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