Mohamad Azim Husseinzada is one of those warm gentle men whose twinkling smile disarms and draws you in. Of all the staff at Kabul University, he has been the most open and enthusiastic about encouraging his staff and students to stretch themselves, to learn and explore the world around them.
He is now head of the theatre department, but has been a member since it was founded during the Soviet occupation. Amazingly, Ustad Husseinzada had helped keep the department open during the Taliban years.
The department is an oasis of collegiality, unstuffy equality and fun. At its first student theatre festival, held recently, staff were gently and affectionately lampooned by the students during performances of Chekhov and Beckett.
Only this week, I had traded quotes from Richard III, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet with Abdulhag, who teaches Shakespeare. We had discussed staging Aristophanes and Sophocles. Towards the end of a meeting about researching the history of theatre in Afghanistan, we had been discussing the boundaries of what is possible in Afghanistan today – and the limits they must still observe.
Ustad Husseinzada and his staff know the risks they run, but they had reached out and found support from the international community, especially Laurence Levasseur of the Institut Francais d'Afghanistan (IFA).
On December 11, Ustad Husseinzada and his staff were attending a performance of Heartbeat: the Silence after the Explosion – a play about suicide attacks. They had invited me to join them but I decided to stay at home and write.
The play was to be performed at the IFA on the grounds of the French-run Esteqlal school in Kabul in the auditorium that has hosted many concerts and cultural events. One of the best took place at the end of 2013, bringing together the rock bands Murcha from Afghanistan, Faridkot from India and Noori from Pakistan.
One of the most touching was a concert by young musicians from the Afghanistan National Institute for Music for the victims of the flooding in Badakhshan last spring. The institute has been a haven for the people of Kabul and for internationals hungry for classical and contemporary music, theatre and exhibitions.
Security on December 11 was tight because of the nature of the play being performed. But as the performance unfolded, a teenager entered the auditorium and detonated a bomb.
In the wake of the attack, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, said the play had aimed “to insult Islamic values and spread propaganda about our jihad operations, especially on suicide attacks”.
The news is terrifying. I could immediately conjure images of the auditorium and imagine my friends and their students among the lively, laughing audience. I could as easily conjure images of their injuries.
And so began the thought processes and calls that follow explosions. “Hello, where are you? Are you safe?” And then came the tears of concern. Ustad Husseinzada has been injured and taken to hospital. There followed tears of relief that he is alive and his staff and students are OK.
But I wonder about the 15 or more families of those injured and those of the people who died. They would have had to hurry out into the freezing darkness to find their way to hospitals around the city. I wonder too about the boundaries of the possible that Ustad Husseinzada and I discussed. And the bravery of those who test them.