‘Selling Kabul’ shows courage at Williamstown Theatre Festival

A young man is sitting on a thick, warmly-colored rug and leaning against the couch that wraps around the room, trying to fix the router. He wants to check his email. He wants to distract himself, because his wife is in the hospital, in labor with his first child. He is elated, bewildered, blindsided — all that any new father feels when his son is coming into the world — and he wants to be with them.

But if he leaves this house, they could both be killed.

This is Kabul in April 2013. The United States has just begun a major withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Taroon has worked as an interpreter with the U.S. army, and as the army leaves, it leaves him and all of his family exposed and unprotected. He has been in hiding for months in his sister’s house, and today he is trapped inside while she has gone out to sit with his wife.

So a day of reckoning begins in New York playwright Sylvia Khoury’s Selling Kabul, a new work premiering July 10 to 20 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

“Knowing his son is being born and not being able to be there, it’s visceral,” said Babak Tafti, who plays Taroon. “The (strength of emotion) when a child is born is enough to begin with — but then to learn that a dangerous figure was there, and you can’t do anything, because you will kill everyone you love — I don’t know how to put it into words.” 

He spoke with director Tyne Rafaeli and Khoury at the Williams Inn after an evening rehearsal. The play has grown, Khoury said, from experiences she knows from the inside.

“I am close to people who have worked with Afghan interpreters who are struggling to escape their circumstances in Afghanistan and Iraq,” she said. “The human situation of being trapped in your home while waiting for the fulfillment of a promise by America and other countries — a pressurized situation we as Americans are responsible for — seems important to speak about.”

Interpreters signed up to work with the U.S. in the belief that they would rebuild Afghanistan,” Rafaeli said. 

“Their country has been a battleground between empires for centuries. They hadn’t experienced this in their lifetimes, but they were aware of it.

“After 9/11, when the U.S. came into Afghanistan, there was a hope. A great hope. This would be the rebuilding of Afghanistan.”

Taroon decides to become an interpreter largely to help the woman he loves. She is intelligent, vibrant, strong.

“He looks at his wife,” Tafti said, “and sees the restrictions the Taliban has created.”

His family is highly educated and well-off, the women as well as the men. He sees the U.S. as a land of freedom that can bring opportunities to his own country.

“He buys into that ideology and power,” Tafti said. “There’s no way they could lose or would give up the job.” 

And not only did the U.S. not fulfill that promise, but the U.S. army did not take care of the translators who worked with the troops, when they left.

Troops who could not talk with anyone local on the ground relied on their interpreters, Tafti said. Interpreters saved lives. They served under fire and shared the same dangers soldiers faced. 

“I think Taroon was really good at his job and at being in the field,” he said.

He got along with the soldiers he served with, and they respected him. 

“Taroon has a strong connection with the U.S. because of the troops,” Khoury agreed, “and the troops consider him family. But there is a disconnect at the political level.” 

Taroon has now been waiting for months for the army and the U.S. government to help him and his wife, and now his son. His sister and her husband and their friends are risking their lives to protect him.

Taroon’s sister and her husband, Afiya and Jawid, are trying in their own ways to keep those they love safe. Now Taliban soldiers are after Taroon, and they will damage anyone near him to find him.

“These forces are inconsistent,” Rafaeli said. “They are not centralized, not predictable or recognizable. You try to protect yourself, but it’s hard to plan and make decisions. (Taroon and his family) hear interpreters are being targeted, but they don’t know how or why.”

They cannot trust any authority. 

“That’s the kind of terror,” Khoury said, “When we read about Afghanistan or Iraq, we get numbers but not the daily terror these people are living under. The U.S. has a real culpability there. 

… Afghanistan is this country’s longest war, and when we’re ripping this country apart, the people there bear the brunt of it.”

They are ordinary people, Rafaeli said, trying to deal with extreme circumstances, when any choice can cause pain. 

“They’re good people trying their best,” Khoury said. “That’s what matters most. They want no harm to come to anyone, and the situation will not allow that.”

As the action builds, Tafti said, events and choices come so large and so fast, and grow out of so many circumstances buffeting all at once, as uncontrollable as thunder, that decisions come by pure instinct.

As the play evolves in rehearsal, Rafaeli feels the weight of their need and determination.

“Childbirth, eating, family, love (are here) — the human capacity to survive a shifting experience. They cling onto each other and hope. And they can endure so much. This play is at heart about family. What you would do for your family.”


Up close

What: Selling Kabul at Williamstown Theatre Festival
Where: 1000 Main St., Williamstown
When: July 10 to 20
Admission: $60
Information: 413-458-3200, wtfestival.org

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