Swans Commentary » swans.com August 23, 2010  



The Great Game Lost


by Peter Byrne





"It seemed too easy and glib, the demonizing of the Taliban, attacked in the west 'as vicious barbarians from the Middle Ages' instead of the bastard children they increasingly seemed to be of the West's arrogant meddling in Afghanistan in very recent times."

—Pankaj Mishra, Temptations of the West, Picador, 2006.


(Swans - August 23, 2010)   It makes sense that London's fearless Tricycle Theatre would bring Afghanistan to its stage. What astonishes is the breadth of the project. The neighborhood theatre with an international reach has long since acquired a reputation for treading social and political minefields. Now it has added an historical dimension. The Great Game refers to the 19th century struggle between Britain and Russia for dominance in Central Asia. At the Tricycle it falls into three parts: 1842-1930, Invasions and Independence; 1979-1996, Communism, the Mujahideen and the Taliban; 1996-2010, Enduring Freedom. Each part groups several short plays separated by pertinent statements from various sources read by actors. In all there are three different programs of serious entertainment.

The Tricycle's Afghan endeavor began in 2008 when its director Nicolas Kent commissioned thirteen short plays that would encompass Afghanistan from the 1840s to the present 9th year of NATO's hapless war there. * The trilogy was produced to large acclaim at the Tricycle in April 2009, and the program, augmented and slightly reshaped, took the Tricycle stage again from July 23 to August 29 this year. An American tour will begin in mid-September and run to December 19. It will begin at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington and go on to the Guthrie in Minneapolis, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and to the Public Theater of New York.

It sounds impossible to round up hurriedly a dozen playwrights who share a point of view and who work in roughly compatible forms. And impossible it in fact turned out to be. But that's precisely why the Great Game project proved so fertile and full of surprise takes on the subject in a dizzying variety of dramatic approaches. The short plays have, in consequence, to be considered one by one. They were mostly directed by Nicolas Kent or Indhu Rubasingham.

The Cabul women are much addicted to the use of both white and red paint; and they colour not only the nails, as in Hindostan, but the whole hand up to the wrist, very disgusting to our ideas as it looks to have been plunged in blood. -- Lady Florentia Sale

Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad, by Stephen Jeffreys, tells of the immediate British reaction to its biggest defeat ever: In 1842, 16,000 soldiers and camp followers were killed on retreat from Kabul. Bribes had been promised to tribal chiefs but never paid up in full. The play dramatizes the different points of view of the survivors. One actually sounds like a Pentagon spokesman: "Then all us soldiers must be got out, evacuated. Leaving the country in a worse state than we found it."

Waziristan and the Pushtuns are in the wrong place, we can all see that. In some ways, your entire country is. -- Sir Henry Mortimer Durand.

In Durand's Line, Ron Hutchinson shows how the mind of the foreign secretary of India worked. In 1893, by putting a frontier through the middle of the Pashtu homeland, he established the border of what is now Pakistan, incidentally creating Afghanistan.

Our overall policy and tactics remain absolutely the same. We're just considering a supplementary plan that might be considered favourably. -- Foreign Office secretary

Amit Gupta in Campaign brings us to today's Foreign Office, London. An official spin-doctor, bright and ignorant, pumps a bewildered academic in search of sound bites. The Brits want out of Obama's war and try to invent a democratic Afghan opposition that would ask them to leave.

There is an infinite number of things to be done, always. But to know which to do now, and which will come undone, there must be thought. -- Mahmud Tarzi

In 1929 tribal chieftains unseat the recklessly reformist King Amanullah. Joy Wilkinson in Now is the Time tells of his flight with his wife Soroya and her father Tarzi, the gray eminence. The threesome, embittered, exchange recriminations.

Don't let the gloom merchants tell you any different. Our mission is succeeding. The great surge ordered by our new dynamic leadership exceeds all expectations. We command the battleground because we command the air. -- A Red Army captain

In Black Tulips David Edgar gives us the viewpoint and rhetoric of the Soviet military in Afghanistan in the 1980s. With superficial differences in vocabulary, Soviet pronouncements were just as hollow and far from reality as today's NATO press releases.

Look at you! 'The Gucci Muj.' That's what they call you. 'The Gucci Muj.' So is that it? Is that where the money's going? -- CIA man to a Mujahideen

J.T. Rogers's Blood and Gifts visits Pakistan, Washington, and Afghanistan in the 1980s. A rugged Mujahideen commander begs the CIA for arms in 1981. Five years later he's learnt English, been dressed up, and appears in D.C. to explain to congressmen how he's fighting "atheist foreign interlopers." The Russians gone, the same commander changes tack. "We have flooded our land with blood and carnage but still there is wickedness. We are a wound that must be cleansed. Only Islam can purify us. A true Islam."

I think the British Empire was a bad thing. -Do you? -I do. -Not in your heart of hearts. -- Conversation of Najibullah and British writer

The Soviets left Najibullah in power when they departed in 1989. The Mujahideen forced him out in 1992, and he took refuge in the United Nations compound in Kabul. David Greig in Miniskirts of Kabul imagines him visited there in 1996 by a Western female writer. In what's very much like a dream she strives to understand what kind of man he is. The play is a powerful character sketch. The Taliban are on the point of capturing the city from Massoud. When they succeed, Najibullah is tortured and murdered.

Is it not our human right to reject your freedom? That is one human right you do not recognize. You will not recognize us until we look like you and act like you and are slaves to your economic system. We don't want to be like you. -- Khan, a mullah

A British woman of Indian descent, a Muslim, is on mission for a UN agency in Afghanistan. She goes with her Afghan interpreter to enquire of a Taliban mullah what has happened to two of her employees. The Lion of Kabul by Colin Teevan is a subtle portrayal of how all concerned in this encounter are shaken and changed. The play reveals the inclination of several of the dramatists to demonize the Taliban.

And chasing his honey-pot, he [Massoud] clung on to the belief that this new relationship with our American dentist [CIA agent] would lead to bigger political support. Five more years passed since that meeting and we found ourselves pushed back as far as the mountains of Farkhar. Still fighting the Taliban. Still alone. -- Khalili

It's 1996 in Ben Ockrent's Honey and the CIA wants to connect again with Ahmad Massoud after dropping him along with Afghanistan once the Soviets left. He's now Defense Minister in the Rabbani government. The Taliban are winning and capture Kabul, where Bin Laden soon turns up. It's imperative for the U.S. to get back the stinger missiles they gave the Mujahideen. They pay Massoud for the few he still has, the Taliban having got away with most of them. If the CIA can show Congress that Massoud is on the right side, it might lead to massive US support. But what it in fact leads to is Massoud's assassination by suicide bombers. Ockrent does his best to make Massoud and the reckless US agents more than a paragraph in a history book. But it's not easy.

Tell him build me a dam and maybe I will grow something other than poppies. Tell him they may have rid us of the Taliban but they must offer us more than their bombs and packets of onion seeds. -- Omaid

The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn by Abi Morgan takes place near Kandahar in 2002. An international charity sends an American to fund a school. But no money can be granted until fifteen female pupils are signed up. The Taliban killed the husband of the woman who used to run the school, and she can't get over her guilt for involving him. Now her brother-in-law refuses to enroll his daughter. He lost his pregnant wife and two sons to American bombs. Forced now to grow poppies, he's ordered by the rough and whimsical boss of the opium operation to send his daughter to the school. The play barely skirts sentimentality, but does evoke the constraints of Pashtun peasant life.

I don't want anything to do with Women's Rights, human rights, children's rights; rights are individualistic concepts and the one thing that Afghanistan doesn't have, and has never had, is any individuals. -- Jackie

Richard Bean's On the Side of the Angels is contrived, melodramatic, and didactic. But the lesson it teaches is the right one and effectively put across. We are among NGOs in London and Afghanistan. What to lead with in the newsletter? The funding manager proposes a photoshopped picture of an Afghan girl going to school for the first time. It will warm donor hearts and loosen their purse strings even in hard times. Jackie says no. They have to talk about land ownership and efficient farming. Afghans are starving because their land is tied up in local disputes. Away from London, in the field, similar conflicts arise between the foreign aid workers. Do you go along with custom, e.g., child betrothal and poppy growing, if it puts food in mouths?

You're a coward Jay. You think you're being a hero. You're not. We're so way beyond that now. It's gone on for too long. We're not helping. We're just smashing it all up. And every time you try to make it better you do the absolute opposite. -- Cheryl

Canopy of Stars by Simon Stephens begins with a conversation between two British soldiers in Helmand. Richard says he's only fighting for his mates, killing Taliban because they try to kill him. Jay reproves Richard for not putting hate of the Taliban and their beliefs first in his commitment to the war. Home on leave, Jay's obsessive hatred of the enemy and impatience to return to the fight is ruining his marriage. The play points up a tendency in The Great Game project. The writers dwell on what's sharply contrasted and dramatic. This leads to a facile polarization of good and evil. For instance, Jay saddles only the Taliban with cruelty to women, whereas we know that their attitude can be found across the Pashtun countryside and beyond. In the same way he sees the foreign invasion as righteous in face of Taliban evil, and doesn't apply his moral strictures to other Afghans, including warlords, corrupt politicians, and poppy millionaires.


Naomi Wallace's No Such Cold Thing was surely the most formally exciting and innovative play of all. It, moreover, managed to keep its head above the torrent of historical fact while illuminating the moral confusion of the historical moment. Wallace's play was performed outside of the trilogy program, once before each of the political discussions that marked the original Tricycle Afghan festival of April-June 2009. Three young people, all dead, mingle in a whirlpool of anxiety. A US soldier, who is a Chicano, communicates with two teenage Afghan sisters, one who never left home and the other who has lived in the West. Despite their stumbling misunderstandings, the clearest of truths emerges: None of the three should have died.


*  For the play scripts, see The Great Game: Afghanistan, 2009, Oberon Books, London, ISBN: 978-1-84002-922-2, 280 pages, 9.99 pounds. The ample program on sale at the performances is rich in historical and other useful information. J.T. Rogers's Blood and Gifts has been dropped from the 2010 trilogy, and Lee Blessing's Wood for the Fire added. It recounts meetings in Pakistan, 1981-86, between the CIA and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence with an Afghan commander taking part.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published August 23, 2010