Charles Randolph Wright’s powerful Love In Afghanistan examines many of the complicated issues facing young Afghan women. The play, which recently completed a world premiere run at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., focuses on Roya, a young Afghan woman who is a translator at a U.S. army base in Kabul. There she meets an American rap star, Duke, who has traveled to Afghanistan to entertain the troops. Duke falls in love with Roya, not realizing the difficult cultural hurdles she will face by having a relationship with an American man.
I was born and raised in Afghanistan. My parents, siblings, cousins and everyone else I knew had arranged marriages. In Afghanistan, marriage rarely involves the notion of “love”. Rather, it is a matter of duty and responsibility. In most cases, the boy’s parents are the ones who make the proposal to the girl’s parents. The girl is typically not asked her opinion and dares not speak her mind, because refusing to marry the man her parents select for her would bring shame and dishonor to the family. For the girl, this often sets up a lifelong struggle to honor and obey the customs of her country and family at the expense of her own happiness (although, it must be said, some arranged marriages are very successful). Even in more modern Afghan families that allow their children to have a love marriage, the families must make the arrangements.
The decision of who the daughter should marry is often based on ethnic and religious reasons as well. Most Afghan families will not permit their daughters to marry a non-Muslim, and that man must be from Afghanistan. Different ethnic groups are not permitted to intermarry: Tajiks don’t marry Pashtons and Pashtons don’t marry Hazaras. There is an exception to the rule of marrying a non-Muslim, however—a Muslim man can marry a woman who is Christian or Jewish because the man is considered head of the household and the children will be raised Muslim. A Muslim woman is not permitted to marry a non-Muslim man.
As the play evolves, Duke learns about another difficult cultural issue in Afghanistan— Roya is a Bacha Poosh, a girl who belongs to a family with no sons, so she dresses up as a boy in order to keep the family from being dishonored. Yes, the attractive woman Duke falls in love with has spent most of her life dressing and acting like a boy. This is not always such a bad thing for the girl, since as a boy she can be educated and have the freedom to move around the city. But it sure is difficult to comprehend how this young woman/boy would not be confused in a relationship.
Duke has every good intention regarding Roya and even attempts to marry her—partly out of his feelings and partly out of his desire to save her from her circumstances. Roya has the courage to strongly object to this arrangement. What Duke does not understand is the burning passion that many women have to stay in Afghanistan and fight for change. In Roya, Charles Randolph Wright has captured the essence of what so many Afghan women wish they had: the power to say no, the courage to stand up for themselves and others and the appreciation of their culture that allows them to honor the family in a manner that also honors themselves.
Love in Afghanistan explores the deep-seated cultural and religious issues entwined in falling in love in Afghanistan, and the effects those issues have on the lives of those who dare to follow their hearts. It is a story that needs to be seen and heard. Hopefully it will be produced again soon in other cities.
Photos courtesy of Arena Stage