping their tea.
When they had finished eating, Tawab took his brother and nephew to the doctor, and Parwin released a long sigh of relief. Quickly, she put on the long brown skirt and black jacket that she wore to her job at the Afghan National Television station. She took Shogufa and Ahmad with her.
Back in Paris, with the dust of Kabul in her shoes, Corinne thought at length about the actors she had met and Robert Kluijver’s proposal that she return to Afghanistan and work with them. If she did go, she would have to juggle family obligations and some work commitments. She might just be able to do that. But to do what in Kabul?
Anything less than a full production of a play made no sense, she concluded. If she could take the actors from a first reading to a closing night, she could expose them to a range of experiences that would serve them well in the future.
Within days, she met the noted French theater director Ariane Mnouchkine, who has worked with theater artists from around the world. She had already been enlisted by Robert to do workshops in Kabul that summer with young Afghan actors. These would be part of a larger Afghan Theater Festival that Robert was organizing.
Corinne and Ariane talked at length about what sort of play made sense for Afghan actors. They agreed that the tradition of epic poetry in Afghanistan pointed towards one of the great poetplaywrights. Ariane suggested Tartuffe, by Molière. Its exploration of greed made it unwittingly prescient of the corruption then beginning to exert its crippling stranglehold on Afghanistan.
Corinne wanted a play that called on the physical and emotional energy that she had seen the actors produce. She felt that Tartuffe lacked the force of Shakespeare. In her spacious, sky-lighted loft in an old industrial building near the Père Lachaise cemetery, she started thumbing through Shakespeare’s plays. Foremost in her mind was finding one that had good parts for women. In so many of his plays, women have only minor roles. And in plays where women are major characters – Lady Macbeth, for instance – there are few other prominent female parts.
Some of the comedies have lots of good parts for women. However, Shakespeare has those women engage in male-female courtship rituals that would be problematic to stage in Afghanistan. Even with the Taliban gone, women faced limits on what they could do in public. Just having women on stage with men would be testing the boundaries.
There was one comedy, though, that caught her attention: Love’s Labour’s Lost. It is not so well known nor frequently produced, but it has four strong roles for women. Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, it is actually two plays in one. One is lowbrow, raunchy and full of topical references that no one since the play’s premiere in the 1590s has understood without footnotes, except possibly some English majors. And then there is the second play, a kind of morality play enacted by four men and four women who bear titles of nobility. They speak some of the richest verse Shakespeare wrote. Their jokes evolve from within the play itself, and hence never feel dated.
The play starts with a haunting echo of the Taliban: the men vow to refrain from having any contact with women for three years. They will instead study and improve themselves spiritually. One of them, a king, issues an order that “no woman shall come within a mile of my court … on pain of losing her tongue.”
Almost immediately, four attractive young ladies from a neighboring kingdom arrive. What to do? Just as in Afghanistan, deeply rooted customs require that the visitors be offered hospitality. The king cannot invite them into his palace without breaking the vow he and his friends have just made. Instead, he suggests that the ladies stay in a tent in the palace’s garden. The ladies respond to this rather ridiculous situation with twinkles in their eyes and accept.
Soon, the men’s hunger for the women overtakes their commitment to their vows. Each of them secretly sends a love letter to his favorite among the ladies, but without wanting the other men to know. This being Shakespearean comedy, the messenger entrusted with delivering the letters gives them to the wrong ladies. Before long, each of the young men discovers what the others have been doing. They decide that love is more spiritual than anything they might have studied, and set off to visit the women and express their true feelings. But in disguise.
What follows is as predictable as it is hilarious. The women hear about the men’s plan, and disguise themselves as well. The men arrive but now each of them is wooing the wrong lady. This discovery leads to utter embarrassment among the men, who feel compelled to make a full confession of their true intentions.
The men want to be wed immediately. The women insist on a year’s delay: if the men are still in love with them after one year of chastity and reflection, they will marry them. For the women of Love’s Labour’s Lost, the bride price they are demanding is total commitment on the part of the men.
So the play ends where it started, with the four young men going on a retreat. Now, however, their motives have changed, and are much more genuine. And importantly for Corinne, it is the women who decide the outcome, and impose conditions that the four young men accept.
This was exactly the kind of play that Corinne was looking for. Indeed it almost seemed that it had been written to be performed in the garden of the Foundation, with a Kuchi nomad tent set amid the rose bushes and pomegranate trees. She read the play several more times. By doing only the scenes that involved the nobles, she would have a tight drama that would run well under two hours. That would be more than enough for actors without recent experience of doing theater.
One nagging issue worried her, even as her confidence in Love’s Labour’s Lost grew. She had seen no actresses apart from Parwin. Were there others? What could they do?