By Helen Epstein
Selling Kabul poses many questions from the point of view of people seldom represented on the American stage.
Selling Kabul by Sylvia Khoury. Directed by Tyne Rafaeli. Staged by the Williamstown Theatre Festival (produced in association with Playwrights Horizons) at the Nikos Stage, Williamstown, MA, through July 20.
One of the running sub-themes of American military engagement abroad is the question of what happens to those people – in Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, to name four nations – who work for Americans in their home countries and are left behind when their employers leave. Perhaps the most famous is photographer Dith Pran, the Cambodian survivor who was New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg’s assistant in 1975 when Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. Schanberg was evacuated; Pran was not. After surviving genocide and famine in Cambodia and escaping to Thailand, Pran reunited with his family and Schanberg in the U.S. He eventually became a photojournalist at the New York Times. An extraordinary article written by Schanberg about Pran’s story became a book and then the movie The Killing Fields.
The consequences of collaboration with the enemy is an age-old theme that I have seldom seen addressed from the point of view of those left behind – and never in the theater. In Sylvia Khoury’s new play Selling Kabul, set in Afghanistan of 2013, the protagonist is a former interpreter for the U.S. Military who works with an American named Jeff. The play opens with a loud soundtrack suggesting a military withdrawal; Taroon is struggling with a broken router in his sister’s apartment in Kabul, desperately trying to check whether he has an email from Jeff. Taroon is in hiding from the Taliban and awaiting word of a promised visa to the United States. He is also awaiting his sister Afiyah’s return from the hospital, where his wife Bibi has given birth to their first child. The situation is all the more dangerous because Afiyah’s husband Jawid supplies uniforms to the Taliban; and their intrusive neighbor Leyla, who has recently had her own baby, is jumpy and suspicious.
This serious drama crackles with tension, addresses the personal and political consequences of American intervention abroad, and features four interesting characters (Taroon’s wife is an offstage presence). Selling Kabul poses many questions from the point of view of people seldom represented on the American stage: what are the consequences of taking sides in wartime? What are the costs of trying to get by living in a repressive regime? Has Jawid, as he postulates, “sold Kabul for a television set?” How do his and Taroon’s differing choices reveal their strength or weakness? How do their choices impact other people’s lives? What happens to a family and a community in such a deeply riven country? In this case, how does a young Afghani man choose the American military over the Taliban or vice versa? What did Taroon gain from his choice and did the Americans, as Afiya complains, pay him only “in dreams?” And what is the role of the women in this situation? Do they influence the men that love them to make political decisions? How do they exercise choice, if any?
These are universal questions that exist in many countries, totalitarian or under occupation or political threat. Khoury, a playwright and medical student born into a family of Middle Eastern immigrants to the U.S., scrutinizes these issues, supplying insights and observations from all three realms.
Taroon’s mother, we learn, was obsessed with English, which is why he was able to become a translator for the Americans. Taroon’s wife Bibi is an educated woman, who believes in the promise of U.S. intervention in her country and supports her husband’s choice to work with the Americans. Taroon’s sister, while respectful of her husband, is loyal to Taroon; she risks her own and her husband’s life by hiding him. Their neighbor, Leyla, represents the bystander, a citizen of what was called “the gray zone” in Soviet-occupied Europe. She appears narrowly motivated by her own interests, thrives on vanity and gossip. She winds up an unwitting victim of the events that unfold.
Some of the plot turns in Khoury’s script are not as clear as I would like, but her characters are finely drawn. Director Tyne Rafaeli gives her actors space to showcase the complexity of their characters. She directs Babak Tafti as a very young, idealistic, and self-centered Taroon, driven almost mad by having to hide in his sister’s apartment while his wife is giving birth to their child. Yet he seems indifferent to the fact that he is endangering her and his sister’s family as he waits for a visa that doesn’t arrive. Marjan Neshat gives a more nuanced and sympathetic performance as the clear-eyed, practical, selfless sibling Afiya, a woman who is brave as well as loving, who must support her husband and lie to her brother. The strongest performance for me came from Omid Abtahi, who brought to the quiet role of Jawid a dignity and quality of hopelessness and doubt in his choices — as well as great love for his wife. May Calamaway as Leyla seemed incongruously one-dimensional as the nosy neighbor of the group.
The play takes place entirely in the Kabul living room, a convincing set designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, with the router, flat-screen TV, and air-conditioner standing as luxuries in an urban, young couple’s flat. Dress is a major signifier in this play (shoes, slippers, and outer garb are repeatedly put on and taken off as characters move back and forth between public and private spaces) and costume designer Dina El-Aziz has made the most of the opportunity, giving Afiyah a black head-to-toe chadaree for outside, and jeans and a low-cut blue tunic top for home. Jawid wears a takiyah (muslin skullcap) and western jacket over his Afghani dress. Taroon dons casual American sports attire until he is dressed for escape in a Taliban uniform and then his own chadaree, and the vain Leyla is dressed in a conservative yet flatteringly elegant tunic and pants with a matching headscarf.
Selling Kabul is being produced in association with New York’s Playwrights Horizons, where the production will begin performances at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater in March 2020. The script should provoke thoughtful conversations and I recommend you see it here or in New York if you can.
Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp: An American Life and Children of the Holocaust. She has been reviewing theater for the Arts Fuse since 2010.