Month: December 2014

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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