In 2005, a group of actors staged Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour Lost in Afghanistan, a country torn and ravaged by years of civil wars, Soviet invasion, interference of foreign nations and the horrific Taliban regime. The book, Shakespeare in Kabul by Stephen Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar, presents the inside story of how the play took shape and came to be performed in a country where the Taliban had strictly prohibited all forms of art under its regime and men and women performed on stage together for the first time in more than 30 years! When the play was finally staged, it was widely covered by all the world’s media.
After successful elections in 2004, the Afghans as well as the foreigners in Afghanistan became highly optimistic and began to dream about a better future. A lot of people believed that the revival of arts and culture was the way forward in the country known for its poetic languages (Pashto and Dari) and its poets such as Rumi. One such person was Robert Kluijver, the Director of the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society.
In 2005, Robert was overseeing a music and poetry festival to mark Naw Ruz (the traditional Afghan and Persian New year), in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The event had attracted a large number of foreigners and among them were Stephen Landrigan, a former journalist and playwright and Corinne Jaber, a French actress at the forefront of the Paris theatre scene. Both happened to be staying at the same UN-run guesthouse and that is how their paths crossed.
Back in Kabul, Robert wanted Corinne to hold some sessions at the Foundation with Afghan actors and tell them about theatre and actors elsewhere in the world. It was on a visit to the Foundation that Corinne and Stephen came up with the idea of doing a play, and not just any play, but Shakespeare.
The co-author, Qais Akbar Omar, a local carpet businessman and a journalism graduate, was en-listed as an interpreter for Corinne and Stephen and quickly became an indispensable part of the project. He also had to frequently mediate between Corinne and the Afghan actors, who ran into trouble with each other on more occasions than one. Most of the book gives an account of the project from Qais’s eyes.
Capturing all the difficulties faced by the team from finding the right actors, especially the casting of women as they were still hard to come by, to choosing the play (the actors had made it abundantly clear that they would not enact a tragedy – their lives had had enough) to raising funds, the book moves in a rapid pace. It also provides insights into the culture-rich Afghan life and brings to light the issues that continue to plague the country.
Simply unputdownable, this book is a must read and recommended for anyone with an interest in Afghanistan and its history.