“This is not how it’s supposed to go. This is not how any of this is supposed to go.” That simple, anguished sentiment stretches across three generations in the family at the heart of Sylvia Khoury’s Selling Kabul. Afiya and Taroon’s mother taught them English in hopes that they’d be able to go to university abroad, to get out of the Taliban’s Afghanistan, to make names for themselves. Instead, Afiya (Marjan Neshat) married the man who took over her father’s tailor shop, and has given up on hoping for anything but the barest modicum of safety and the dream of a successful pregnancy. Jawid, Afiya’s husband (Mattico David), has turned his tailoring skills to making counterfeit Afghan army uniforms for Taliban members, to enable them to gain access to official places and gain the trust of the populace–and, he hopes, to gain some protection and some material comforts for his family. Taroon (Dario Ladani Sanchez) turned his mother’s dreams into a job as a translator for the Americans, in hopes of securing a better future for his country and a better life for his family.
But now, in 2013 in Kabul, Taroon’s main American contact has left the country as part of the troop drawdown and Taroon, as a “collaborator,” has come under the suspicion of the resurgent Taliban. He’s been hiding at his sister’s apartment throughout the latter half of his wife’s pregnancy, awaiting a promised American visa, as Afiya frantically tries to hide his presence–or that she even has knowledge of his whereabouts–from her dear friend and neighbor, Leyla (Francis Benhamou). Afiya and Jawid, much less confident than Taroon in the promises of the Americans, have also arranged an illegal escape route for him as a Plan B. And today, everything is coming to a head: the day that Taroon’s son is born and Taroon can’t be there; the day that the internet in Afiya’s apartment has been down for three days and thus Taroon can’t check his email for the arrival of his visa; the day that Leyla decides she and Afiya must spend some quality time together because it’s been far too long; the day that Afiya and Jawid see suspicious armed men at the hospital and Jawid starts to doubt that his work for the Taliban will in fact protect him.
On this day, both Taroon’s newborn son and Leyla’s five-month-old baby, over the ninety minutes of real time that the play encompasses, are about to have their lives, too, forever altered by the moral and political failures of the United States’s actions in Afghanistan.
Selling Kabul is yet another of those eerily prescient pieces I’m seeing this fall, which should have premiered 18 months ago and has taken on only more timeliness in the delay. The play depicts the devastating collision of abstract, bloodless policy with real human lives. In that, it reminds me of another of this season’s delayed premieres, Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City, but where Majok traces years of the impact of immigration policy on two young people already in America, Khoury is surgical in her precision in time and place. The play takes place in real time, precisely as the fragile and barely tenuous circumstances under which this family was surviving and hoping for a better future collapse utterly.
The particular complications on this day pile upon each other in a way that should feel cartoonishly melodramatic or clumsy: a brother targeted by the Taliban and waiting for an American visa that may never come (or may have come; who can tell, since the internet is out); his wife sent into early labor for reasons that become clear to the audience but not Taroon over the course of the play; his sister and brother-in-law doing work for the Taliban; a nosy neighbor who threatens to trip over any of the secrets this family is keeping.
But where Khoury succeeds brilliantly is in co-opting in the tropes of another kind of domestic drama to ratchet up tension and build plot. There are so many moments in which Selling Kabul could almost be a bedroom farce: the secret guest popping from closet to bedroom behind the backs of an ignorant visitor (or is she? Layla is clearly suspicious); the nosy neighbor who ignores all subtle cues asking her to go home; the dodging of phone calls and the increasingly elaborate excuses for why people are behaving in unusual ways. The parallel tracks of the almost comic machinations and the incredibly high and dangerous stakes balance the mood on a knife edge. Design elements, too, amp up the tension almost unbearably, particularly Jen Schriever and Alex Fetchko’s lighting design, full of practical lamps casting dull domestic light so that every sharp-angled beam cast from the windows and especially the door feels like a dangerous intrusion, and Lee Kinney’s sound design, with helicopters threatening outside and a constant switching on and off of fans inside to lessen the risk of being overheard.
I didn’t love everything about the production: I found Tyne Rafaeli’s direction a little fussy, with a lot of business that I’m not sure was necessary to maintain the feeling of being trapped. It lessened the impact of some of the small but critical bits of action, as when Leyla and Afiya are sewing and Leyla almost discovers what Afiya is hiding. And some of the performances felt over-stylized to me, starting at a pitch that leaves little room for the emotional tone of the situation to go from bad to worse, as it does. Mattico David’s Jawid is the performance that really hit home for me: his resignation to the choices that he’s made for safety is almost more terrifying than the others’ outright fear. “I am not a good man,” he says. “My country? I have willed myself not to think of it.” Taroon still has hopes that the Americans will save him–Jawid and Afiya don’t even have that, and now they’re facing even more loss.
In the press release, Khoury writes: “What is less often discussed is the uglier side to this American dream—particularly when it’s falsely dangled in front of you, and the pursuit of it puts you in danger.” In 2008, George Packer’s Betrayed, based on his work reporting in Iraq at the height of the war there, and inspired by his moral outrage at how the United States was treating the locals who’d risked their lives to work for the Americans, premiered in New York. It’s now 2021. The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan this June only underscored how little we’ve learned from the “Forever War.” [If you’re interested in helping the Taroons of right now and their families, a program note directs you to refugeerights.org.]