In 2005, a group of Afghan actors endeavored to create an unusual dramatic performance—one that would bring theater to a region wounded after years of war with the Taliban and offer hope for healing. A Night in the Emperor’s Garden is the captivating account of their resulting play and a rich exploration of the region’s culture.
In preparation, for five months, the group tirelessly reworked Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost into their own Dari language while the members brought their own experiences to the interpretation. One actor was a police detective and widow determined to create images of strong women. Another had trained at Kabul University before fleeing to Pakistan as a refugee. A third had played the title role in the acclaimed film Osama, yet was a beggar who could barely read and write. Joined by a French actress who served as director and several other enthusiasts, these actors performed before royalty and street vendors alike for one night amid the ruins of a magnificent garden laid out five centuries earlier by Emperor Babur. For the first time in thirty years, men and women stood on stage together as they worked toward a new era in Afghanistan.
Qais Akbar Omar and Stephen Landrigan, both involved in the production, have captured its exuberance and optimism along with the actors’ joys and sorrows in the decade following the play. Revealing a side of Afghanistan largely unknown to outsiders, A Night in the Emperor’s Garden tells the magical story of an artistic achievement with universal appeal.
Qais Akbar Omar is the author of A Fort of Nine Towers, which has been published in over twenty languages, and has written for the New York Times and the Atlantic. A graduate of the creative writing program at Boston University, he is currently a Scholars at Risk fellow at Harvard University. Stephen Landrigan is a playwright and former journalist for the Washington Post and BBC Radio. He lives in Massachusetts, where he tends a small orchard near Boston.