Playwright’s Perspective: Selling Kabul
By Sylvia Khoury
January 21, 2020
Portrait of Sylvia Khoury by Zack DeZon
Every time I sit down to work on this play, I cannot rid myself of the recently-colorized, very mustachioed image of my blue-eyed Algerian great-grandfather. Although I’m certain he never set foot in Afghanistan, I find him psychically linked to the character of Taroon in my play, the Afghan interpreter promised a visa in exchange for collaborating with the American military at great personal risk.
My aforementioned maternal great-grandfather, Samuel Amsellem, was born in Tlemcen, Algeria in 1894. This made him French — but only barely. In 1870, the Jews of Algeria had been granted French citizenship through the controversial Crémieux Decree (widely considered to have been a means of dividing, and therefore controlling, French Algeria’s colonized Jewish and Muslim populations). Samuel was Jewish and therefore French, and so was sent to fight for France in Germany during the First World War. He sustained a severe leg wound and inhalational gas injuries, and died at 34, likely from respiratory complications.
“Three years without citizenship, without any way of imagining the future, in which one thought must have played and replayed in my grandmother’s mind: we were only French when convenient.”
Thirty years after Samuel had fought and died on behalf of France, his daughter (my grandmother) Marie-Liliane was pulled out of high school (along with every other school-aged Jewish child) per order of what was now Vichy France. The Crémieux Decree was reversed, and her citizenship revoked. France, the country her father had died for, had cast her out.
Now, I won’t pretend that this story has a tragic ending. It doesn’t. The Second World War ended before Algerian Jews could meet the same terrible fates as their European counterparts. The Crémieux Decree was reinstated in 1943 and remained in place until the Algerian War for Independence. But I often think of those three years of limbo. Three years without citizenship, without any way of imagining the future, in which one thought must have played and replayed in my grandmother’s mind: we were only French when convenient.
“This is not a new story of betrayal. Every family has one, if you look far enough.”
In times of war, of military campaigns, of unrest — the amorphous state must suddenly become flesh and blood. The arms, legs, and minds of individuals cease to be their own and instead are pieced together to give the state a bodily form. It requires hands to hold weapons, lungs to breathe gas, and mouths to translate. And in those moments of peril and patriotism, every part unquestioningly belongs to the state.
But the moment the campaign is ended, the need fulfilled, the body disbanded — what then? When World War I ended, Samuel’s body became his own, not France’s. His lungs deteriorated, and this was not France’s concern. In fact, his daughter was easily dismissed by the state he had given his flesh for. When we no longer needed men like Taroon, their bodies, too, became their own again, and their lives and those of their families, not our concern.
This is not a new story of betrayal. Every family has one, if you look far enough. I had to go three generations back to locate mine. As for Taroon — and other individuals like him — their story is now, and we are failing them.