Sitting on the threshold of two worlds

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3450 metres (11,319 feet)

 

An epic farewell to Afghanistan- three days of motorcycle (and van) chakaring through the Central Highlands– Bamyan, Daykundi, and Ghor provinces.  This is an area basically inaccessible to the rest of the country, except on a network of donkey paths and precarious mountain roads.  Here is my account:

Green valley, golden wheat, purple potato flowers, brown hill, red mountain, blue sky.

You would never look at this and say “yes. This is a road.” And yet somehow, on we plow, on narrow dusty paths hugging mountains and cliffs, over rocky, hoof-trodden scrabble, through deep streams that soak us to our knees and send steam boiling off the engine. Sometimes I have to get off and walk, as the way is too precarious for two on the motorcycle.

In some places the road simply disappears into ravines of dried mud as deep as I am tall. The occasional vehicle lumbers past- zippy Pamir motorcycles, the odd dusty Corolla with California or Maryland license plates, ancient Russian 10 wheeled Kamaz trucks, and 25 year old Town Aces, heavy laden with passengers and goats, roofs piled high with clothes and potatoes and plastic jugs.  Lurching and teetering like a very slow roller coaster, I am simultaneously awash with fear and acceptance as we round impossible blind curves at 30 degree downhill angles over mountain streams that crisscross the road. Thankfully we see no carcasses of burned out vehicles on the slopes and valleys below us, so acceptance wins.

 

Life pours out of the mountain streams- shocking valleys, crowded with lush, thick grass, slender trees, wheat and potatoes- snaking through towering mountains and soaring cliffs. Girls adorned in a rainbow of chadors wash dishes, and lay bright clothes out to dry on the stream banks and hay bales nearby. Delicate flowers with sharp leaves defy the altitude and mountain rock with life; purple and pink hug the ground, while yellow and white blossoms perfume the wind on slender stems, reaching even further into the sky. Something resembling Baby’s Breath tower to the size of small trees.  Hills roll over the high plateau around 3,000 meters. Ruins dot the plains- crumbling mud houses resembling deserted Narnian castles. What ancient civilization used to be here? One that has not changed in a thousand years- sheep and goats rest in the shade of the ancient remnants, while villagers carry on life inside the earthen walls of handpacked mud houses just beside.

 

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streamside laundry

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ruins on the high plain

Tattered flags whip and wave atop the roadside rock pile graves of mountaintop martyrs. Herds of sheep and goats cause intermittent traffic jams at 3400 meters, while the winds blow ancient dust across the Hindu Kush.

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mountain shrine

The road condition is something like driving on crushed up chalk. Dust splashes like water when the front wheel hits deep ruts. The way, already challenging, becomes treacherous and the beautiful scenery gives way to full focus on keeping the bike upright. Intense praying. The wheels spin out and we go sideways– I can hear Alex saying “no no no no no,” and then “honey are you ok? Are you ok, talk to me!” The bike is on top of me, but our limbs are intact and our heads are still attached. I have broken my feet enough times to know something was wrong with my right ankle, but I cannot yet quite determine just what. All I know is that I do not want to let go of it, and visions of Kabul airport in a wheelchair and cast for a third time flash before my eyes. Although we are both banged up, the chalky dust road ends up being our salvation. Had we been on the hard scrabble, our cuts and bruises surely would have been broken bones and road rash. God is good!

Inshallah we crash only about 100 meters after a small enclave. The men and several children amble out to stare and assist- a young child comes and brushes the dust from my back with a bundle of fragrant leaves, and one of the men helps carry me to a solid embankment while Alex tends to my rapidly swelling foot and bleeding ankle. His own trousers are torn and bloodied- he has ripped a dime sized hole in his right knee, gashed his waist, and a huge blue bruise is forming on his thigh. The villagers assume we are doctors- why else would we be traveling in such a remote area with such an extensive first aid kit?   The village men pour water on our wounds and retrieve mirrors and broken indicators that are scattered on the road. They insist we come with them to the village for chai, but shamefully, we are too shaken and in need of our final destination to accept. A mere 10 kilometers can equal several hours on this road. I will never stop regretting that we declined this invitation.

Gingerly, we limp back to the bike, and continue on. We still have at least another 1.5-2 hours til Bandar, where we are supposed to spend the night, and we can’t afford to linger any more. To our chagrin, the road does not improve- miles of shifty sand, barely lodged on the side of steep cliffs, sharp dips and steep inclines keep our hearts in our throats and legs firmly clamped against the bike. The road rises and falls endlessly before us, an infinite ribbon winding through the endless mountains, until Alex says the fateful words “I don’t think we are in the right place.” As it turns out, his colleague had input the wrong coordinates into the GPS device, and we are headed for Sangitakht, the centre of a district of the same name in Daykundi, instead Bandar, in the west. In between us is an expanse of 50 km of rough road- at least another three hour drive. Fortunately, Alex remembers from a previous trip to the field that there should be a small inn in the Sangitakht main bazaar. Alex’s constant level-headedness and prepared-for-anything attitude, combined with my love of the unexpected and easily delighted spirit transform what could have been a grave disaster- being lost, injured, and alone in provincial Afghanistan- into a delightful experience of God’s grace and Afghan hospitality. We pull in, exhausted, and are warmly welcomed as old friends by the proprietor, a smiling gentleman named Khalid. Our room is spare, but clean enough, and the toilets… exist.   Khalid prepares the most delicious meal of naan and shorba, and a plate of fresh spring onions. Khaarajia are a rarity in Sangitakht, and we are visited by the local police to make sure we are ok, and that we have enough chai to warm the spirits of a whole village.

After a responsible adult discussion, we decide that, given the fact that Alex’s braking leg is a bit messed up, and I can’t walk, the responsible course of action would be to hire a van back to Yawkalang, where the road to Bamyan is paved.   The next day, in an ancient Toyota Town Ace van, we realize just how ridiculous the roads were. Clouds of dust keep our windows closed and scarves wrapped around our faces. The motorcycle, strapped into the back and wedged with bald tires, looms menacingly over my head as we lurch over the mountains at miraculous angles. We are tottering along a high ledge, with barely enough room for two people to walk abreast- our driver is a magician for keeping the van on this “road!” A lone woman appears out of nowhere, staggering along the ledge; she heaves herself against the side of our van, crying for a ride. The driver waves her away, but how can we let her continue by herself? A few meters later we pull her into the dusty van and continue on. She has walked all the way from Ashtarlai, a remote district at least 60 kilometers away. She is on her way to Bamyan, another 100 kilometers! I don’t think the driver is super happy about this, but what else can we do but take her? It’s Eid, after all. Khushit is curious about the motorcycle, and very confused about me, a strangely dressed Hazara girl traveling with a foreign man in a bandana and Indiana Jones hat. I try speaking with her, but her Dari is garbled. Driver says she is speaking partly Urdu. She says she has a son in Bamyan, and either she or he is sick. I can’t quite understand. When we stop in Yakawlang and unload the bike, she disappears into thin air.

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Khushit, me, and the motorcycle

The overwhelming enormity of the mountains moves me to tears. Over and over, I thank God for this amazing country and for giving me two eyes with which to see it. I honestly do not know what I have done to deserve such a special experience, such a rich life, but I know that Afghanistan will be with me forever; these mountains are etched on my heart, the dust is in my bones, the streams flow through my veins. This is a place where earth meets sky, and you can only imagine that God created the land here to share with angels and ancient creatures.   I want to do as Rumi said, “Let me sit here, on the threshold of two worlds. Lost in the eloquence of silence.”

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sunset over Yakawlang Valley and the winding road

link to full photo set

 

afghan map

 

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Bamyan, my Jan!

(warning: beautiful pictures follow.  will induce intense wanderlust and mountain craving.)

 

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Hazara schoolkids.  I mean look at that middle one, he could be my son!

I lived in America for 26 years. I never looked like anyone there, other than my sisters. I lived in Hong Kong for 8 years. I never looked like anyone there either, except when my sisters came to visit me. I have been living in Afghanistan for 2 years (math! I’m about to turn Very Old!), and here I finally look like a local, and can melt deliciously into the crowd. The Hazara ethnic group is widely assumed to be descended from Mongols, who invaded Central Asia during the time of Genghis Khan. Years of intermingling with Turkic and Aryan ethnicities in this region have resulted in a distinct mostly-Asian look, which is unique from the other ethnic groups in Afghanistan. The Hazara are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and the first largest in my neighborhood. As such, I conveniently blend in with my Japanese-Swedish-ness, and I have not met a single person here who did not automatically assume I was Afghan. Most people speak to me in Dari, and I get stopped at the airport with my two allowed khoregi (foreigner) bottles of alcohol every single time. It is so wonderful to look like my neighbors and adopted countrymen—I feel like I actually BELONG here.

The current heartland of the Hazara is the Central Highlands. During the reign of Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1895), they were forcibly pushed upwards, geographically and topographically, from the more southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar during a brutal genocide that saw the destruction or displacement of over 60% of the Hazara population. The Central Highlands are some of the most isolated and impoverished areas of the region, but they enjoy a much higher level of safety and security than all other provinces of Afghanistan. One of my friends once told me that Hazaras are the most peaceful ethnic group in our turbulent country because their terrible history had shaken all of the violence and revenge out of them. I don’t know if that is true, but I do know that Bamyan is incomparable to Kabul in regards to safety. Bamyan is the main city of the Hazarajat, and one of the most significant cultural capitals of the entire Central Asian region. It was once a Buddhist centre, and it is here that the famous centuries-old standing Buddha statutes were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001,

When you fly from Kabul to Bamyan, the airplane must make a sharp left turn to get out of the bowl and over the mountains that ring the city. This is followed by an endless continuation of mountains, as far as your eye can see. You will be subsequently treated with a peak-skimming voyage, and realize just why Afghanistan is so special, and so unique in every way. There is, simply, nothing but mountains. Every once in a while, you may spot a surprising cluster of houses; this absolutely boggles the mind- how on earth did they get there? There are no trains, no airports, no roads, there are just mountains.

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spectacular mountains as far as the eye can see, and as far as the heart can imagine

From the moment you step off the plane into what is little more than a tidy parking lot, you are transported to a different world. From the tarmac itself, you can already see flat topped mountains, snow capped peaks, and the freshness and stillness of the air fills you with life. The valley here is old, historical, spiritual. The niches which the Buddhas used to occupy are stark reminders of what once was; however, this absence is not the most spectacular thing about the famous valley. The niches are set into high golden cliffs riddled with hundreds of caves in which monks used to pray and meditate. A scramble through these caves reveal ancient paintings in red and blue and green hues- images of Buddhas and lotuses cover ceilings and cracked facades. Peering out the caves onto the valley below reveals the crumbled old bazaar, a shock of vegetation unfamiliar to Kabul city folk- wheat and potato fields ringed with irrigation canals, and, in the distance, layer upon layer of ever growing mountains. When you think your eye is focusing on the tallest ridge, you notice the backdrop is not cloud, but more mountain. And behind that, still more and more mountains.

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Shahmama Buddha

Gazing out over this surreal landscape, you get a sense as to why the ancient Buddhists chose Bamyan as their home. There is mystery and wonder in the air. The morning mist rises through the swaying trees and dissolves into the air like the prayers of the monks; memories of the giant stupas and domes of Borobudur, and the thousands of temples materializing through the misty Bagan sunrise tug at your heart as your breath catches in your throat. It is not often in life that you get to see the most beautiful thing in the world, but in Bamyan it is a daily experience.

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stunning Bamyan valley, mountains, more mountains, and more mountains!

Due to the crippling incompetence of the now bankrupt and grounded Eastern Horizon airlines, my first stay in Bamyan was extended multiple times. I could not be more grateful. My friends and I took advantage of our additional holidays by walking every inch of land we could manage: Band-e Amir, Shahr-e Zohak, Gholghola, Foladi Valley, and a strenuous, but rewarding 16km up and down mountains trek to the Dragon Valley. My second trip, with the infinitely more dependable UNHAS flight was even more adventurous, featuring midnight motorcycle rides through inky black valleys, a Buzkashi, and sinking into 3 feet of snow while hiking up mountains for the ultimate off-piste skiing experience!

Trekking Through the Beauty:

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endless beauty

My surname is Moberg, which is the Swedish word for mountain. My mother’s maiden name is Yama, the Japanese word for mountain. My Chinese surname is Shan, which means mountain.  Bamyan, Afghanistan, these mountains surrounding me, towering over me… this is where I feel most comfortable, the most “me.”  Trekking through these mountains is both exhilarating and grounding, surrounded by the sheer enormity of nature.  You stand a thousand feet in the air, with the sensation of being on top of the world, only to realize the rock on which you are perched is a foothill compared to the surrounding peaks.  You feel wholly alone, and yet completely at one with the universe at the same time.  You are a tiny speck.  You are, as Rumi so eloquently said, “the universe in ecstatic motion.”  This place is too special not to visit– the beauty will change you.

 

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stunning cliffs, sloping mountains, sky for ages

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Shahr-e Zohak (Red City): served as a fortress and customs station along the silk road centuries ago.  

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Shahr-e Gholghola, the city of screams.  This, and all of its inhabitants, was destroyed by Genghis Khan after the death of his son.

Band-e Amir:

As we crested the hill approaching Band-e Amir, I had the sensation that I had been there before, in my literary imagination.  My immediate feelings were that I had read about this place in a C.S. Lewis book, and that this place was surely what he had in mind when he wrote about Narnia or Malacandra.  This place is entirely perfect- as if God created it for the sole purpose of marvelling at the beauty.  It is the kind of place that makes you Believe.  It is the kind of place that steals the breath from your lungs, and the words from your mouth, that makes you incapable of doing anything but whirling around with your arms outstretched and praying “Thank You for letting me live long enough to see this!!”

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surely God took all of His favorite aspects of nature and put them together here

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Band-e Amir literally means “Commander’s Dam,” but is often referred to as the top of the world.  truly it looks like my version of heaven…

 

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stunning Band-e Amir

Bamyan in Winter:

Buzkashi is Afghanistan’s most famous sport. Played in the winter months, buzkashi consists of two teams of horsemen, vying for the carcass of a recently deceased goat. If you have seen Rambo 3, you know that it is a crazy, violent sport, which sometimes involves the horsemen charging into the crowd of spectators.  This is a must-see in Afghanistan– wild, beautiful, full of life.

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Buzkashi: like polo, except with 100% more carcasses

Snowboarding in Afghanistan, say what??  As this is the country of mountains, it seems logical.  However, this is also the least developed country in the world (fact), so ski lifts and groomed runs are not exactly a high priority for infrastructure and development.  That said, there are no fewer than six winter sport organizations in Bamyan, and we had the good fortune of hooking up with the Bamyan Ski Club for a day of strenuous hiking, peppered with a few runs.  Though insanely difficult (imagine a not-quite-five-feet individual, yours truly, hiking through 3 feet of powder up a huge mountain with a snowboard on the back. besyaaar sakht!!), the views were spectacular, and the experience just out of this world.  The conditions were *challenging*- the slope is not groomed, so in some places it is 3 feet of powder on an ice pack, in others, chunks of rock, in others, bushes and trees growing through the snow.  Despite this, seeing local girls, village kids, and your odd foreigner trudging up and sailing down this barely touched mountain was absolutely fantastic.  Only in Bamyan could this be so!

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we climbed this.  but only once, holy moly.

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long.hike.up.

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me and A on the cliff we almost skied off. thanks, random guys, for waving us away from certain death.

 

Whenever I am feeling beset with doubts or discouragement, whenever I am feeling that Afghanistan is lost, that this place is beyond redemption, I remember the beauty and serenity of Bamyan. I remember that, in the midst of uncertainy, chaos, destruction, violence, corruption, and inefficiency exists this perfect place- a place of harsh beauty, of intense spirituality that permeates every sense and arrests the soul.  Bamyan is the Afghanistan that once was, and that still can be.

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I used to be tough

* * warning: this is going to be a very long post.  and not a happy one. * *

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I’m a pretty tough chick. I’m independent, I live in Afghanistan, I ran my own company for 9 years, I ride a motorcycle. I can take a lot, withstand a lot, put up with a lot. But living here in Kabul…. Is really hard. I think I have been trying to be tough for so long, it’s just worn me down. News out of here is always doom and gloom, and I generally want to put the best face of Afghanistan forward. I’m a pretty positive person, usually, but I’m worn out right now. And it’s not just the blasts that are happening with increasing frequency, it’s not just the work that never seems to let up, it’s not just the staggering poverty that I see every single day, even just on my way to work, ((parenthesis. I think most people think that they have seen poverty, that they understand what “poor people” look like. But I saw two girls walking down the frozen muddy street in plastic bathroom sandals that were 5 sizes too big, wearing nothing more than thin dirty dresses over their thin dirty pants. The only things between them and the 5 degree weather were their thin dirty chadors, which scarcely looked able to block the wind tearing through their unwashed hair. There are herds of dirty little boys who try to make a few afs by dragging filthy rags across windshields in dusty Kabul traffic, most often to be shoved away by annoyed drivers. A recent trip to the hospital revealed to me the saddest and sickest poor old(?) woman I have ever seen- she was carrying what appeared to be all of her life possessions in a rice sack, but could not understand the security woman at the gate, and did not know what to do with herself. I do not know how she was able to pay for her treatments. Outside this hospital, children play in the mud with no shoes on. It is winter in Kabul… it is freezing. And dirty. And polluted. This is poverty here.   End parenthesis.)), it’s not just the power cuts and “inshallah-net” or non-existent 3G, it’s not my broken foot (yes, I did it again. I fail at footing.), and it is not even the fact that the worst has happened, and I actually lost a friend to the senseless violence. It’s the combination of all of these things, seen through the hazy lens of a “severe Vitamin D deficiency,” wrapped up in my shrinking world of places that I can go, because everywhere else has been blown up. And then a whole bunch of other crap.

So where do I begin…

How about with the refugee crisis?

I am quite sure that, by now, everyone is aware of the refugee crisis going on in the world today. In 2015, over a million people fled Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and a host of other countries, mostly headed into Europe. People are hightailing it out of here at an alarming rate- at one point, as many as 6,000 people per day were applying for passports here in Kabul. Continued Taliban advances, economic stagnation, and government instability all contribute to this renewed Afghan exodus. During the Summer and into the Fall, our older students and junior staff were talking constantly of leaving. We could hear them whispering in the hallways, we could see them in small clumps in the courtyard plotting what they assumed would be their glorious voyages to countries that would welcome them with open arms and jobs aplenty. This planted a seed in me… a seed of anxiety, of doubt. Of weariness. But who am I, but another foreigner, come to save Afghanistan? How can I ever understand the hardships these guys face every day that would make such a crazy idea plausible? First my assistant and the piano assistant fled to America on now-expired tourist visas. Then our roommate did the unthinkable overland journey to Europe with a smuggler, and miraculously survived.

Images of sodden asylum seekers getting pulled out of the sea on the shores of Lesvos, exhausted families stranded in train stations in Budapest, and the endless lines of desperate humans walking along highways, train tracks, border fields, barbed wire fences… have been seared into our brains. And I am sure that everyone feels some degree of emotion about this- pity, resentment, fear, whatever. But imagine if it was your friend, your roommate, in those images. Imagine getting phone calls from Iran: “We’ve been ambushed, I’ve lost everything.” From Turkey: “We were turned away at the Bulgarian border again.” From Turkey again: “Our boat sank again. I had to swim back to shore. Not everyone made it. We will try again for Greece in a few days.” Imagine those few days of not receiving any phone calls at all, and fearing, almost assuming, that your friend was dead! And thank God he is not. Thank God he somehow made it to Denmark, where he is, along with thousands of others, trying to start his life over, in a place where he never has to worry about a suicide bomber crashing into his bus. Where he never has to worry that he might get hit by an errant celebratory bullet, fired into the sky after a cricket victory. Where he never has to worry that a local mullah, who feels a bit too pious and entitled, doesn’t like the way he practices his religion and shoots him in the head.

So that all happened. That was only this fall. Immediately after this, I was privileged to bring a group of students and teachers on a performance and study tour in Germany. BONUS- I have never been to Germany, and have also recently acquired a handsome German boyfriend- what good fortune! The unfortunate thing is that I was not sure until less than 24 hours beforehand that this tour was indeed to happen, and the weeks leading up to said tour were fraught with uncertainty over who might flee in Germay, currently the absolute mecca for all asylum seekers, particularly Afghan. My responsibility on this tour was clear: make sure no one escapes. And after the majority of our students were unable to get visas, my secondary and equally important responsibility was clear: capitalize on the fact that I look 100% Afghan, and perform on stage as one of the students. This meant that my days in Germany were split between rehearsals lasting up to six hours at a time, bringing the students to the doctor (follow ups on a prior liver surgery (in a 17 year old!! Liver surgery!!), jaundice, migraines, blocked ears, flu, broken hand cast removal, though the hand was not actually broken- why do we do this here in Afghanistan? Why put something in a plaster when it is not broken? Probably the same reason girls are put on IV drips for menstrual pain. Mountains out of molehills, when the actually major issues are left unattended. Bowing to the tyranny of the urgent, while ignoring the important.), monitoring the whereabouts of students, fretting that nobody flee on this tour, and some much appreciated wandering about in the charming German town of Weimar. People said, “Oh, you are so lucky! You get a three-week holiday in Germany!!” And yes, absolutely, I was so lucky. I got to stay in a town where all the important musicians and writers and philosophers stayed- I got to walk on the same streets as Liszt and Schiller and even Martin Luther! My friend who lives there told me that there are so many buildings where famous dead people used to live, that they ran out of museums to create for them. I got to walk through the halls of the Hochschule für Musik Franz Liszt, and hear super talented young musicians practicing in the same rooms those famous dead guys did.

I realize that many people in this world would not get the opportunity to go to an awesome place like Germany, even on a work trip. But my head and heart were constantly occupied with the moral dilemma of what to do if someone were to flee, or if I were to get wind of someone fleeing. Wouldn’t my 17 year old female students have a much better life ahead of them if they stayed in Germany than if they returned to Afghanistan, with the certainty of marriage and offspring within the next 1-2 years? I have not been inside my students’ houses here in Kabul. I do not have a firsthand understanding of just how difficult their lives are. But I do know that living in a mud house on the side of a mountain with 9 other family members is not… as healthy as living in a state-assigned refugee flat outside Frankfurt.

In any event, the tour was a huge success.   We gave three performances, including the opening event for the 100 years of Afghan-German friendship commemoration week, which was attended by President Ghani himself! But for me, the highlight of the whole trip was an afternoon event we gave at the local Caritas in Weimar. Caritas runs what is called “World Café,” which is a weekly coffee shop for refugees, where they can practice their language and cultural skills with locals. Our ustads and boy students (the girls were too shy, and as an American just posing as an Afghan, I felt too ridiculous) played for about an hour to a crowd of mostly Afghan asylum seekers. Some had been in Germany for a few years, some had just arrived, some had come on visas and stayed, some had taken the treacherous overland route. During one of the songs, a woman started crying… my two girls sat with her to comfort her, and soon they too were crying. I looked around the room- grown Afghan men were crying, the German volunteers were crying. I was crying. After the performance, I asked one of the guys what was so significant, and he said for most of them, it was the first time they had heard their own music performed since their dangerous voyage. Never have I ever been more grateful for my life than at that moment.

Miraculously, thankfully, amazingly, curiously, every single person came back to Kabul from Germany.

The next day, I fell off a chair and broke my foot. AGAIN.

 I cannot adequately explain what a blow to me this has been. Being in Afghanistan, I already cannot do most things that I used to take for granted, like… being outside. Wearing skirts (without pants). Having nice hair being ruffled in the breeze. Doing pretty much anything without being ogled. Basically the only freedom I get is when I am on my motorcycle, because by the time anyone realizes I am a woman, I’m already gone. Breaking my foot took away my last remaining piece of freedom, and right before I was to go back to the States to see my family for the first time in over a year, my mom and brother, two years. I am a firm believer that everything happens because it is supposed to happen, but I could see absolutely no reason for this, no reason that my time with my family, time in America with parks and beaches and a San Diego that just begs to be walked…. Should be taken from me! The doctor told me that there was no reason I should have broken my foot so badly- after all, I only fell about 20 cm- and that there was no reason someone my age should be breaking as many bones as I have (remember my triumphant entry into Kabul? Broken foot.), and that it might indicate that I had some sort of deficiency. So, 6 weeks of casted foot later, it is revealed that I have a severe Vitamin D deficiency, generally brought about by lack of sunlight exposure. Thanks, hijab, thanks.

Either way, my Christmas holidays with my family were wonderful, despite my crippled state. I miss my family so much, being away, and I really needed to see them. I did not get to do very much, but I did get to spend a lot of quality time, which is the most important.   I then got to spend some wonderful quality time with the handsome German, as we had a quick New Years’ Eve jaunt to Oman, before returning “home.”

Our return trip, however, started on January 1st with the news that Le Jardin, one of the last remaining restaurants we can patronize (and we did, like once a week…) had been attacked. Blow to the gut. Within days of getting back to Kabul, Camelot, basically the OTHER place we were able to go, was also attacked. One of our students had a job there as a guard- he was injured in the attack, but not severely, and he will be ok. Two days ago, a car full of explosives was driven into the Tolo TV company bus, killing 7 people, and wounding dozens more.

 

Like I said, I used to be tough. But all of this, all one after the other, without any time to process my emotions… is wearing me down. My love for Afghanistan has not diminished, but has my resolve?

 

 

 

I chose not to write about my friend’s death, because it is too horrible, and too sensitive. RIP, Lisa-Jan, even though we hadn’t seen each other in a few months, after your passing I have thought about you every day. I know with full confidence that you are in heaven now; you ran with perseverance the race marked out for you, had your eyes fixed upwards. You did not grow weary and lose heart.

One Year in Afghanistan: Just……. Go

I just came back from a much needed break home in Hong Kong after my first year in Afghanistan. I spent the first week home feeling awful and sick and stressed out and lost and traumatised. I woke up in a panic one night after a vivid dream about a rocket (though truth be told, the only trouble I ever have sleeping in Kabul is due, in large part, to the 5am ice cream man, the bleating neighborhood sheep, and my next door neighbor, Elyas, who is the loudest and earliest rising child in the world).  I cried in the shower, and spent one evening violently sick, despite having eaten the exact same thing as my friend, who was completely fine. After all the puking, I slept from about 2:00am Sunday until 9:00am Monday, with a brief break for a drowsy church service. When I awoke, after my nearly 30 hour nap, I felt… normal.   I felt like I was ready to tackle my work, and able to answer the bevvy of questions about life in Afghanistan that showered down since my arrival.

So, now that I am able to articulate myself without crumbling into a quivering mess, I can reflect on what I have learned, and how my life has changed in the last 365+ days of living in the Big Kebab. In a nutshell, Afghanistan is the land of Unclear Expectations, and I am slowly learning to let it go (cue Elsa), whatever it happens to be (control, expectations, freedom, assumptions, etc etc etc).

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A Type A Person in a Type I(nshallah) Environment:

Afghanistan is a difficult place to be Type A. Upon first arrival to Kabul, Type A people like myself receive a crash course on being patient and forgoing that pesky sense of needing to be in control of everything. In Afghanistan, you are in control of nothing; nothing but your own emotions and how you react to things. After nine years of running a successful business in the logical and organized mecca of efficiency that is Hong Kong, coming to a place like Kabul was a shock to my color-coordinated-excel-spread-sheet brain. Not only was I no longer the boss, I was no longer the boss in a country where steering wheels can be found on either side of the car, food comes wrapped in British newspapers from 2010, normal wait-time for a meeting or event can range anywhere from “someone-important-is-here-right-now-drop-everything-and-perform,” to “better-hope-your-phone-is-fully-charged-because-it-is-12pm-and-the-10am-speaker-is-still-on-his-way.” Nothing works the way it is supposed to. Internet (aka inshallah-net) exists, but in a 56k modem sort of way, and 3G is more like 1.5G. Even public holidays are only announced a day or two before they happen- how can you be Type A in a place like this?   You have to adapt to the disorder, and adapt quickly. Although sometimes I fear that living here is making me disorganized and lazy, being in this environment is actually extremely liberating. It is a wonderful reminder to me that God, not I, is in control of everything. I don’t understand His plan for things here, and that’s ok. Life is more than efficiency and targets, life is about relationships and interactions. Endless waiting for meetings and airplanes allows for conversations. Snail-like internet (sort of) eliminates the mindless trolling through Buzzfeed and Reddit that occupies so much of my taxi/bus/transit time in Hong Kong (Facebook usage, however, remains at an all-time high. More on that later). Uncertainty about tomorrow breeds more of a sense of appreciation for today, and for the people with whom you spend your today.

Unclear Expectations and Misplaced Priority

When you open an article about Afghanistan and read Kabul City Rocked by Explosion, you expect that there are bombs raining down from the sky, buildings crumbling, soldiers patrolling the streets, while terrified women in burqas scurry into the nearest doorway to avoid flying shrapnel and concrete. You expect bread lines and sad eyes and amputees. You expect those of us that live here to be cowering in a state of constant fear. This, however, is not true, not entirely. Yes, Afghanistan is still an active conflict zone. But the conflict is a tired, furtive (thank you, Emma-jaan, for the word that perfectly encapsulates this feeling) one. We do not drive down the street dodging bullets; rather, we wake up wondering if there might be a suicide bombing somewhere in the city that day. There usually is not. It is not a constant gun battle that affects us here, it is the uncertainty of what *may * happen that breeds hypersensitivity and anxiety. It is the uncertainty of what could transpire that brings out the superlatives in us- extreme joy, extreme anger, extreme sadness. We are surrounded by these extremes; people are not just hungry, they are starving. People are not just happy, they are elated. Losses are catastrophic, successes are national celebrations. The ANA soldier who fought off six Taliban rose to celebrity status overnight, being awarded a car, a house, and no doubt countless marriage offers, and his subsequent fall from grace was just as rapid and dramatic. After just a few days, he is now in jail, disgraced, following a deadly traffic accident.

These extremes and uncertainties result in what I can only describe as an intense disparity of priority. There is a misplaced sense of gravity and import on things like Facebook posts and car decorations or what color a woman is wearing in public, whereas things that I would consider to be deserving of care and attention, like sanitation and security measures, might carry the same weight as, say, the choice between qabeli pilau or kebab for lunch. Idly written words have the power to not just damage feelings and friendships, they can also ruin lives. For most young people in Afghanistan, the majority of communication, particularly between the sexes, occurs via text message or Facebook. You can therefore understand why the things that are typed are far more significant than they would be anywhere else.

New Understandings of Danger and Safety

People living in safety and freedom cannot truly understand what “dangerous” and “safe” actually mean, and once I moved out here, my perception of these concepts changed dramatically. Basically, I do not know how to really answer the most often asked question: “Are you safe?” I am not safe in the way that YOU are safe, but again, the chances of the Taliban blowing up my house are very slim. We severely limit our movements, ie we don’t really go anywhere. Anything bad that could happen would probably happen on the road, so we do not spend much time in transit- and certainly we would not walk anywhere. There is no circumstance under which I would be walking to a restaurant or bar at night (mainly because there… are none…), providing the opportunity to be mugged or raped, so these sorts of dangers rarely even cross my mind. So I guess the best way to answer the “Are you safe” question is to say that I am extremely restricted in what I can do, but because of those restrictions, I am safe.

Afghanistan is part of the current world-wide refugee crisis. There are thousands of passport applications every day here, from people desperate to leave the country, by any means necessary. Unemployment at nearly 60%, the withdrawal of coalition force troops, unrest within the Taliban, following the confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death, and the growing threat of ISIS, have all pushed the country into deeper uncertainty. Most Afghans do not have the luxury of being able to leave at any time, as I do, and are affected by the instability in ways that I cannot even imagine. Their lives are in a different kind of danger; the danger of a hopeless future, a future that could contain a continuation of the last 35 years of conflict. This is, in a nutshell, what we are all fighting to prevent. Yes, I teach music; however, the primary goal is to provide a stable and promising future, using music as the vehicle. This is how to ensure safety for my students.

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Most often asked questions:

What do you do in your free time?

  • There are a few restaurants (and by a few I mean like… 5) that are ok for foreigners. We also go to friends’ places, and the embassies and NGO compounds throw parties. There is one awesome NGO called PARSA, who have a weekly Friday brunch on their expansive, farm-animal-filled property, and this is an essential factor in my mental well-being.
  • We watch a lot of downloaded TV series. I recently brought back an old projector from Hong Kong- this will serve us well in the winter, when it is too cold to go anywhere.
  • There are, in fact, many beautiful and interesting places in the city. The problem is that security is not good, so we have to limit our movements. During a safer time, I was able to ride with a friend to several shrines, forts, and hilltops around the city for some urban exploration. Right now, however, this is just unfortunately not an option.
  • Facebook.  Lots and lots of Facebook.  Ugh.

What is the food like?

  • The great thing about Afghan food is that everything is fresh, and without preservatives or chemicals of any kind. Despite the fact that I come from the land of All The Foods, I actually now feel healthier eating in Kabul. (also, as one of my housemates is diabetic, we have cut out oil and sugar from our diets, which is very helpful). The main problem is not that it is not tasty, but that there is not a lot of variety. There does not seem to be any clearcut distinction between breakfast, lunch, and dinner foods, so there is a lot of kebab consumption. The main foods here are:
    • Naan: a stupidly delicious bread that is consumed with every meal, and is like manna from heaven. Unfortunately, in addition to being insanely delicious, it is full of pesky things like calories, and therefore do nothing for someone watching their figure, which is nobody, because everyone here is hungry.
    • Ghosh: meat (lamb, beef, goat, chicken). Lots and lots of meat.
    • Oil: everything here is drowning in oil. I love banjaan sia (eggplant), but whenever I get it, it is basically a pool of oil with something that once resembled a vegetable resting limply at the bottom.
    • Kebab: grilled meat doused in spices, inside a naan, accompanied by a hot pepper, roasted tomato, and a few french fries. Kebab can be very delicious, but for breakfast? And again at lunch? And again for dinner? Yikes.
    • Qabeli pilau: rice made with oil, carrots, raisins, and a hunk of mysterious meat in the middle. Same with the kebab, can be very delicious, but not three times a day.
    • Mantoo/Ashaak: much like naan, this is food sent from heaven. It is the Afghan equivalent of xiao long bao, but without the soup inside. The meat is spiced ground lamb, and on top of the dumplings is a delicious tangy yogurt sauce, lentils, and coriander. Ashaak are kind of the vegetarian version of mantoo, made with something green on the inside, and not nearly as delicious. I could eat 30 mantoo in one sitting and be very happy. Fat. Happy.
    • Legumes: lubia (Afghan equivalent of… chili? Without the meat? So just the gross kidney beans?), nakhut (misspelled, chick peas in some sort of sauce), dahl (lentils, so good), and various combinations of the aforementioned, with other similar legumy bean things.
    • Juices: here is where Afghanistan cannot be beaten—mango juice, pomegranate juice, banana juice etc etc etc. All of these seem to be made with the secret ingredient of the nectar of the gods.
  • That’s pretty much it.

How do you get around?

  • We have a vehicle from the Ministry of Education (when they have enough money to pay for gas, which is… infrequently) that brings us to and from work, and to the grocery store if security is ok. There are also expat taxi services that we can call if we want to go anywhere else.
  • I also have a motorcycle that I no longer ride, as the security situation is not good right now, and there is no need to put my life in further danger.

What do you wear?

  • I can wear pretty much the same things as I did in Hong Kong, except that I have to wear them all at the same time. So I can wear a nice dress, but with pants underneath, and a cardigan on top, or “arm socks” to cover my sinful wrists. Chador (headscarf) at all times outside my house.
  • Arms and legs must be covered at all times (outside my home), and my shirt/skirt/dress should reach to the knees (or close). Clothing should never be tight, and we should not show the shape of our bodies.
  • I do not wear a burqa.

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“Who could be so lucky? Who comes to a lake for water and sees the reflection of moon.”

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“Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.” 

This is one of my favorite quotes of all time; it embodies the excitement I feel for the world, for immersing myself in new cultures. 10 months ago I moved here to Afghanistan, embarking on what was supposed to be a year-long sabbatical from nearly a decade of running a music school in Hong Kong. After just a few weeks, however, I knew that I had fallen irrevocably, steadfastly, and undeniably in love with this incredible country and its inhabitants. I knew that I would not be able to leave and return to my gilded life of security, fast internet, educated children, shopping malls, false eyelashes, restaurant choices, travel, beaches, paddling, modernity, and bacon. I knew that Afghanistan was not just a stopover, but a destination. And just like, nine years ago, Hong Kong became my home, Afghanistan has become my new home. I have resigned my directorship in Hong Kong, and will stay here… indefinitely!!  I can think of no greater poet than Rumi himself to help me explain why:

“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” 

I do not know what I ever did to be given not only what I need, but also what I want.   Many years ago, I asked God to let me go to Afghanistan. It wasn’t a need, like a roof over my head, food on the table, or sustainable health, but rather an arbitrary desire, like a nice beach vacation or laser hair removal. Yet somehow, after leading a wonderful and fulfilling life in Hong Kong, the greatest city on Earth, my pie-in-the-sky wish was fulfilled. I get to live in my dream country, work at my dream job, surrounded by a dream team of colleagues and students and friends. I love it here. I love what I do. I love where I am.

I do not even know how to adequately express the gratitude I feel to be here.   I suppose the best way to show my gratitude is to continue doing what I am doing, and do my absolute best. I can think of no greater thank offering than teaching my students to be great musicians, than giving them a well of beautiful music in their minds and hearts from which they can draw at any time, than embracing and loving this mission more and more.

“Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.” 

Since coming to this country, I have met the most extraordinary people. People who have done extraordinary things, people who have lived through extraordinary circumstances. Strong people, interesting people, beautiful people. Although this country is also rife with expats who are here for the wrong reasons, whose salaries would make you blush, who are under lock and key and do not get to experience anything of the majesty that is Afghanistan, there are so many here who change your life with one conversation, and inspire you to be a much better you.

Among the people I am privileged to know, there is someone who rode a bicycle from London to Hong Kong, someone who rode a motorcycle from Kabul to London, the director of a Kabul library, an Argentinian poet/activist, a female helicopter pilot, the curator of the museum, a man who buried his instruments in the ground so the Taliban would not find them, a boy whose father was imprisoned for allowing him to listen to music, a girl who stood up against her uncle for beating her mom, a celebrity top chef, a woman who lost her childhood across a myriad of refugee camps, a local girl who rides bicycles, a disabled man who teaches kids to skateboard, a rapper, the guy who started the Kabul circus, a girl who spends her mornings riding horses in the mountains, a TV producer, a doctor-turned-media-expert, someone who photographs refugees in Syria, a husband and wife documentary film making team, the man who started the country’s only music school, a girl who rides a vespa around town, a woman who trains local veterinarians, the daughter of a fourth wife, who was shunned for having a boyfriend, a movie star, the First Lady of Afghanistan, an American who was born in my hometown, but grew up here in Kabul, a motorcycle gang of wanderers…….. the list of fascinating people with fascinating stories is endless.

It is wonderful to know so many people- local and foreign- who are here because they REALLY want to be here, who share this passion and zeal for Afghanistan. For us, the security threats we face, and the restrictions we endure (or ignore, as the case may be) are insignificant in the face of what we GET to do here. All these people I have met are an incredible inspiration to me. Unforgettable, unsurmountable, unbreakable.

“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged.”

This last week, the first 7 days of Ramazan, has been filled with intellectual and spiritual discourse on the reasons for fasting, the nature of God, the differences and similarities between religions. I enjoyed a sublime iftar with a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Sufi, two agnostics, an atheist, and myself, a Christian. I have been waking up at what I would have previously considered to be ungodly hours (2:30am) to have the sahari meal and pray before the sun rises. (fun fact: it is full daylight here by 4:42am.) Although I am of a different faith, there is something extraordinary about being awake in the still of the dawn, praying at the same time as 30 million of my adopted compatriots.

To be honest, I am not very good at Ramazan, and have only had a few successful days of fasting. However, I am so humbled to at least be trying to join the rest of the country in this unbelievable exercise in faith and sacrifice and self-control. I am humbled to be faced by my own short-comings and lack of will power. I am so grateful to have a constant reminder of just how much I have to learn and grow, of how much more I could be integrating my faith into my daily life. For Afghans, faith is not something they kind of do, it is what they are; Islam is life. It is every aspect of life; there is no separation between their faith in God and their daily ins and outs. What an inspiration! What a conviction.

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“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.” 

I have been asked why I think, from a spiritual perspective, Afghanistan has gotten such a raw deal. Over three decades of war, endemic corruption, crippling poverty, and a broken economy have left undeserving people in what appears to be a hopeless cycle of dependence and exploitation. Pain and sorrow run deep here. Children are born into generational disenfranchisement, and are taught not to live in joy, but to survive out of necessity. I do not have an answer to this question of “WHY?” I do not know why this beautiful country has been made to suffer so much. However, I do know that development will happen. Security will return. Corruption will diminish. The economy will recover, the children will be educated, society will modernize, and this country will, indeed, be lifted out of the ashes of war and oppression. And when this does happen, inshallah, the revival of this place will be unparalleled anywhere in the world. The healing will be even more beautiful than the mountains that cradle Kabul in their laps, because when you come from a time and place so low, so dark, recovery is not easy or swift, but it is sweet, significant, and relieving.

“Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don’t claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent.”

I could never deign to say that Afghanistan is my country, that even this experience belongs to me. I can only revel in the fact that, for however long, I am permitted to get a glimpse of the mysterious beauty, and that I get to share in the story.

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(All quotes are by Rumi, most from “The Essential Rumi.” He is the master of beauty.)

Only in Afghanistan

ONLY IN AFGHANISTAN

There are so many misconceptions about life in Afghanistan. It is true, the Taliban are still here, there is widespread poverty and malnutrition, and the road to recovery from the past 30+ years of war is as pitted and potholed as the majority of our roads. It is also true that we have sustained multiple egregious attacks over the last two weeks, with more casualties than anyone can stomach.

However, there are also so many things that are so delightfully Afghantastic that could only happen here in Kabul:

Adventures in Kabul Airport:

Only in Afghanistan can you run in and out of immigration three times in one hour sans passport without getting into trouble. In fact, during my final, apologetic, sweaty exit from the departure gate through the passport hall, the officer said to me: “I don’t want to see you again. You know you’ve broken the law three times already, right?” Oops.

Camilo parenthesis:

We were driving to Le Jardin for a much-needed dinner of western food and exorbatently overpriced wine. In the midst of a deep conversation, Camilo announces, “Here is big parenthesis: I need to stop and buy two black socks. Right now.” We all laugh at this complete non-sequitor, but then Shabeer stops the car IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD, jumps out, runs across the street, and returns three minute later with two pairs of black socks.

Nacho’s makeover:

I got a really nice tan a few Friday’s ago while… bathing and cutting the hair of my new baby goat. His name is Nacho, and his favorite food is everything that is not made of concrete or metal. I’m pretty sure his favorite activities are pooping everywhere, and ignoring the cat.   All of my students and colleagues are shocked to learn that I do not plan to eat this goat, but that his main purposes are to keep our grass at an acceptable length (and destroy all flowers, vines, and other beautiful things), and to entertain his city-slicker owners.

Kabul Traffic:

Technically, University Road (that’s not its real name. in fact, this street has no name. none of them do.) is a four-lane street. Two eastbound, two westbound. However, during rush hour, which is every hour in which there is sunlight, it becomes seven lanes of absolute mayhem and arbitrary nonsense. The number of east or west-bound lanes is entirely dependent on the patience, or in most cases, lack thereof, of drivers. Wais, our personal king of the road, routinely forms his own impatience lane number eight, careening around anyone foolish enough to get in his way. He has actually driven the wrong way down access roads, between security bollards, whatever, in order to avoid sitting for too long (this is for security reasons, right?), or taking longer than he deems necessary to reach our destinations.

Hospitality:

Upon discovering that my housemates were out of town, Bibi, the indomitable matriarch of the massive family that lives next door (upon last count there were 15 adults), took it upon herself to feed me. We are talking mantou, ashak, lubia, naan baked in her own tandoor, sweets, and more visits than I, as a preferably solitary person, could handle in one weekend. She calls me her daughter, and regularly sends her actual daughters and grandchildren over to keep me company. When she can handle the walk (she is my mystic sister in Afghan foot breaking, and is currently hobbling around with a crutch, after being struck by a motorcycle), she herself comes over to sit in state over Casa Mexicana. People talk about Afghan hospitality, but I never truly understood it until now. I actaully sleep better at night now, knowing that I have such an incredible adopted mother looking out for me just next door! (In fact, while writing this, I was summoned outside to hold council with all of the next door ladies, who are literally shouting at me from their rooftop.)

Explosions of Roses:

Recently, the Taliban announced their “Spring Offensive,” which to me, honestly, sounds more like the start of baseball season than a reign of terror. The first few weeks were extremely quiet, but the city emerged from the miserable winter, exploding everywhere with…. Roses. The transformation of this dusty, brown, poop-filled metropolis into a lush green garden was shocking: medians, whose cracked dry dirt was formerly strewn with withering, barren trees, and junkies getting high under their filthy patos, now burst forth with roses of every color you could imagine. Where was once brown, there is now green and red and yellow and orange and pink. Even the harsh brown mountains that tower over the city are now a furry green. Kabul is BEAUTIFUL.

So, lest you be misled by the constant media reports of IED’s, suicide bombings, kidnappings etc, that Afghanistan is nothing but a lawless failed state, please understand that it is a place of constant delights and surprises, and the kindest and most welcoming people you could ever be so lucky to meet. Only in Afghanistan could you have such a juxtoposition of bad and good, barren and lush, chaos and convenience, desolation and beauty; but this is what gives me such hope for its future. Yes, we are in some of the lowest lows, however, in the midst of that you can still see the highest heights. Only in Afghanistan could such intense desperation give way to such intense hope.

Salaam from Nacho-jan!

Salaam from Nacho-jan!

“Time is poop.” – Camilo-jan

What does it mean to be flexible in Afghanistan? It means HURRY UP AND WAIT!!

It means that you will put together the schedule for an eight week international music festival, and find out 2 days before it starts that there will be an additional 75 participants, who also need timetables. Different timetables.  New schedule created.

It means that you will look forward to a relaxing weekend of reading books, drinking wine, and enjoying outdoor brunches with friends, and learn that instead you will be playing 10 minutes of music for the President. However, those 10 minutes of music require 12 hours of logistics, security checks, emergency rehearsal, sound check, sound check part two because the microphones and mixing board were damaged by water in the truck on the way to rehearsal, and the sound engineer never showed up anyway, and some general waiting around.  Brunch is rescheduled.

It means that your students will show up an hour and a half late to a rehearsal, but you will not know with whom to be angry- the student, the conductor, the school, the country… because the schedule changes so much, that it is really anyone’s best guess when to arrive anywhere.  Take out your frustration on a pack of fauxreos cookies.

It means that there will be seven custodians employed at your organization, yet walking across the office will result in clouds of dust (which you KNOW are made of poo), bathroom washing consists of throwing buckets of dirty water across the floor and squeegeeing the excess in the general direction of the drain, and full trash cans will be removed for emptying, and returned still full of rubbish, sometimes even different rubbish.  Leave trash can in the hallway.

It means that you have a wonderful job that is full of challenges and growth and inspiration, but you do not get paid for three months, because the country’s fiscal year ends in mid-December, and parliament does no work, including budget approval, until Nowruz, at the end of March. And it is obvious that the government planning ahead and distributing salaries to the company bank accounts in advance for future distribution is a fool’s errand; better to just not pay anyone with a ministry job for the duration of that surprise period.  Pay no bills in Hong Kong, and remind yourself that humanitarian work is hard and expensive, and requires personal sacrifice.  Like your credit rating.

It means that you will go to the airport with 27 students, but only 13 visas, and the unflagging confidence that the other 14 are on their way. You will then spend the next two hours running in and out of immigration (thank goodness this is Kabul…. This could never happen in any other country) checking kids in, pulling some off the flight, transporting lost phones, and boarding the plane with only 13 students.   And behind the scenes, the amazing school admin staff are having an even more “flexible” day, standing outside the UAE embassy, staying at work until midnight, conferencing between Afghanistan, Australia, Italy, and UAE in order to secure the promised visas for the children who were left behind.  Miraculously, all students make it to Dubai, and win prestigious award for “Best Regional Choir” in the Middle East Choir Festival.

It means that you have plans for your studio repertoire and ensembles, but half of the girls don’t show up, because their uncles and moms are trying to marry them off.  …

It means that you will work your tail off putting together and submitting a huge report to the auditors on all company activities for the previous and upcoming year, and then find out 2 months later that the recipient never read it or submitted it to his superiors in Washington, who therefore think you are a giant slacker for not doing your work. That you did. And submitted. Two months ago.  Resubmit, complain to housemates, consume wine.

It means that you will rush to get to where you need to be on time, and upon arrival, will then wait up to 7 hours for anything to happen.  Carry extra battery for iPhone and always top up data plan in advance.

It means that an avalanche damages the power lines bringing life to the entire country, and therefore, you will only have 3-4 hours of electricity per day, but not at regular intervals, so good luck trying to see at night, charge your phone, or shower. Because the water pump is electric; ergo, no power, no shower.  Wear perfume every day.

It means that your generator will work 38% of the time, so… see above. When said generator DOES work, there are strict generator hours- must turn off at 8:00am on the nose, regardless of whether or not you are currently covered in shampoo.  Hijabs are a dirty girl’s best friend.

It means that you will have 4 concerts in 3 days. You will find out about 2 of them the day before you perform. Good luck.

It means that gunfire at night in your neighborhood is no big deal, because it only lasted like five minutes, and probably nobody died. Go back to sleep.

It means that it rained a few days ago, so the streets all flooded and are now pitted with even larger potholes, and the open sewer outside your house is a vibrant shade of kelly green, and the smell could kill a hippopotamus.  Sigh.

It means that the main road in your neighborhood is a different height than the side streets, so people have built makeshift ramps from dirt and rocks in order to go from one to the other. If you can drive in Kabul, you can drive anywhere!!

Speaking of driving, being flexible means that turn signals, seatbelts, rear view mirrors, side view mirrors, and back windshields are purely decorative. But not as important as the giant Apple or “Lovely Corolla” or Massoud’s face stickers adorning all other portions of the vehicle.  Realize that if it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.  Drink deeply of the wells of confidence you never imagined you had by making blind left turns into oncoming traffic and not dying.  Adrenaline.

It means that when a crew is setting up the audience chairs for an event, they will first carefully position the luxurious sofa chairs for the VIP’s, then bring out the carpets for the floor, move all the luxurious VIP sofa chairs out of the way for the positioning of the carpets, then re-set the luxury seating, set the regular plebian wooden chair seating, then 6 minutes before the VIP guests arrive, realize the main VIP deserves an even more luxurious sofa chair, and swap that out for one that is a slightly different color. Why don’t they just put the carpets first, luxury chairs second, and super extra luxurious chair third? And remember that the same thing happens at every event in the history of events? It pains me to watch this at every ministry performance.

It means that your sister will send you what looks to be an adorable video of your nephew, but the 15 second clip takes 10 minutes to load, because Afghanistan internet.

It means that you may be a well-adjusted, patient, and generally optimistic an upbeat person, but that the constant strain of never knowing what is going on, the constant uncertainty of what is going to happen next, starts to turn you into an impatient, testy individual with a propensity to complain. Everything in Afghanistan happens at the spur of the moment (except the new government, amiright??), and yet takes forever to complete. This country has been at war for so long, nobody seems to believe that there will actually be a tomorrow. The result is that planning for the future seems pointless; if you have an opportunity to do something, you must start it right away, regardless of preparation, forethought, availability of resources, or sustainability of whatever you are doing, or you may lose your chance. Things rarely transpire as you expect them to, so best just never have any expectations whatsoever.

I am grateful that this place is forcing me to be flexible, forcing me to be patient. These are things that are necessary in life. However, there is a tipping point. You can go from being flexible and patient to being jaded and complacent. You can lose your will, lose your optimism that anything can improve. Fortunately, I have not yet reached this point. But I know many people who have, and I can see this point looming on my horizon. I now understand that what kids here, what people in general here, need is consistency. They need something they can count on. I hope that, even if my kids learn nothing else from me, at least they know they can count on me, that I am steadfast in my support for them. I hope that music becomes something constant for them. I hope that, in the midst of an uncertain life, filled with chaos and upheaval, my kids think “at least I have the violin,” and are comforted by this. It is great to be flexible… as long as you have a sure foundation upon which to base your flexibility. Let’s hope we are helping to rebuild that sure foundation for Afghanistan!

This weekend is Nowruz, or Persian New Year. Tonight as Aziz and I were struggling to get the generator started, I looked up and realized that our cherry blossom tree has started to bud!  It made me so happy and encouraged to see new life coming.  Therefore, I am making a Nowruz resolution (lucky me- I get three fresh starts– Western New Year, Chinese New Year, and now Persian New Year!!) to be flexible AND patient.  To be grateful for the stability I am blessed to enjoy.  To strive to give my students as much consistency as possible.  To remember that I do have a firm foundation, a solid rock, something powerful and consistent to keep me steady.  Nowruz Mubarak!!

BEST REGIONAL CHOIR!!

BEST REGIONAL CHOIR!!

WORTH IT!!

WORTH IT!!

Afghanistan from 29,000 feet

So Afghanistan may not be the safest place on Earth… but flying into Kabul is like living in one of Antoine de St. Exupery’s dreams. The landscape is so beautiful and mysterious, and the mountains are like living beings; ancient creatures from the formation of the Earth. The desert is vast and brown- every imaginable shade of brown. An occasional ridge of low mountain surges out of the desert like the backfin of a great fish, and the distant Hindu Kush rise and fall like smoky blue and white waves. But the brown and caramel and tan and beige spreads out like a great blanket the earth pulls over itself to keep warm in winter.

 

About 120 kilometers from Kabul, the beige smoothness of the desert is suddenly interrupted by jagged mountains; the tallest capped with bright snow, the majority of the others bursting out of the sand with rough hewn rocks and foreboding dark stone. The mountains lurch up from beneath the sand, shoving, jostling each other out of the way, as if trying to free themselves from the endless desert. Winding roads snake through the sharp valley crevices, and even from 29,000 feet in the air, one can see that these inaccessible paths make for perilous journeys. The endless bumpy vastness between Kabul and anywhere else boggles the mind; that the Taliban, let alone any other overland invaders, could ever make it into the city is incredible.

 

As we fly over denser and denser lines of mountains, each ridge successively higher than the last, I don more and more layers of clothing and covering. Kabul is enshrouded by a protection of mountains and desert; I am enshrouded by jacket, arm socks, leggings under my long skirt, hijab, sunglasses, and the ubiquitous Afghan scowl. Mountains give way to plateau, plateau gives way to a cloud of reddish brown dust; the cloud gives way to Kabul.

Welcome home, traveler.

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No words

I have had such a difficult time knowing what to write.  Afghanistan has so much bad and so much good coinciding; it is so hard to balance these and portray the place realistically.

I cannot gloss over the unfortunate truth: Afghanistan is really dangerous.  The last several weeks have been surreal with the amount of violence we have seen.  Where to begin?

Thanksgiving:  We were finishing up our surprise turkey, with all the trimmings, and joking about finding a controversial topic of conversation so that we could start fighting and make it a real American holiday.  Our jokes were silenced by the reverberating boom of the door of the neighboring compound being blown off by a suicide bomber.  “That was close…” “Nah, that wasn’t close.”  Alarm, sirens, yep it was close.  Quiet, organized hustle up the stairs to the bunker on the roof.  Cigarettes.  I am not sure how long we were inside the bunker, but, graced by the presence of the compound’s unflappable security manager, we all remained calm as we watched flashes of gunfire and heavy artillery flicker across the grainy cctv, and were serenaded by the pings of bullets hitting the side of the building, and the heavy thunks of high caliber rounds raining down on our neighbors.  At some point drinks appeared, followed by an out of tune guitar, and many rounds of safe-room selfies.  After we were given the all-clear, we piled out of the steel bunker and settled in to watch a movie.  This, too, was interrupted by blasts and sirens, and we repeated our quiet, organized hustle into the bunker.  Once the fighting died down and we were given our second all-clear, attempts at sleeping were thwarted by every tree branch rattling, ever distant car’s encounter with a pothole, every slamming door.  At no point in the night was I actually afraid; however, next door’s complex suicide attack frayed my nerves and has robbed me of subsequent sleep.

Two tense days later, we were working late when I received a message to the effect of “Are you home or at work? Are you safe?  Foreign guesthouse in [neighborhood where I live] under attack right now.”  I will make the long, sad story short, and still sad.  A father and his two teenage kids were killed in a complex attack- they were targeted for being missionaries.   I knew this family indirectly, and know many people who know them directly.  The mother, who was not home during the attack, is a prominent and active member of the NGO community here.  How can she go on?  My heart breaks for this woman- her loss is just beyond comprehension.

Providentially, I was called at the last minute to come to Singapore for the bi-annual Singapore International Strings Conference.  Apparently someone canceled at the last minute, and I was the last resort replacement.  I was reluctant at first, but once I realized my two dearest Suzuki friends would also be teaching there, and a renowned luthier would also be present, I accepted.  (who am I kidding?  I really wanted to eat some kway teo and laksa… get my eyelashes done, have a foot massage…) I was also blessed with the opportunity to give a presentation about Afghanistan National Institute of Music, and the work we are doing.  It was a difficult presentation- talking about child marriage, street kids, poverty, entrenched corruption, and a sordid history of untrained, unsavory teachers.  I could not control my tears a few times, and the audience cried with me, and pledged their support to ANIM.  Just a few short hours after the presentation about musical and cultural revival in Afghanistan, the worst worst happened.

The Afghan Traditional Ensemble were participating in a stage performance, speaking out against violence,  at the French Cultural Centre in Estiqal High School.  A 15 year old boy, disguised as a student, detonated a BBIED (body-born improvised explosive device) while sitting in the audience.  Fortunately, the students were all on stage at the time, and none were harmed.  However, Dr. Sarmast was sitting in the audience, and sustained a head injury.  Thank God he has been released from the hospital, and should recover fully.  He said initially he thought the blast was part of the performance piece, but then when he came to and saw there were bodies on the floor, he realized there was no more performance and the blast had been real.  One person died, and many were injured in this blast.

This is the harsh and disgusting reality of Afghanistan.  There is, indeed, a widespread campaign of violence and unrest.  Afghan kids were born during war.  Their parents were born in war.  Their grandparents fought in war, but are most likely gone by now.  Most of the people who are currently alive in this incredible country have known nothing but war, and the trauma and stress and adrenaline and state of constant high alertness that accompanies conflict, for their entire lives.  I type this from the cosy safety of my hotel room in Singapore, but even here, the sound of the outside cars bumping over a ridge in the street sends my heart racing, and my stomach jumping.  The events of the last two weeks will never leave me.  They are seared into my existence forever.

HOWEVER, despite the recent escalation in violence, despite being confined on lockdown, despite nights of uneasy sleeplessness, everything about Afghanistan, my students, my colleagues, my boss, my school, make it all WORTH IT.  There is no greater privilege than seeing the positive development of a child.  Listening to a student play beautiful music on an instrument in a war-torn country is the most amazing experience ever.  We recently finished exam adjudication.  I was filled with wonder, amazement…. incredulity that some of the students, who had never known anything good in their entire lives, were able to produce such peaceful, mature, beautiful sounds.  Iqbal, a grade 5 guitarist, brought me to tears with his melancholic Calatyud Waltz.  Qambar, a grade 12 percussion student, stunned us all with what can only be described as a RIDICULOUS rendition of Smadbeck’s Rhythm Song.  Tahmina, a grade 9 violinist, put forth the most solid, confident, and beautifully toned Bach Bourree I have heard in (mumble mumble) years of Suzuki teaching.  In these kids, I see and hear the realization of Dr. Suzuki’s dream- a generation of students with peaceful hearts, creating beauty.  This makes it worth it.

I will never forget little Bryan in Hong Kong asking why I was willing to put my life on the line to go to Afghanistan.  Back then, I had some great response about ensuring that kids grow up to be the good guys or something like that.  Now?  Now if you ask me why I am willing to put my life on the line to teach music, I can honestly say: Iqbal, Qambar, Tahmina.  Zarifa, Samir, Mehran, Ali, Marjan, Samia, Sonbul, Sevinch, Shaperai.  Nazira, Fakria, Nadeem, Sonam, Saeed, Amruddin, Elyas.  Fayez.

Readers…. we have violence and unrest.  But we also have violins and chinrest.  This makes it worth the risk.

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Democracy: A Tale of Two Cities pt. 3: Hong Kong, Boots (flipflops) on the Ground

What is home?  Home is where the heart is.  Some people say home is where your family is. Some people say home is where you are born. Some people say home is wherever you currently are.  I agree with all of these, and to paraphrase a friend, you do not get to choose where you are born, but you do get to choose where you live. Eight and a half years ago, I chose Hong Kong. Or rather, Hong Kong chose me. I do still believe that all my paths have been leading me to Kabul, my great big pie in the sky dream; however, Hong Kong is the place where I became who I am today. Hong Kong is forever in my heart- my greatest love, my longest and most stable relationship. I think there will never be a place like Hong Kong for me- my #1.

Four days ago I hopped onto a plane from Kabul to Hong Kong, so that I could participate in the historic demonstrations that are ongoing in my adopted city. Anxious to join the protestors in the struggle towards democracy, my heart was full of anticipation and a bit of trepidation- would there be repeats of the tear gassing and pepper spray? What of the rumors of guns full of rubber bullets? Would the PLA show up, as people all secretly feared? What I actually encountered when I arrived in Hong Kong on Wednesday, 1st October (China National Day), was far more shocking, far more moving.

The main thoroughfare from Sheung Wan-Central-Admiralty-Wanchai-Causway Bay has been transformed. Instead of a busy highway full of taxis, buses, cars, and trucks, it has become a pedestrian zone full of black and yellow clad protestors of all ages. Contrary to what you might be fearing, after that tense Sunday night of tear gas and pepper spray, there has been absolutely no further violence or altercation. In fact, this is, by all intents and purposes, the best of anything I have ever seen in my 8.5 years of living in Hong Kong. This is the best of our courtesy, politeness, respect, compassion, and caring for one another as fellow humans, as fellow Hong Kongers. Here is what I have witnessed over the last few days of the protests:

  • Tens of thousands of people on Connaught Road. Walking around, standing around, sitting around…. You would never know that this is our main highway, that it is a road at all. It looks like a wonderful park.
  • Tens of thousands of people waving their phones and flashlights, and singing together. It’s no wonder the Taliban banned music in Afghanistan before…. The power of collective singing and music is far too powerful to ignore. Every time spontaneous song erupts I have to fight back my tears, as the camaraderie is so emotional
  • Students doing their homework on the street
  • People walking around collecting garbage
  • Garbage and recycling sorting stations
  • Kids handing out free water, food, fans, cool packs, stickers, democracy information, yellow ribbons, etc
  • People holding signs offering translation services for those of us who mm sic gong guangdonghua
  • People climbing ladders set up over the road dividers
  • Banner march by ethnic minorities
  • People walking through the crowd spraying cold water on overheated protestors
  • First aid stations manned by volunteers
  • Supply stations full of free water, food, umbrellas, raincoats, goggles and cling film to protect from tear gas
  • Signs advertising free legal services in case you get arrested
  • Signs advertising free showers and phone charges
  • Messages of international solidarity projected onto the walls of the government building
  • Protest art, everywhere
  • Signs of apologies for blocking roads, rogue graffiti, anything offensive
  • Yellow ribbons everywhere
  • People cooking and distributing food right on the street

People have accused Hong Kongers of being self-absorbed, apathetic, and driven only by money. What I have witnessed these last few days assures me of exactly the opposite- what I have seen is people caring for each other and for the city, offering help, assistance, advice, and being driven by a spirit of community and humanity that I always knew was here, but never got to see before.

Hong Kong truly is a SPECIAL Administrative Region…. The most special. Pray for peace, pray for progress, pray for Hong Kong!!

Phone charging station

Phone charging station

Crowds

Crowds

Lending a helping hand

Lending a helping hand

Barricades

Barricades

Recycling station

Recycling station

Messages of encouragement

Messages of encouragement

Free umbrellas

Free umbrellas

Ethnic Minorities joining the cause

Ethnic Minorities joining the cause

Kids joining the cause

Kids joining the cause

Wise words

Wise words

Collecting garbage

Collecting garbage

Solidarity

Solidarity

Dreamers

Dreamers

Crowds

Crowds

Help yourself!

Help yourself!

Homework time

Homework time

Ga Yau!

Ga Yau!