Last week I read a book called Shakespeare in Kabul that probably upends everything you thought you knew about Afghanistan.
It's an important book — and it's being published just after U.S. officials pledged to support Afghanistan for a decade beyond the exit of U.S. troops at the end of 2014.
That deal isn't yet final. But if we want to maintain a long-term relationship with Afghanistan, more Americans need to understand the yearnings of ordinary Afghans. This moving tale of Afghan efforts to stage Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost reveals what might have been — and might still emerge one day — in Kabul.
The idea for the play emerged in 2005 at a time when Afghanistan was swept by optimism in the wake of successful presidential elections. "Everyone saw good things ahead," says the book's coauthor Steve Landrigan. He spent five years doing development work in Afghanistan, and was inspired by the Afghan passion for poetry.
Landrigan joined forces with Corinne Jaber, a Paris-based actress, who wound up producing the play, and with Qais Akbar Omar (coauthor of the book), a remarkable young Afghan who had survived the horrors of Afghan civil war and Taliban rule.
As a student, after the Taliban's fall, Omar had stumbled upon a Farsi translation of Othello in the Kabul University library. (Farsi is the Persian language, which is similar to the Afghan Dari dialect.)
"As I read the first few pages," Omar told me by phone, "I was immediately fascinated. Who is this man, with this foreign name, I wondered, who writes like one of our great poets?" He called the bard Malem Shakespeare, because in Afghan culture the title malem (teacher) conveys the highest respect.
But the Taliban had burned most books in Kabul, and there were no other Shakespeare texts to be found. Moreover, as the group auditioned Afghan actors and described Shakespeare's famous scenes of war, the actors made clear they did not want to perform anything connected with bloodshed.
"They said we have to do something funny, something romantic," Omar told me. Love's Labour's Lost was chosen because of its beautiful poetry and courtly notions of love. Shakespeare in Kabul describes the daunting obstacles the group overcame, including the need to translate the complex language of the play from a version by an Iranian professor.
The actors would sit in a circle reading the language until they grasped it. "They loved the poetry, which was so rich," says Omar. One actor told him, "I think Shakespeare is an Afghan who migrated to England."
The producers also had to overcome the inexperience of the Afghan actors, who had only done TV or movies. And they had to find women willing to risk appearing on stage with men — the first time this had happened in 30 years.
Finding funding was also a huge task: the British Council, which promotes British culture overseas, was a major backer. But the U.S. Embassy refused to help because Shakespeare was British — and Congress has mandated that it must use funds to promote only American culture. I kid you not.
Sadly, the play appeared just as the situation in Afghanistan started going downhill. As America's attention was distracted from Afghanistan by the Iraq war, the Taliban regrouped. Armed and trained by Pakistan, they began attacking inside Afghanistan again.
"In 2005 things looked bright, but after 2006 suicide bombers came back," says Omar. "People thought the Americans and NATO would stop this, but things got worse and people lost hope. Families would be afraid to come out to see a play today."
Yet, the bigger story that emerges from this book — and from the rapturous reception the play received in its handful of performances — is the hunger of Afghans to emerge from decades of war and Taliban repression.
"Ordinary Afghans are thirsty for knowledge," says Omar. Shakespeare's themes — of men facing autocratic leaders and doomed lovers defying ethnic or tribal taboos — spoke to their yearnings for change. Most Afghans do not want the return of the backwardness imposed by the Taliban.
Omar was scheduled to attend his book launch in London, on Shakespeare's birthday. Instead, he is in Pakistan, where he has been waiting in vain for five weeks for a British visa. (There is no British consulate in Kabul, and the Brits hold onto Afghan passports while the visa applicants are waiting.)
This indignity reminds me of how casually Westerners often treat Afghans, and how little they know of Afghan culture.
"I will sit quietly with a glass of green tea," says Omar, "and in my own way say, 'Happy Birthday, Malem Shakespeare.'" Read his book.