Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Great Game

The last three nights I’ve gone to Afghanistan...or as close as most Americans not serving in the military, with an aid organisation or the State Department will ever get. I was transported there via The Great Game: Afghanistan, which has been showing at the Berkeley Rep.

The play is performed over three nights, each of which consists of a series of short scenes, with the overall effect of presenting the audience with a soaring and poignant overview of Afghan history. The first night transports the audience between sumptuous drawing rooms of the British Empire and the battlefields of the ‘Afghan Wars’ of the nineteenth century; between the calculating map-making of diplomats and Amirs, and the British soldiers and Afghan villagers, equally at a loss to explain why they are facing off with each other, or how the farce of great power politics is transformed into personal tragedy when one side opens fire. The second deals with the era of Soviet Occupation and the abandonment of Afghanistan by the United States in the aftermath of that war. The third treats the Taliban’s ascendancy and the aftermath of the American invasion in 2001, which is where we are today.

The Great Game opened with the painter of a mural celebrating Afghanistan’s history of heroic resistance in a Herat city square being dragged shouting from the stage by Taliban fighters. From there, we were plunged back in time. I think it was Mark Twain who said that history doesn’t repeat itself—it rhymes. The Bard himself couldn’t write a couplet that ploughs the old imperial furrows so well-worn by British and Russian armies as thoroughly as we have been doing since 2001.

The production does what some people say any good historian should do—lay out a range of perspectives and, without coming down strong on any single side, endlessly complicate those narratives and stories we might tend to think of as being straightforward and simple. As viewers, we are suitably conflicted about the Afghan leaders and people who appear over the three nights and 168 years. One minute you can feel the audience all but leaning forward and shouting “Go! Go!” as Amanullah Khan or Najibullah expound on their vision for Afghanistan’s future. But the rooting is always temporary, and the almost visceral recoiling comes the moment we learn about the blood-stained walls of torture chambers, the cavalier disdain for life, limb and people’s beliefs.

There are odd moments when, thinking “Oh, no I’ve got this all wrong”, we found ourselves nodding along as a Taliban Mullah (about to murder two men by throwing them to Marjan, the lion in the Kabul Zoo, over whose death Americans and Europeans shed more tears than for the thousands of Afghans who have died since the 2001 invasion) demanded of a UN official, “Isn’t it our human right to reject your freedom?” before snorting in disgust, “You won’t recognise us until we look like you”.

In some ways, it seemed, Marjan the lion was like Afghanistan...stuck in a cage, denied agency, poked, prodded, tormented through the bars by visitors who can always leave the zoo and go home. The difference is that Marjan probably enjoyed the peaceful nights when human visitors were few and far between. For Afghanistan, the long nights—during which the same powers who made war and sowed chaos during the daytime went home and forgot about the repercussions of their actions—are small comfort

At one point, an Afghan declares to a British woman, “My country has been imagined enough already”. That imagining, the play suggests, has been what Afghanistan is all about. The last century and a half of Afghan history, The Great Game implies, has been about foreigners trotting out endlessly recyclable clichés about the country: ‘a country of contrasts’, ‘timeless traditions’, ‘thriving industry’, ‘vibrant nationalities’, ‘great traditions of resistance to imperial aggressors’, ‘exotic’.

And it was the imaginings of British surveyors which created the lines of the map over which we all fight today. In 1893, the Amir of Afghanistan protests to Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, obsessed over borders, “These are only imaginary lines on paper after all”. “But maps”, Durand counters, ‘show me what I am in relation to the larger whole’. The Amir reluctantly agrees. “The lines on it may be imaginary, but the problems they cause are too real. How many men are they worth?” “As many as it takes”, replies the imperial proconsul, his answer sending chills down the spines of audience members to whom such phrases have become all too familiar. Indeed, for many of us, for whom a crisp September morning proved an awakening of sorts, this world of endless war is all that we have known, all that occupies our political memories.

Unable to resolve their intellectual dilemma the diplomat and the Amir turn to a Scottish engineer standing by, preparing to sell armaments to the new Afghan state, and ask him his opinion. “I’m an engineer sir, I wouldn’t know”, comes the answer...washing from the hands all traces of culpability.

Over a hundred years later, Professor Tariq Khan is being asked to brief James Kite of the British Foreign Office. A CIA officer, managing the interview from the shadows of the Special Relationship, reclines on a couch in the Whitehall office, so far removed from the mountain passes and fields of Afghanistan. Professor Khan asks Kite what he would like to know.

“Assume I know nothing!” Kite declares merrily, and the audience laughed along, though nervously, because these lines were hitting perilously close to home, like a predator drone pounding an Afghan hillside. But what, in the end, is worse? An admission of ignorance, or a presumption to know enough to make a country in your own image?

The final night of the play, we were abruptly faced with the presence of the Stars and Stripes, somehow obscenely gaudy against the prison-grey wall erected between Afghanistan and the world by the wilful machinations of the Taliban and the connivance of the world’s intelligence agencies.

If identifying the ‘bad guys’ in Afghanistan has become increasingly complicated given that Obama’s strategy is no longer to defeat the Taliban, but instead to force them into talks with the Afghan government, so too has our ability to pronounce on the universality of our own values, or the ease with which they can be ‘implemented’ in Afghanistan.

An American aid worker, eager to rebuild a school for girls in a remote Afghan village in Kandahar, against a hazy blue sky, surrounded by poppy fields, pleads with a father to send his daughter to school. “And when the Taliban return?” her father asks. “What good will be her education then?” Here is a man who knows something of the history of his country, who might well have quoted an old CIA hand who we saw the previous night, in the 1980s, musing to himself over Afghanistan: “Is there some way”, he queried, “to get our hands dirty without leaving fingerprints?”

Unlike the aid worker, who whatever his commitment will return home shortly, this Afghan man lives with the memory of watching the Taliban stage a football game over the remains of his brother, who was torn to pieces and disembowelled by the Taliban for teaching girls. And when the aid worker chastises him for growing poppies in place of wheat, he shakes his head in disbelief. “Poppies”, he says, ashen-faced, “always come back. Even when bombs rip the earth, poppies always come back”. There will be a special irony, for those who care to see it, as upright Britons place poppies in their lapels on Remembrance Day.

The most disquieting scenes, from my perspective, were the opening and closing ones. Both featured young British soldiers, first in 1842 and then in 2010, manning the ramparts of their fortresses, the Afghan night and their own doubts closing in on them. Virtually all that differed were the uniforms, the strident scarlet having given way to camouflage.

In 1842, each meditates on why he has come: “God’s will”, “To kill savages”, “I’m in because of my country”, “Orders”, “Many years ago I was left with a dwindling stock of choices and I joined the army”.

And if, in 2010, the Taliban’s violent intolerance gives an Afghan father pause before sending his daughter to school, it is the spraying of acid in the eyes of a child brave enough to venture in search of an education which keeps one British soldier on the battlefield.

He might well have been referring to the declaration by an aid worker in the previous scene—“There is no such thing as right or wrong in our work—only culture”—when he asks his subordinate, contemptuously, “Have you ever heard of moral relativism?” “No sarge”, comes the answer. “Well, it’s the new rock ‘n’ roll. I’m gettin’ it printed on me helmet”.

But then there are the other reasons for him to return, that have to do with what the war has wrought on his psyche. England is stifling, his countrymen ignorant. “The last time I was home, someone asked me if I’d met Saddam Hussein!” He can’t look his son in the eye when he returns home. He finds conversation with his wife difficult, and The Great Game closes with the soldier defending his mission, and his wife shouting, “That place has always been a mess and it always will be a mess!” When he tries to protest, she cuts him off, “I don’t want to hear this story. I don’t want to know these things!”

This is where we are at as a people today. The more we can plead ignorance about what is going on in Afghanistan, the longer we can put off the day of reckoning, when we’ll have to make a decision, a judgment, a call about what we are trying to do there, and about whether it is something we can and should be doing. And it will remain too easy to plead ignorance so long as most of us are not bearing the cost.


The show ended, the cast came out en masse, we were jerked back from the poppy fields, the living rooms of military families, the encampments in the mountains. But of course all of those things are still there.

There was a brief Q&A with two actors and Director Nicholas Kent.

One Civil Affairs Officer, about to depart for his third tour of duty, said that the play “hit on so many things”, and was “dead on”.

This is a production that should be shown up and down the country in the playhouses and theatres, schools and state capitals, community centres and universities of every town in the U.S., and in every member state of the ISAF forces.

In some respects I appreciate the ambition of the production, as Kent put it: “We’re trying to be as unbiased as possible, to leave you to make up your mind”. I genuinely believe that, however futile an ambition it is to present something in an unbiased manner, that the power of discovery is a potentially transformative thing.

But Kent, whose play has been performed for officers fresh out of Sandhurst, also noted that The Great Game will be performed before the Pentagon later this year. And he told the story of being approached by a group of ISAF colonels from over a dozen countries after one performance of his play, and being told, “What we’ve seen will affect what we do there”. This is, on the one hand, a powerful testimony to The Great Game as a work of theatre and politics and history.

But knowledge of history in itself is not enough. An audience could take almost anything away from the performance. One wonders, if a work is going to have policy impact, whether it has a responsibility to do more than simply complicate matters? Irrespective, most North American and European publics could benefit from understanding how our war in Afghanistan is seen by many Afghans as a war on Afghanistan, fitting into a much longer and very destructive history.

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