Afghanistan: Where be thy burkhas and body armour now?
June 28 2012: Paul Smith, the British Council’s Director in Afghanistan, explores the value of local arts projects in building a better future for Afghanistan.
‘We came into the world like brother and brother;
And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.’
It was early work, so we might forgive Shakespeare the cute sentiment of the concluding lines of The Comedy of Errors. Perhaps the couplet is more robust in Dari. It certainly sounded so when the Afghan company Roy-e-Sabs performed this delicious farce in such culturally challenging non-Hindu Kush venues as the Globe Theatre, London, the Sheldonian, Oxford, and Hatfield House. For these Afghan performers, most of whom had not previously ventured much outside of Kabul, this was as dislocating an experience as the shipwrecking and scattering of Egeon’s family around the Mediterranean.
And how the troupe earned the sentiment of those final lines – a plea for equity, understanding, camaraderie, from the most put-upon country in the modern world. Despite the battiness of the idea, there’s so much that’s right about a comedy of errors from a land made destitute by an unending tragedy of errors.
Shakespeare’s comedies typically end with a sacrament – a rite of healing, resolution and provoked hope. That sacrament is invariably marriage – invariably except for Comedy of Errors, which moves the cast into an abbey for ‘festivity’ after ‘long grief’, to recognise, in an almost baptismal process, the restoration of a family and the acknowledgement of singular identities. After two hours of increasingly manic errancy and confusion, of identities maligned, abused and denied, individuals finally reassert themselves, the two sets of identical twins and their encrowding communities at last finally distinguish themselves and know each other, and the giddiness of false assumptions is steadied. The transfer of this plot resolution to Afghanistan is not too glib, as this wrecked country journeys (again!) from the errancy of international imposition, through the giddiness of ‘transition’, to the reassertion of a communal nationhood. Can the period after 2014 realise a transformative fifth act for this repetitive farce of mistaken identity?
As the British Council team in Afghanistan, we are privileged to run programmes that support the Afghan people’s aspirations in education, civil society and professional development. Some pretty off-the-wall ideas flood our emails every day in Kabul – well meant but dubious proposals to help build the next generation of Afghan leadership and support the re-founding of Afghan self-managed sovereignty and pursuit of prosperity. But the proposal that we should initiate the Afghan touring production of a Shakespearean comedy was just too bizarre not to feel somehow intrinsically right. With the wise, sensitive and tenacious Corinne Jabber as director, we provided the means to set in motion the production’s initial casting workshops and rehearsals, and found the space to get things going in our British Council compound in Kabul.
All was well, until 19 August 2011, the day before the second round of rehearsals was due to start. Suicide bombers had other plans. A 1,000-kilogramme car bomb ripped us open, an eight-hour gun battle ended with multiple deaths and massive trauma, our compound was completely destroyed. But Roy-e-Sabs remobilised and new rehearsal spaces were found in Bangalore to see the production through.
This is a comedy born of tragedy. This is a comedy performed by a cast each of whom has a life blighted by the tragic. One of the actresses was widowed by the Taliban as retribution for the grossness of allowing a wife to walk the stage. So, what on earth are we all doing, encouraging this dilettante, culturally preposterous production of a British sixteenth century boulevard piece, from a country ravaged by war and deprivation?
In Kabul you can’t get away these days from the three-legged stool. The future stability and prosperity of Afghanistan is deemed to depend on the promotion of governance, security and development. But the stool’s a table and it needs a fourth leg – of culture. Any post- or mid-conflict nation, seeking to reformulate itself, must first know itself in all its diversity, plurality and chosen consistency, before it can govern itself, protect itself, develop itself – before it can be itself.
‘Culture’ is not a sociological category, separable from the communities it describes. Culture is organic. It is the primary means of identifying and distinguishing the different groups, societies and communities that make our world. All peoples are imbued with their cultures, such that every aspect of each person’s social being and individual identity – including their disposition towards politics and power, economics and value, religion and belief – is culturally conditioned. Helping Afghanistan rediscover and project its creativity and artistic impulses recognises art as a people’s self-created means of variegating the human imagination, voice and touch, and of drawing individuality, and ‘the possible other case’, through every social continuity, assumption or uniformity. There are no rules, and few norms, in cultural identity and determination – art is the primary herald of that life-giving, and potentially conflict-preventing, fact
Roy-e-Sabs’ Comedy of Errors is a hoot, as good an evening in the theatre as you can get. But, like all good art, it’s not finally about entertainment and escape but about confronting and exploring. At their best, the arts are the most open and communicative means of people expressing their identities and of audiences engaging subjectively with what might otherwise remain impenetrable. The arts resist conformity and accentuate individuality.
So, ‘let’s go hand in hand.’ Afghanistan is not a geopolitical strategy nor a portfolio of newly signed bilateral ‘enduring partnerships’. It’s not just a daily tally of deaths and of damning statistics. ‘The world must be peopled,’ says Shakespearean comedy. Afghanistan is well peopled – 30 million, the great majority of them much younger than many of you reading this. Let’s help them seek to resolve the mistaken identity, to move from wandering to wondering, to stage a comedy, not a tragedy, of errors.
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