100 Years First World War

    Shakespeare in Kabul
    On the Trials and Tribulations of Staging a Play in Afghanistan

    Down through the years, much has been written about Shakespeare. Much has also been written about Afghanistan. At the end of February, however, a book published by Unionsverlag shed new light on both themes, combining the two and providing profound insights into life in this war-torn country.

    In their documentary-like book Shakespeare in Kabul, Stephen Landrigan (a US journalist and development aid worker) and Qais Akbar Omar (an Afghan interpreter and journalist) paint a vivid picture of the country and its culture without ever resorting to platitudes. The action is played out against the backdrop of rehearsals for a theatre production of a Shakespeare play.

    It is the summer of 2005 in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Rehearsals for a truly unique performance project have just got underway. Under the direction of the Syrian-Canadian director Corinne Jaber and with the financial support of foreign cultural institutions, a group of Afghan actors of both genders is rehearsing Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. Shakespeare in Kabul documents the process involved in getting the play off the page and onto the stage – from the difficulties of translating the script from Farsi and English into Dari to the play's tour of the Afghan provinces. But this book is more than just the story of a theatre production; it is also the story of the actors who performed in it and, therefore, of recent Afghan history. Few recent publications succeed in providing such a vivid insight into daily life in this war-torn, crisis-ridden country. It is these very snapshots of Afghan life that help us understand why – despite all the good intentions – so much is going so wrong with reconstruction aid in Afghanistan.

    A very different daily routine

    To begin with, the foreign artists often have difficulty adjusting to the rhythm of the Afghan day. It comes as a surprise to learn that rehearsals don't begin before 4 p.m. There is a very good reason for this: most of the actors have to earn their crust elsewhere. Matters are compounded by the fact that the female members of the ensemble have to be home before sunset, which is why rehearsals have to be squeezed into a narrow slot of just three hours. During this short period, there is also a break for tea and biscuits – a tradition that refuses to die, despite all that has happened in Afghanistan. But it doesn't end there: rehearsals are constantly interrupted by the ringing of mobile phones. Stephan Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar – who also assumed the role of co-director of the production – make it clear that this has nothing do to with a lack of courtesy or a poor work ethic on the part of the company. On the contrary, no one here can ever be sure when a bomb will go off, killing a friend or relative, or if their children will make it home from school safe and well. Then there is the constant fear of ending up the victim of an attack oneself. This is not unlikely, especially when one considers that art and theatre in particular were widely banned in Afghanistan even before Taliban rule, and draconian measures were taken to punish infringements. This fear, combined with the bans and the censorship that have been introduced down through the years, has been engraved on the consciousness of the Afghan people, suppressing creative activity to this day. As a result, many cultural traditions have been lost over time. Although Afghan culture is full of poetic stories in verse form that are equal in every way to the double entendres of Shakespeare's work, the actors in Kabul have difficulties understanding the translated drama with its flowery language and subtle ironies.

    Back to their own cultural roots

    Afghanistan's own multifaceted culture of theatre and story-telling will have to be dug up from beneath the rubble of the catastrophes of the past few decades. Performing Shakespeare not only means appropriating a Western culture, it can also bring one back to one's own roots, as this book illustrates. The rediscovered delight in one's own language with its poetry and puns is just one aspect of this. Another is dealing with one's own current issues in an artistic way. In the book, one of the actors explains how texts from other cultures help in this respect: 'The play [Love's Labour's Lost] shows that restrictions on the way we live our lives, such as the ones imposed on us by the Taliban, are like a wall that is built in the middle of a busy road. Sooner or later, the people will come and tear down the wall. They will not allow such restrictions to prevent them from going where they want to go, even if it costs them their lives.'

    At this point in the book, the actors are predominantly confident and courageous. But while the first performances of the play in Kabul are very well received, the struggle to find more funding and the day-to-day struggles of the cast members caused by constant hostility from the general population soon take their toll. Nevertheless, ways and means are always found to perform the play around the country, preparing the way for cultural revival in these areas too. The book does not answer the question as to why so little attention is paid to Afghanistan's own cultural heritage. Instead, the authors hint that some foreign cultural institutes seem to be creating the impression that they are absolutely indispensible in this country, and that they can assert their own value standards here at will.

    Despite this gentle criticism, the book ends on a positive note: the prospect of another Shakespeare production. This second production, Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, was performed by Afghan actors under the direction of Corinne Jaber in 2012. However, the threat of attacks was so serious that most of the rehearsals took place in India. The production was only ever performed outside Afghanistan. In fact, it will never be staged there at all: the fear it could become the target of an attack is now too great. One can only hope that Omar and Landrigan's Shakespeare in Kabul is read by many people. If it is, then theatre will have helped make another small contribution to international understanding – albeit in a roundabout way.

    Hannah Neumann
    is currently writing her doctoral thesis on contemporary Iranian and Afghan theatre at the Institute for Theatre and Media Studies in Cologne.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2013

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