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A very brief visit to Afghanistan

The Sept. 11 attacks were a stunning surprise and yet, in retrospect, so many books, works of art, even an Arnold Schwarzenegger flick, seem to have anticipated them. Did artistic antennae pick up things that electronic listening devices missed?

Take Tony Kushner's new play, "Homebody/Kabul," set in 1998-99, now onstage in Providence, R. I. It's about a lonely London housewife obsessed, for no apparent reason, with Afghanistan. In the magical monologue that is the first act, she reads aloud from a guidebook that begins "at the dawn of history."

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By the second act, she has traveled to Kabul – and disappeared. Is she dead? Or kidnapped, hospitalized, in hiding somewhere? Her husband (widower?) and daughter arrive to retrieve her remains, but no body is to be found. The daughter goes searching, and she and her father end up helping rescue an Afghan woman – a librarian driven nearly mad by the repressive Taliban – and taking her to London.

The play is long enough to harbor multiple meanings in the ample folds of its burka. But to me it was about how sometimes we choose meanings, and other times we have meanings thrust upon us. The mother chose Kabul – for whatever reason. The daughter, though, has no choice: Kabul, and the librarian, become part of her life, as if she'd been born there (see also page 16).

Days before Sept. 11, I visited London's Inns of Court, where John Donne wrote "For Whom the Bell Tolls," with the line, "No man is an island." But another, less frequently quoted line has stuck with me since: "I am involved in mankind." It's a modern-sounding word, "involved," but it was used as long ago as the 14th century to mean "enveloped, surrounded."

We are involved in mankind.