In 2005, a carpet designer named Qais Akbar Omar was part of a group that staged a production of Love's Labor's Lost in Kabul, the first public performance of Shakespeare in Afghanistan in 35 years. After decades of occupation, war, and Taliban rule, the group was eager to perform a comedy, and Love's Labor's Lost resonated with the actors. Brooke talks with Omar about the production, which he wrote about in his book A Night in the Emperor's Garden, and the profound connections between Shakespeare and Afghanistan.
"Timber Town" - Derek and Brandon Fiechter
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
So now we leave the Anglophone world of the past for the global community of today. The British Council recently conducted an online poll to gauge Shakespeare love in 15 nations. Topping the list? India, Mexico, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, China, South Korea. True, online surveys are not notably reliable but still, it suggests that Shakespeare translates in ways English speakers cannot easily fathom. In 2005 in Kabul, Afghanistan, a brief moment when the Taliban had been pushed to the periphery, a carpet designer named Qais Akbar Omar helped launch a production of “Love's Labour’s Lost.” It began with the visit of a French actress named Corinne Jaber pondering with some actors a production. The actors said yes to Shakespeare but no to tragedy. They’d lived that for 35 years.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: We looked into “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but it doesn’t coordinate with Afghan culture and customs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But “Love’s Labour’s Lost” did?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: It did, it did. Corinne actually came up with that play, but we didn’t have access to the translation so she told the actors, there are four princes and four princesses and these four princes take an oath that they are going to study for the next four years and they will not interact with any woman and they will eat one meal a day. And that sounded very much like Taliban, and all the actors laughed and said, what, Shakespeare actually came up with this 400 years ago? And Corinne said, yep. And so, what happens next? And she said, well then four princesses come to the court to try to talk to the king about some serious issues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So they set up a tent for them.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Exactly, outside, which is, again, like nomads, always living in Afghanistan in tents everywhere, all over the country. So that also has a little bit of connection to their Afghan history and culture.
And then they said, what happens? And she said, all these four princes fall in love with these beautiful girls. And then what happens next? And they said, well, let’s read the play.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is one of the notable plays of Shakespeare where there are equal numbers of women and men.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And in the end, the women get to make the decision.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: That was one of the most important message of the play that we choose this one, because for six years the Taliban did not allow women to work and they were locked inside their houses like prisoners. And in this play, the woman get to make the final decision. It was a great message that no, woman always had an important role in Afghan society, and let’s revive that back by this play. Of course, that was happening already but this play pronounced that a little louder.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And do you think the West has a misconception about that?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: They do. They only know of the bloodshed and war, but there is also beautiful other things happening, for example, the love for poetry. We have something called poetry contest. You sit in a circle and I decide two verses from Omar Khayyám and you decide two verses from Rumi.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The great Afghan poet.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Exactly, yeah. The first word of your first verse starts with the last letter of my verse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Wow!
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: And that goes on for hours. And also, it’s not just random poetry. We have to talk about something. Let’s talk about love or let’s talk about – I don’t know –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you’re talking about alternating verses –
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - based on the last letter and not just verses but verses limited to a particular theme.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Exactly! People don't know these things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s leap from your discussion of the importance of poetry to your problems with getting a translation of “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” You had to go to an Iranian translation from a famous poet in Tehran who had translated into Farsi all of Shakespeare’s plays.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know that Dari, one of Afghanistan's languages, and Farsi are similar but –
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Very similar.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - they’re not the same. Did you run into a problem there?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Oh yeah, it was a huge problem. The difference between Dari and Farsi, you know, it’s like the difference between old Shakespearean English with the modern-day American English. But we started to read a little more, we got, you know, hang of it and then we said, oh wow, this is actually very beautiful. And then by the time we gave the play to the actors, it was amazing. It was more like a poetry contest. Some of the actors, of course, could not read. One of our actresses was a beggar who became famous doing a movie called Osama.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She was a child then. She basically came into a restaurant where the director was, begging for money, and he said, I got to put you on film. She was brilliant but she couldn't read and she still lived in terrifically poverty-stricken circumstances when you guys tracked her down.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Yes. I mean, she was famous. She made this movie. But she didn't make much money out of it, enough to buy a piece of land, build a few rooms. She never had a chance to actually go to school during the years of Taliban. And the same thing with some of the other actresses.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Although some of those actresses were real dynamos.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Yes. Two of the actresses, one Saba Sahar, another, Breshna Bahar, both of them actually worked with the minister of interior as detectives – these are really educated people, they were professional actors, they were, you know, reading it like as if this is their own language, as if, you know, they wrote the play. And one of the actors, his name is Faisal, he believed that Shakespeare was an Afghan who migrated to England 400 years ago and there he wrote probably one or two plays and he got famous and he stopped calling himself an Afghan and he became Englishman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] He was convinced of this.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: He really believed it, and I said, why do you feel that? And he said, Shakespeare writes like Rumi. The only difference is that Rumi’s poetry is all about spirituality, God and all these issues, while Shakespeare writes to entertain people, to make people laugh and historical issues. But the quality of the language is the same, so how come two people existed, one in Afghanistan, one in England?
They must be related. And I said, you make a good point.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] But they weren’t speaking Shakespeare's words. They’d had to go through several series of translations. I mean, can you, as someone who knew the original so well, say that they were speaking the language of Shakespeare?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: You know, Shakespeare, it was very similar to Afghan culture, more than any other cultures in the world, because we still lived like we were in the 16th century, in some parts of the country, and especially with all these rules against woman, especially with Taliban just pushed out of the picture, but the memories were still fresh in people's minds. Plus, the quality of the language, when the actors recited their lines written by Shakespeare 400 years ago, it was very natural.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the poetry was preserved, you believe.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Yes, very much so because when you change a word in Shakespeare, the whole thing kind of lose its balance, the whole verse loses its balance, and then you notice something is wrong in here. And it happened a few times in the translation process. One actor or another would say, ah, it doesn't rhyme properly, it doesn't go very well here, something is wrong. I want to replace it with this word or that word. And then we went and studied both the English and the Dari, and they said, oh gosh, yes, this word needs to be replaced with this one. It’s, it’s just amazing. It’s like a formula. If you take one number off, everything doesn't make sense.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marina Golbahari, the very young girl who played Osama in that famous film, was, as you say, illiterate. Could she keep up with this?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Not in the beginning when we started it, so I had to spend three weeks or more going to the park every day before we start our rehearsals and I read with her and three actresses. She is an encyclopedia of emotions, and it was just amazing. It just flowed, the whole thing, which is why the first day of the performance we had enough space for over 500 and there were 250 or 300 people waiting outside, and we just could not let them in. They were mostly men, except for a few foreign women who were diplomats.
So these Afghan men, the next night they came back with their whole families, their sisters, their aunts, their mothers, because they did not see that there was anything un-Islamic. It was just a very, very beautiful play. The tour performance we had in Babur’s Garden, we had over a thousand people for the audience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, this garden you mention, a garden that was still undergoing restoration because the Taliban in the civil war had destroyed it.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Yes,
BROOKE GLADSTONE: While that performance was going on, the workers also just stopped and watched.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Yes. They just sat cross-legged on dirt on the floor, smiling. And that was everything for us. After the play, hundreds people in their 20s came to me and asked me, who is this guy, who wrote this?
And I said, Shakespeare. And he said, who is Shakespeare? And I said, he is an Englishman. He said, yeah, but that was in Dari. And I said, yeah, we translated it. And I said, wow, can we have the script? So I had my script and I gave it to him. And that script was copied probably hundred times until the lines were unreadable, but at the very last page I had my phone number, and they started calling me and asking for copies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How many calls?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Oh, quite a few, quite a few. I had to go and change my number.
I just told one of the guys, and I said, stop calling me. There is Foundation for Cultural and Civil Society, and I have left a few hundred copies there, then you can make your own photocopies. And that’s what happened. And the funny thing is one of my neighbors one day gave me a copy of it and they said, hey, have you read this thing?
Ah, and I said, yeah, I have read this thing. And he said, it’s amazing, isn’t it? And I said, yeah.
You know, Brooke, this is the thing. People don’t understand that Afghanistan is so thirsty and there is so much talent in that country, all waiting for something to happen so that they can just grab that opportunity and move on with their lives.
Unfortunately, because of war and Taliban returning back, when the suicide bombers started coming back, oh, you know, in America you only get about a suicide bumbler killed 12 people in Kabul. But in Kabul you see the whole thing on TV, they show the blood on the street and the body parts lying from the trees. When you see that, you kind of lose hope for the future. We were planning to take this play all over the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The popularity of the show was accompanied by a certain degree of risk? Could you describe that?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Well, the popularity of the show, one thing. Second thing, because it was by an English playwright. Third, it was funded by a foreign organization. Fourth, if the Taliban killed any of us, they would get a lot of publicity out of this. So that's why we just could not risk it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was anybody hurt?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: One of the actresses – her name is Parwin Mushtael - she is now in Canada with her two teenage daughters and son. Someone knocked on their door. The husband went out to see who was knocking and he never came back. And the next day the neighbors found out that her husband was killed, put in a ditch, in a really brutal way. I don't want to talk about the details of that. It will actually make you sad.
And the women that earlier we were talking about, Breshna Bahar and Saba Sahar, who were both –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Detectives.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: - detectives, yeah, she had to leave her town because people started calling her that she was a whore. And when someone creates that kind of rumor about you, you just have to get out before the crowd kills you.
And Saba Sahar, her family told her to stop making movies. She did not listen because she is a very strong-willed woman and she wanted to do this. So her husband divorce her and took the children away from her because he is afraid that someone probably will kill her and along the way he would be killed and their children will be killed, as well. So I don’t know where she is now. She completely disappeared.
All the actors went to different directions, and some who are still in Afghanistan are keeping a very, very low profile, so that they don’t become victim of some stupid people who would get some publicity out of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s conclude by going over what makes Shakespeare so relevant to the people of Afghanistan.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: During the four years of civil war, as soon as you walk out of your house a sniper from the mountain will shoot you. I mean, that was the reality of life. I am told we had cease-fire briefly for a day or two and people run out of their basements to get some food and then there was war all over again. And when you're in the basement, all you hear is hundreds of rockets raining all over your neighborhood every day. So I grew up in the basement, and every book we had in the house I read them probably more than 10 times, including a couple of plays by Shakespeare. So when we decided to do Shakespeare, oh, I was just so excited.
You know, when I read Shakespeare with Corinne and the actors, we all felt like, whoa, this man manages to get so much of his feelings out in the open. After they finished reading their monologues, they start talking with each other about what happened to them during the civil war or the Taliban. They could relate what Shakespeare was saying in those lines with what happened to them in real life. Sometimes you don’t want to talk about the past, but you want to talk about things that happened to you in a kind of opaque but yet poetic way. And that's what was happening among these actors. Sometimes they openly talked about their past. Sometimes they tried to shield it with those beautiful words.
We don’t have therapy in Afghanistan, and that’s, I think, the best therapy they could have, through the lines of Shakespeare. And that was more like a – like, I don’t know how, how to explain it. It’s like freedom, you know? And then you just feel light.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you were to produce another play in Afghanistan, what you think it would be?
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: I’ll choose another comedy. As one of my actors explained it very beautifully, when we do tragedies one day, we will write it ourselves, and we’ll write it the way it happened, rockets, bombs, blood, and we’ll show all of those things on the stage for the people. So I’ll go with something very funny to just make people forget about the past, even if it is for half an hour.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about “All's Well That Ends Well?”
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: That would be nice, except not yet.
If we have peace, yes. But I will hold onto that for now.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Qais, thank you very much.
QAIS AKBAR OMAR: Well, thank you. Great talking to you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Qais Akbar Omar is the author of A Night in the Emperor’s Garden. As he said, in the end, we each have to tell our own stories. But in the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, it’s pretty clear that he set the template for all of our stories, at once unique and universal. Yes, his words are not our words. As Omar said, that’s why they give us the gift of a little distance, that is, just before plunging us deep into the impenetrable mystery that is every life’s.
That’s it for this week’s show. Kimmie Regler did the heavy lifting for this hour, and thanks to Amy Pearl for inspiring it. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.