Experiential writing can sometimes fall into the trap of being written in a laconic, drawling manner. Often, the writing fails to truly illustrate the experiences of the writer, it fails to lure the reader in and tends to keep him at bay. But in Shakespeare in Kabul, the writing snaps and pops of the page with surprising animation, while also evoking heartbreaking moments of tenderness.
The premise behind Shakespeare in Kabul is the struggle endured by a tireless, determined director (Corinne Jaber) and playwright (Stephen Landrigan) to stage Love’s Labour’s Lost in a war-ravaged Afghanistan. Starting in March 2005, Landrigan and Jaber decide that they want to put on a Shakespeare play. Shakespeare in Kabul chronicles the constant obstacles that had to be overcome, whether it was cultural issues, misunderstandings, actors arguing with each other or securing funding for the piece. But grit and determination prevail.
The book moves chronologically, as if it were a logistical report. At the start of each chapter it states a time and a location, for example: ‘Kabul. 8 September 2005’. The style is helpful—a simple but effective way of reminding the reader about the amount of time and effort it took to make the play into what it was. And although the title is Shakespeare in Kabul, the play was staged in other areas of the country, each with new cultures, customs and languages.
Shakespeare in Kabul is penned by two authors, giving the reader an interesting choice of two perspectives. Landrigan provides a western look at the country and culture, as well as the bureaucratic goings on that affected the production. He is the first author we encounter, and it is with him that the reader is guided safely into the Afghan world. The other author is Qais Akbar Omar, an Afghan native. It is from his perspective that we delve deeper into Afghan culture. His writing allows us to understand the massive cultural significance of staging a Shakespeare play in the once cosmopolitan Kabul and then the transfers to the mesmeric Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat.
In one insightful passage, Omar describes the process of having a poetry battle, a custom considered traditional in Afghanistan. The discussion helps the reader to understand the importance of literature and language in Afghanistan, while also suggesting that Shakespeare himself would have been at home in a country where the everyday man would quote poetry from the region’s greatest minds to win an argument. Another key moment occurs when Omar recounts the actors initiating a Bollywood-style improvisation. The writing of this section is fluid yet hectic—you can tell how exciting it must have been for everyone.
Perhaps the most impressive part of this book is the detail to which it describes each of the actors. It explores their pasts in an almost novel-like way and ensures that the reader is able to sustain an intimate relationship with each one. Their bravery in what must have been incredibly taxing circumstances is astounding, and that idea is emphasized once we come to know more about the actors taking part in the production. A sound relationship is formed across the board(s), the reader comes to care so much about the actors that the conclusion of the book presents an apt relief for the turmoil that had preceded it.
Also included in the memoir, as if any further help was needed in aiding us to imagine what the process looked like, are several pictures showing the actors, directors and staging of the piece. For a book of this kind, the inclusion of pictures is a welcome treat. Our imaginations had already created images of what the scenes looked like, but physical proof of the production helps to add even more authenticity to the piece.
Shakespeare in Kabul’s strength lies in the fact that it does not offer a wholly Euro-centric viewpoint on Afghanistan. While Landrigan’s views are important, Omar’s accounts give depth to the experience The reader becomes, in a sense, a citizen amongst the crowded, dusty streets of Kabul. We see every street corner, haggle with every market trader and engage in fierce poetry battles with a new group of friends.