The first time I remember there being widespread discussion in the media about the problems faced by Afghan interpreters — those who had worked with Americans during the War in Afghanistan, and had to face the wrath of the Taliban once those Americans had returned home — was in the summer of 2021, when the war ended. But it was really not a new issue. Sylvia Khoury’s “Selling Kabul” — which is currently being produced by Premiere Stages at Kean University in Union, in its New Jersey premiere — is set in 2013, and was first produced in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 2019. After opening off-Broadway in late 2021, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2022.
It’s an emotionally wrenching play, made even more vital by the fact that, as Premiere Stages producing artistic director John J. Wooten writes in the show’s program, “the danger for those still in Afghanistan continues to exist.” (The program also includes information on the New Jersey Coalition for Afghan Refugees and other organizations working along the same lines.)
“Selling Kabul” takes place entirely in a single apartment, in a single day, in the Afghan capital city. That is where Taroon (Zaven Ovian) has been hiding out for four months after Jeff, the American he was working for, returned to the United States. The apartment is owned by his high-strung, fiercely protective sister Afiya (Atra Asdou, in the play’s most memorable performance) and her more mild-mannered but stalwart husband, Jawid (Afsheen Misaghi). Taroon, in contrast, seems a bit weak and self-indulgent, as if Jeff’s American ways have rubbed off on him.
The play’s only other character is their chatty neighbor, Leyla (Anat Cogan), a close friend of Afiya’s whose crying infant can be heard through the walls. Leyla must be kept in the dark about Taroon’s presence in the apartment, because in this type of situation, no one can be trusted.
Jeff is never seen, though the visa he is supposedly sending is anxiously awaited.
“America, their word is good, okay?” Taroon tells Afiya at one point. “It takes some time.”
“He fills your head with dreams,” snaps the eternally skeptical and sometimes prickly Afiya. “I don’t like it.”
At another point, Taroon tells Afiya, “I will get my visa, Afiya. And then, who knows: Maybe you’ll follow! You could go back to school.”
Afiya responds, sarcastically, “Yes, yes, and we’ll all break out in song about dreams coming true.”
Jawid feels guilty that he has achieved his comfortable though not exactly luxury-filled (by American standards) life by working for the Taliban, supplying them with military uniforms. That is where the “Selling Kabul” title comes from: He feels that he has sold his country out.
Afiya works on the uniforms, too, without the guilt. She’s doing it “for you, to keep you safe,” she tells Taroon.
Ratcheting up the tension to an almost unbearable level, on this day, Taroon’s wife Bibi has just given birth to their first child. Taroon is deeply upset that he cannot be there with her: It would be too dangerous. He actually had planned to dress as a woman, with his face covered, so he could visit, but he, along with Afiya and Jawid, decided that that would be too reckless — that the risk was just too great.
But Afiya and Jawid have visited Bibi and their new nephew. So have the Taliban, suspecting that Taroon would not be able to keep away. But as painful as it is for him to stay in hiding, he does so.
“Did (Bibi) ask where I was?” Taroon asks Afiya.
“She knows better,” Afiya replies.
Further complicating things, Taroon, Afiya and Jawid have reason to suspect the Taliban may be closing in on him, so he may have to flee, anyway.
Khoury doesn’t pull any punches regarding just how horrific this situation is, all around. Yet she does offer a glimmer of hope as the play ends.
Her writing does raise create some frustrating questions, though. If the Taliban is as intent on capturing Taroon as they seem to be, and they know enough about him to stake out his pregnant wife in the hospital, why haven’t they raided Afiya and Jawid’s apartment yet? It’s an obvious hiding place.
Also, Taroon spends parts of the play hiding out in the apartment’s closet or bedroom. Sometimes he can overhear what the other characters are saying through the thin walls, and other times he can’t, with no explanation given.
“Selling Kabul” may not be perfect. But it does bring the issue — of American allies in Afghanistan, imperiled simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time — to vivid life.
“Today has felt like 10 days,” Jawid says at one point in the play. Yes, Khoury really does make it feel that way.
Premiere Stages will present “Selling Kabul” at the Bauer Boucher Theatre Center at Kean University in Union through Sept. 24; visit premierestagesatkean.com.
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