Playwright Interview: Selling Kabul

By Tim Sanford, Outgoing Artistic Director
January 21, 2020

Portrait of Tim Sanford by Zack DeZon


The history of medicine is the story . . . of the dialectic between doing and thinking — and how to make decisions under opacity.

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb

It seems impossible to launch into a consideration of Sylvia Khoury’s gripping and trenchant drama, Selling Kabul, without noting the extraordinary fact of her dual vocation as a doctor and playwright, a still-evolving journey that dramaturg Ashley Chang chronicles so compellingly in her bulletin article within these pages.  I marvel at the stamina and supple intelligence that could achieve these goals. I also feel compelled to ponder the common ground between these two seemingly disparate disciplines.  First, obviously, both medicine and theater focus on the human body, one as the object of study, the other as the means to expression. One examines how the body functions scientifically, the other how the mind and feelings function artistically. But perhaps the delineation between the mindsets that govern them is not so clear-cut. 

“Sylvia spins out her narrative with an almost surgical precision, building tension by increments as the events outside this apartment escalate.”

Nassim Taleb talks a lot about doctors and medicine in his provocative, important book, Antifragile, cited above. The thrust of his book differentiates between “Fragility,” that which is harmed by stresses, “Resilience,” that which endures stresses without harm, and “Antifragility,” that which benefits from stresses. Medical science is fragile when it clings to unexamined, outmoded protocols. But it is antifragile when it responds to our mortality. Disease, epidemics, horrific injuries: all fuel advances in medical treatment. Sometimes advances are accompanied by setbacks.  The history of medicine is filled with examples of unintended harmful side effects from new medications. On the other hand, many of the great breakthroughs in medical science sprang from unexpected by-products of experiments that only revealed their potential usefulness due to the vigilant curiosity of the experimenter. Drama also thrives in antifragility, both in the way that it responds to the shocks of living in the world and in the way it comes to life in the rehearsal room. But it must also be noted that, as in medicine, dramatic practice locked in unexamined routine can yield fragile, deadened results. So theater-makers strive to uphold a balance in the dialectic of doing and thinking. Theater-making certainly benefits from thoughtful research and preparation, but plays tend to spring to life once on their feet from intuitive discoveries fueled by the imagination.

I’ve indulged in this admittedly long-winded introduction to Selling Kabul to broaden our appreciation of it.  It presents itself as a taut drama about Taroon, an Afghani translator for the US military who has had to go into hiding at his sister, Afiya’s, after the resurgence of the Taliban, hoping for a visa to come through. Sylvia spins out her narrative with an almost surgical precision, building tension by increments as the events outside this apartment escalate. But she does so by attending to the human scale of her story. We see the characters clinging to some semblance of normalcy:  Taroon’s wife has just had a baby so he is going stir-crazy; Afiya is managing sadness about fertility problems while trying to keep Taroon calm; the friendly, nosy neighbor has just had a baby too; and Afiya’s husband is a tailor who sews Taliban uniforms to make a living. 

All of these details serve to ground Sylvia’s characters’ humanity. So the larger stakes of the story and the achingly shameful reflection on our global politics play out against this assiduously modest and convincing backdrop. We can see the whole world in this family. And we can see ourselves. But most important of all, we can all of these people as individuals, and there we see the most beautiful and crucial intersection of the playwright’s and the doctor’s task: to serve the world one patient, one character at a time.