Cycle of Violence: A Series of Plays about the History of Foreign Intervention in Afghanistan Conveys a Mixed Message, Writes Raymond Whitaker
Whitaker, Raymond, New Statesman (1996)
On the Kilburn High Road in north London last Saturday, I embarked on a journey to Afghanistan. The Tricycle Theatre was staging all three parts of The Great Game, a series of 12 half-hour plays, of varying quality, which seek to examine that country's history and the usually disastrous attempts at intervention by foreign powers. With Gordon Brown having been in Afghanistan just the previous week to announce the deployment of more British troops, the Tricycle's mission seems especially timely.
Unlike anyone connected with the production, apart from the Tricycle's artistic director, Nicolas Kent, I have travelled to Afghanistan several times, starting in 1992 when, more through luck than judgement, I happened to be there as a correspondent for the Independent as President Najibullah's communist regime collapsed. Consequently, I reacted to some scenes differently from the rest of the mostly grey-haired, Guardian-reading audience.
In David Edgar's Black Tulips, for instance, there is a briefing on the dangers of landmines by a Soviet soldier, which is presented as a sinisterly comic turn. I attended just such a briefing in Kabul, given by a British ex-officer. The Soviet sapper warns his comrades of "mines set on top of other mines"; that is how the Briton I heard later died. The old tank he was using for mine clearance detonated an anti-personnel device, as it was meant to do, but beneath it was a much more powerful anti-tank mine, which killed him and his two colleagues.
The story of Marjan, the one-eyed lion in Kabul Zoo who survived all the city's upheavals, has been told by almost every journalist to have visited. In one of the best plays, The Lion of Kabul, Colin Teevan imagines a confrontation outside Marjan's cage between a female UN official of British Asian origin and a smugly fanatical Taliban mullah who refuses to address her except through a male translator, even though he speaks English. She is demanding justice for two murdered Afghan employees. In accordance with the retributive principles of Taliban justice, he proposes handing over the culprits to her, to be fed to the lion. The irreconcilable differences between relativistic western liberalism and hermetic Islamist certainty are expertly explored.
Just as I was drinking that the plot was slightly far-fetched, even for Afghanistan, I remembered a story a British aid worker once told me. The worker, who was running a project north of Kabul, said he had tolerated a series of petty thefts by his Afghan workforce until his transistor radio, his only means of getting news of the outside world, went missing. He complained to the local mujahedin commander. A couple of days later the radio reappeared in his room, and he thought no more about it until the following morning, when he found the bodies of two men, shot through the head, in the road outside his compound. After that he kept any complaints of theft to himself.
The violent deaths of two Afghan leaders - Najibullah, who was dragged from a UN compound by the Taliban before being beaten, castrated and strung up in the street, and Ahmed Shah Massoud, the renowned commander who defied both the communists and the Taliban until he was killed by al-Qaeda suicide bombers, two days before the 11 September 2001 attacks -are recounted in two of the plays. Having tried without success to talk my way into Najibullah's I UN sanctuary in 1994,1 wondered if David Greig I was drawing on the report of a more fortunate colleague for Miniskirts of Kabul, but he makes clear that the interview it depicts is imaginary. Having met Massoud, however, I am less sure than Ben Ockrent (or his sources) that all might have been well if the US had supported Najibullah during and after the campaign to drive out the Soviet forces who invaded Afghanistan in 1979. …