The New York City Playwright Who Sneaked Into Afghanistan During the Soviet Invasion
In 1981, an American writer sneaked into Afghanistan following a dream. He survived — barely — and wrote a play that eventually became a movie. The Beast, which debuted in 1988, is about a Soviet tank crew that finds itself all alone in hostile Afghanistan.
It’s a masterpiece — one inspired by a terrible, terrible war.
The Soviet Union invaded landlocked Afghanistan in 1979. The campaign would last eight years and kill nearly 15,000 Russians … and more than 80,000 Afghans.
At the time of the invasion, New Jersey native William Mastrosimone was 34 years old and a playwright. He had graduated from Rutgers University a few years before. He didn’t know much about Afghanistan.
In 1980, a New York City theater staged his first play. The Woolgatherer is a dark comedy about two desperate people searching for love in South Philadelphia. Critics and audiences loved it.
“It was the first time I made a living as a writer,” Mastrosimone tells War Is Boring.
One day during rehearsal, Mastrosimone grew restless. “I got to walking around and reading The New York Times,” he says. He noticed a picture of an Afghan tribal leader and read the accompanying interview.
“‘We’re going to fight to the last man, to the last bullet,’” Mastrisomine quotes from the interview. “‘Right now, my men are eating tree bark to stay alive.’”
The playwright saw something in the mujaheddin leader. “It just reminded me so much, of the men who followed [George] Washington,” he explains. “I was really keyed into the psyche of that leader.”
His interest became an obsession. “It wasn’t too long after that that I became less interested in [The Woolgatherer] and rehearsal than I became in Afghanistan.”
The obsession affected his sleep. “When I’m really hooked on something — on an idea or a script or a story — I dream about it,” he says.
One night, he awoke from a dream and scribbled a drawing on the back of a yellow legal pad.
“In the center of it was a very simple tank,” he says. “It’s surrounded by stick figures throwing spears and shooting arrows at it. I woke up in the morning and I had no memory of doing this.”
“And I just knew I was going [to Afghanistan]. I felt like I had to witness this fight between a superpower and a 12th-century power.”
One problem, Mastrosimone had no idea how to get there.
“I went to this restaurant called the Khyber Pass,” Mastrosimone recalls. The Lower East Side restaurant serves traditional Afghan food. It’s still there.
“I went in and I partook of the food and I started to get a little chummy with some of the waiters. I said, ‘I want to go to Afghanistan, how do I do that?’”
The waiter told Mastrosimone to call a travel agent. In other words, he blew him off.
He didn’t give up. He returned to Khyber Pass over and over again until one of the waiters broke down.
The Afghan explained that the staff thought Mastrosimone might belong to the CIA or the KGB. Either way, they didn’t trust him.
Mastrosimone told them he was a playwright, that he had a show in a theater right now. “I want to go to Afghanistan,” he told them. “I want to write about it.”
To prove his story, he invited two of the waiters to watch his play. They weren’t convinced until they saw a six-foot-tall marquee advertising the play. It was a giant copy of The Woolgatherer’s review in The New York Times.
The two Afghans explained to Mastrosimone that they didn’t feel Afghanistan was getting a fair shake in the media. The Soviets were murdering their people and America didn’t care.
“‘If this guy will write a play and The New York Times will come and see it and it’s just about two people — a trucker and a girl — imagine if he wrote about the war,’” Mastrosimone quotes the Afghans saying. “‘What would The New York Times do then?’”
“That was my real ticket to Afghanistan,” the playwright says.
One of the men from Khyber Pass told him what to do. “Go to Pakistan,” he said. “Go to Rawalpindi. There’s a hotel there. The Intercontinental Hotel. Get a room. We’ll come get you.”
Mastrosimone wanted to know how long he would need to wait in Pakistan. The Afghan told him he didn’t know. He would get there when he got there.
“You’re saying I’m going to go to Pakistan and wait around for you?” the American told the pair. “I need something solid.”
“This war will be won by faith alone,” the Afghan told him. “If you have no faith, then you have no business being there.”
“Fuck that,” Mastrosimone replied.
The war continued and Mastrosimone followed it obsessively. “The more I read, the more I knew I had to go no matter what.”
He called his contact and told the man he would go to the hotel. Then, he went to a travel agent. “I wrote a check for $5,000 for a round-trip to Pakistan,” he says. “That was all the money I had in the world.”
It was an incredible leap of faith. “There were times I really thought the guy made a fool of me,” Mastrosimone says.
“I have no idea who he is. I pictured him laughing with his friend, ‘That guy we sent to Pakistan? He’s still waiting in the room probably!’”
But the man rewarded his faith. He met Mastrosimone at the hotel, just as he’d promised, and put the American on a train.