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