2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the world recovered from the most destructive war in its history, the young United Nations attempted to codify a set of internationally agreed principles on the fundamental rights of human beings. The right to life. To equality before the law. To leave your home country and find asylum in another.
These rights would apply to everyone, no matter their race, religion, or gender. For the past seventy years the declaration has been cited, broken, ignored, appealed to, challenged, honoured, enshrined in law and taken out of it. But for better or worse, for seventy years it has provided a valuable framework for establishing equality.
So, it’s an important anniversary, and I’m a little bit surprised that the first I’ve heard of it all year is the press release from Kali Theatre, who focus on producing new writing from South Asian women, announcing their War Plays festival: seven play readings exploring the legacy of the declaration, and how those utopian ideals have been realised, or not, in the catastrophic conflicts of the last seventy years.
There are plays here about occupied France in World War II, about the Bangladeshi Civil War of the 1970s, about the occupation of Tibet, and about contemporary Afghanistan. The programming shows an admirable breadth of scope, covering some important episodes in history on which we hear shamefully little. I was there on Tuesday for Rukhsana Ahmad’s From Kabul To Kunduz, so that’s what I’ll talk about in this review.
From Kabul To Kunduz starts in an immigration detention centre, where Saeed, an Afghan refugee, has come to meet his long-lost brother Abbas, only to find he was deported the day before. Saeed’s place in the UK is, comparatively, secure: he has the right to remain, a loving foster family, and is the head of a successful refugee charity. Abbas, on the other hand, has faced the life of an undocumented migrant, then deportation, and been placed on a terror watch list – perhaps by nothing more than an administrative error.
As he follows his brother first to Kabul and then to Taliban-occupied Kunduz, Saeed tries to unpick the process of chance, caprice or fate that gave him security and denied it to his brother. In this quest, he crosses paths with Rabbia Durrani, a rising female Afghan politician, attempting to thread the needle between a forceful advocacy for the rights of her fellow Afghan women, and staying just moderate enough to not make herself or her family a target for religious extremists.
The murky moral world of the play feels well-realised, and the shifting alliances between Saeed and Rabbia as they each attempt to use each other for their own equally sympathetic ends hold your interest. But it felt like the play wore it’s responsibility to educate very heavily, with a few too many scenes where characters sit and unpick the history of Afghanistan’s many wars in a way that feels crudely expository rather than dramatic. The twisting plot, with it’s political intrigue, felt better suited to a novel or a film than a play. But the play is well-researched, and feels truthful and morally complex.
War Plays is a work in progress that is being performed at the Tristan Bates Theatre until May 19th. For more details, click here.