“You will never understand.”

Tony Kushner has never been to Afghanistan yet in a hallucinatory passage in his play, “Homebody/Kabul,” he conveys the utter strangeness of the country and its unfortunate people. The script has recently been published and the passage in question, though losing some of its power on the printed page, still strikes me as brilliant and far better at communicating the disfigured Afghan psyche, and the difficulty we have understanding it, than anything I have read in newspapers or magazines (or written myself).

The passage comes in the first act, which is a monologue by an English housewife who is the “homebody” of the play’s title (she will travel to Kabul and disappear there). She is sitting in her London home and recalls her recent purchase of ten hats; the shopkeeper happened to be an Afghan whose right hand lacked three fingers. The italics in the passage, which is a fantasy (or maybe not—in the play, truth is like a wisp of smoke), are Kushner’s:

“I ask him to tell me what had happened to his hand. And he says: I was with the Mujahideen, and the Russians did this. I was with the Mujahideen, and an enemy faction of Mujahideen did this. I was with the Russians, I was known to have assisted the Russians, I did informer’s work for Babrak Karmal, my name is in the files if they haven’t been destroyed, the names I gave are in the files, there are no more files, I stole bread for my starving family, I stole bread from a starving family, I profaned, betrayed, according to some stricture I erred and they chopped off the fingers of my hand. Look, look at my country, look at my Kabul, my city, what is left of my city? The streets are as bare as the mountains now, the buildings are as ragged as mountains and as bare and empty of life, there is no life here only fear, we do not live in the buildings now, we live in terror in the cellars in the caves in the mountains, only God can save us now, only order can save us now, only God’s Law harsh and strictly administered can save us now, only The Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice can save us now, only terror can save us from ruin, only neverending war, save us from terror and neverending war, save my wife they are stoning my wife, they are chasing her with sticks, save my wife save my daughter from punishment by God, save us from God, from war, from exile, from oil exploration, from no oil exploration, from the West, from the children with rifles, carrying stones, only children with rifles, carrying stones, can save us now. You will never understand. It is hard, it was hard work to get into the U.K. I am happy here in the U.K. I am terrified I will be made to leave the U.K. I cannot wait to leave the U.K. I despise the U.K. I voted for John Major. I voted for Tony Blair. I did not, I cannot vote, I do not believe in voting, the people who ruined my hand were right to do so, they were wrong to do so, my hand is most certainly ruined, you will never understand, why are you buying so many hats?”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.