Helicopters are flying over my guesthouse, and I just heard gunshots in the distance.
Til now, I have had such a hard time talking or writing about being here in Afghanistan, and I could not quite place my finger on why. Obvious reasons would be culture shock, security issues, adjusting to new job, the intensity of work juxtaposed with the bizarre Melrose Place idyl of my guesthouse… None of these were quite it. It wasn’t the fact that I have to pass through three layers of armed security to get home, or that I was frisked and had my violin sniffed by a bomb dog to get into our last performance. It’s not even that I have a hard time comprehending that I cannot be out past 8:00pm, and that I must be accompanied by a man at pretty much all times in public. These are just details.
What I realized the other night after watching a documentary about my new workplace, “Dr. Sarmast’s Music School,” is that from the moment I was unceremoniously wheeled off the plane at Kabul International Airport, my life drastically changed, and is never going to be the same. Emerging into the dusty, dry, glaring sun, I felt myself being stripped of the remaining layers of doubt, fear, self, expectation. I feel like everything in my life has been leading me towards Afghanistan, and I have finally arrived home.
But, I have seen things that are so far outside my scope of reality, that I am unable to articulate or describe, for fear of diminishing their gravity and the impact they have had on my life already. I will never be the same again. I have been here for 13 days. The students… sometimes I forget where I am, forget where these kids come from. Sometimes my mind tricks me into assuming they are just normal kids, coming happily into my room for their violin lessons, or thinking perhaps these are the privileged elite of Kabul, who are wealthy enough to afford this sort of tuition. You might say, “But Jennifer, all kids are the same.” But circumstances are not the same, and my lovely students are growing up in a war. There are orphans. There are those who have witnessed death and killing. Many used to be refugees or homeless. Some of them are so poor that their families send them to orphanages to live, because they cannot afford to feed them. Many of them used to work on the streets, selling plastic bags or trinkets, to support their families. There are girls from the provinces whose families are so conservative that they have to hide the fact that they attend music school from them. Sometimes kids disappear from international school tours because they are seeking asylum from the war; this endless, perpetual war. Kids eat enormous school lunches here; they don’t have food at home. So many of them are tiny- the 11 year olds look like they are 5 or 6. And yet despite their size, their faces show that they have already lived through a lifetime of conflict that none of us will ever come close to even imagining.
I had a little girl sobbing in my office today. “Cheraa gerya-karden, dokhtar-jan?” (why cry, dear girl? ps dari is the most beautiful language ever) She was crying because the orphanage where she stays is closing for a week, amidst election uncertainty. She was worried that if she went home to her province, she would not ever return. At first I thought that was preposterous, but then I realized that at 13, she is old enough to be married, and it is not unlikely that this would happen. I couldn’t hold back my tears. This is real. This is happening. This is now, in 2014. I cannot even fathom sharing most of the stories of these kids’ lives that I have already learned. Their stories are not mine to tell, and you would not be able to handle them.
This is my new normal. I am so grateful that I have been allowed to come here, so humbled that I can witness this reality. I don’t know if I will be able to change anyone’s life, but I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this country has already changed mine.
If you are in the US and cannot view Al Jazeera English videos, you can check out the trailer below:
This is the documentary about my incredible boss, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, and the Afghanistan National Institute of Music: