Afghanistan is Not Funny
Gilded Balloon Teviot
The best memoirs have a critical eye for the context, helping us to understand the way institutions and events shape our lives, documenting the unequal way the world works.
Such a memoir is Henry Naylor’s Afghanistan is Not Funny. It has the dramatic pull of an adventure story, the eye for a telling image (one of which left the woman sitting beside me in tears at the end of the performance) and the believable moments of absurdity that a seasoned stand-up comedian of Henry’s experience knows how to deliver.
It begins some twenty-odd years ago with Henry’s then topical suggestion of humour about Afghanistan being rejected by a BBC Radio 2 producer who tells him, “if we are going to war, we can’t be cracking jokes. Afghanistan is not funny.”
Determined to follow up on his idea, he drafts the play Finding Bin Laden and, realising his friend Phil is working in Afghanistan, decides to check out the facts on a trip to the country taking with him the brilliant photographer Sam Maynard.
Their guide in the country is Houmein, a former surgeon who had been getting paid just $20 a month for his medical work. They are shown children having amputations after stepping on landmines, a woman who ran a secret school for girls and the ruined remains of a marble factory, the only employment in the area. It had been bombed by the Americans who claimed it was Bin Laden's nuclear factory.
Simply getting accreditation for their research is risky. Driving out to the US militarised Bagram airfield to try and get it sorted, they are taken at gunpoint into a room where a deranged colonel warned them that if he wanted, “I could take you out to the desert and make you disappear.” Two years later, that colonel was tried for war crimes after taking people from Abu Ghraib prison into the desert where he made them disappear.
Henry visits a refugee camp where small hungry children play with old empty food tins labelled USA. Someone observes that food was only provided by the Americans for the duration of the media visits, then it stopped.
Returning to the UK, the material helped shape his Arabian Nightmares quartet of plays. Finding Bin Laden is almost made into a film directed by Stephen Frears.
But that trip and the continuing disturbing news from Afghanistan also left Henry with troubling memories, one of which becomes more significant when he hears that his friend Phil was seriously injured and that no one knows what has happened to their former guide, Houmein. The particular memory that still haunts him was one from which, back in Afghanistan, he had run away from. It was the image of a woman whose eyes can never be forgotten.
The final moments of this extraordinary show will linger with you for a long time. Everybody should see this play.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna