PhD defended at:
The two most visible representations of Afghanistan are arguably Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’ on the cover of National Geographic (June 1985) and Khaled Hosseini’s award-wining novel The Kite Runner (2004). These two products laid the basic premise that images and ideas about Afghanistan have been circulated and commodified worldwide, especially qualities of the exotic, oppressed, and weak. Since print photography and literary works belong to the culture industry, this research seeks to enquire if performing arts, more specifically theatre, projected Afghanistan in similar ways. More precisely, this research asks how Afghan cultures and identities have been represented in the post-9/11 period. Borrowing the circuit of culture model (1997) from Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, this research then examines ten specific theatre performances within Afghanistan and outside Afghanistan in a spatio-temporal framework illustrating dynamic tensions from, and beyond, Kabul. Case studies from Kabul illustrate that Afghan cultures can be owned and regulated by competing stakeholders, including the Taliban, within its geopolitical boundaries. Case studies from/beyond Kabul show the export of Afghan cultures and performances outside Afghanistan, underscoring tropes of impoverishment and suffering while inviting or inciting international interventions and conciliations. Case studies beyond Kabul tend to imagine ‘Afghanistan’ by offering an ambivalent, and sometimes, contradictory response to the war on terror. This thesis argues that projective closure – the act of filling in absences and gaps to make sense of an Afghan narrative – often circulates and entrenches Afghans in victimhood tropes. Because there are constant fluctuations and contestations at what ‘Afghanistan’ was, is, and should be, Afghanistan as an imagined entity – or a global cultural commodity – becomes more evident. Derek Gregory was right to observe in The Colonial Present (2004) that Afghanistan has been an object of international geopolitical manoeuvrings since the nineteenth century, and, as this thesis will show, even early twenty-first century. But the claw of the “colonial present” does not stem from hostilities enacted by imperial power, but a series of intimate engagements with non-government organisations, government agencies, embassies, foreign theatre directors, and even global audiences who uncritically celebrate narratives of Afghan heroism. This is further complicated by the readiness of local Afghan practitioners to consume and project themselves as victims of war who are in ‘need’ of foreign help. As such, the value that is being demanded and supplied in the global culture industry is still victimhood. Afghan cultures and identities are deeply embedded in contexts – situational, cultural, global – and unless these contexts are collocated and layered upon each other to add nuance to interrogate cultural practices, cultural workers and theatre practitioners continue to run the risks of reproducing conflicts, even if they are beyond the geographical space of Kabul – because the locations of the ‘local’ and ‘global’ are becoming increasingly intertwined.