Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 352
The play alternates between two settings, London and Kabul. Homebody, the title character, is a middle-class, middle-aged British woman. In many respects, she is a kind of “Everywoman” character with whom the audience is encouraged to identify, but she also will potentially alienate the viewer, as she embodies many negative features of colonizers. The play opens with a lengthy monologue in which Homebody explains her orientalist fascination with Afghanistan, including a sudden ability (real or imagined) to speak Pashtun.
Much of the rest of the play is set in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, where Homebody’s husband, Milton, and their daughter, Priscilla, are visiting. Rather than being an armchair enthusiast back in England, it is revealed, Homebody has actually traveled to Afghanistan and now is missing; her family tries desperately to locate her. Conflicting versions are presented to them by various characters: that she was killed by the Taliban (but her body has not been found), or that she has voluntarily disappeared and married a Muslim doctor. Through a local guide, Khwaja, they meet the doctor’s wife, Mahala, a former librarian who cannot work under Taliban rule but also blames her country’s problems on foreign intervention.
Milton, a rather unwilling participant in the search (as he and his wife had been virtually estranged), befriends Quango, a man in the hotel, and gets involved with him in using opium and heroin. As Khwaja helps Priscilla look for Homebody, they travel to the alleged grave of Cain, which her mother had expressed interest in. The futility of the search overtaking her, Priscilla decides to return to England, leaving her mother’s situation unresolved. Further complications ensue, however, before she can leave, as she is accused of smuggling, and it turns out Khwaja is implicated. It is later reported that he was killed.
Mahala, however, has somehow gotten documents authorizing her to leave the country, and she moves to England to live with Milton. Priscilla, back in London as well, not only remains unsatisfied about her mother’s fate but also must accept that Mahala has taken Homebody's place in her parents’ home.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1059
Homebody, an English housewife, is sitting in her living room in London, illuminated by a table lamp, and reading An Historical Guide to Kabul (1965), by Nancy Hatch Dupree. As she reads and interprets passages about Afghanistan’s history, she interweaves the stories of her own family. Homebody is married to Milton Ceiling, a computer scientist, and it is obvious that at one time theirs was a happy marriage. Now, they merely tolerate each other with the help of antidepressants. Their daughter, Priscilla, a rebellious young woman with a past that includes an attempted suicide and teenage pregnancy, shows a dislike toward her mother and her mother’s rich, complicated vocabulary. What Homebody loves the most is to read. Her language betrays a romantic curiosity toward the world, and it is this curiosity that inspires her to explore the history—and, eventually, the land—of Afghanistan.
Homebody’s monologue includes a story of her preparing a party for her husband’s colleagues. Inspired by her reading of the guidebook, she decides to purchase Afghani folk hats for her guests. She takes a train to an unidentified street in London, where she meets an Afghani shopkeeper with a mutilated hand. Curious about the man’s old injury, Homebody’s powerful empathy allows her to embark on a fantastical journey in her mind that takes her to Kabul. There, she suddenly and miraculously can speak perfect Pashtu and can understand her companion, who makes love to her in his homeland. When this fantastical journey is over, Homebody confesses her love for the world. As the scene concludes, Frank Sinatra is heard singing “It’s Nice to Go Trav’ling.”
Priscilla and Milton travel to Kabul in search of Homebody, who has left her native England to satisfy her romantic curiosity about the war-torn and exhausted Afghanistan. They find that she has been brutally murdered and mutilated, and they receive a report on the crime. It is speculated that she was caught wandering among the ruins of Kabul with her guidebook, without a burqa (mandatory attire for women under the rule of the Taliban), and listening to Frank Sinatra on her portable compact disc player. All the details of this behavior—the music, the book, and her clothing—are criminal under Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, as Taliban minister Mullah Aftar Ali Durranni explains to the grief-stricken Ceilings.
The tragic situation takes a mysterious turn when Homebody’s corpse seems to go missing in transit from a women’s hospital. Milton believes that his depressed wife essentially committed suicide by coming to Afghanistan, while Priscilla refuses to believe her mother is dead. She embarks on a stubborn and heartbreaking search for her mother, determined to find her dead or alive. While she wanders among the poor streets of Kabul, Priscilla encounters Khwaja, a Tajik Afghani, whom she hires to take her around the city. Khwaja is a poet who is fluent in Esperanto, the artificial international language, and he wants Priscilla to deliver his poems to someone back in London. Priscilla reluctantly agrees to do so. She is more jaded and skeptical about human intensions than her mother was, yet, just like Homebody, she seems charitable against her better judgment.
Kwaja also introduces Priscilla to Zai Garshi, a former actor who under the current regime makes a living by selling hats. He informs Priscilla that Homebody is not dead. Instead, she has married an Afghani Muslim doctor. Apparently, the doctor’s wife Mahala has gone insane. He discards her into the hands of the Ceilings in exchange for Homebody. Priscilla meets with Mahala in hopes of gathering information about her mother. Before the Taliban, Mahala worked as a librarian, but she has lost her job and witnessed as the Taliban declared that the library was no longer a legal space for congregation and shut it down. Family deaths, limitations on liberties, loss, and fear have led Mahala to the brink of insanity, but Priscilla interprets Mahala’s rants as wrath, not a disease of the mind. On her hands and knees, Mahala begs Priscilla to save her, but fails to reveal her knowledge of Homebody.
In the meantime, Milton spends his time passively, locked up in his hotel room with Quango, an Englishman who works for the British government and who remains in Afghanistan because drugs are easily accessible there. Together, Milton and Quango smoke opium and share a needle while injecting heroin. Quango carries an official letter granting Mahala permission to emigrate to the United Kingdom. He gives this document to Priscilla, whom he confesses to love, in exchange for sex.
Because Priscilla still has not gathered any evidence about the fate of her mother’s body, the mystery of Homebody continues. Priscilla follows Khwaja to the Grave of Cain, a site that Homebody has marked in her guidebook. (In the Bible, Cain, the oldest son of Adam and Eve, murders his brother out of jealousy and is doomed to wander the Earth. His legacy fascinated Homebody.) In the middle of a minefield, upon an unidentified gravesite, Priscilla, exhausted and confused, decides to leave her mother—whether dead or alive—in Kabul. She seems to find some closure and agrees to believe that her mother is indeed dead.
Priscilla gives Quango’s letter to Khwaja, and Mahala, accompanied by the Ceilings, goes to the office of Mullah Aftar Ali Durranni to be interviewed. While in the Taliban minister’s waiting room, Milton and Mahala are surprised to discover a common language in the Dewey decimal system—the system of three-digit numerals utilized by librarians to categorize publications. Their mutual curiosity is interrupted by the news that Priscilla has been accused of smuggling illegal documents—the Esperanto poems given to her by Khwaja. After a heightened confrontation in which the only obvious victim is Mahala, who is nearly shot to death, Priscilla learns that Khwaja has been executed.
Almost a year later, Mahala is living with Milton in London. She is dressed as an Englishwoman. She reads Homebody’s books and tends her garden. Priscilla, still confused and traumatized, visits her father’s home. She is still desperate for answers, leaping from grief to anger, as she makes accusations and seeks validation. Mahala, however, advises her to bury the dead and move on, as she—and, seemingly, Milton—have done in Homebody’s garden.