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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.

“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!!

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.

anim girls

Democracy: A Tale of Two Cities pt. 1: Hong Kong

photo credit: Joshua Wong

Police standoff.

The front pages of SCMP, New York Times, CNN, BBC, Time, Al-Jazeera, Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal are all the same:

Tear gas fired at protestors as streets become a battleground/ Police unleash tear gas/ Clashes at protest frontline/ Tear gas and clashes/ Tear gas used against protestors/ Bedlam/ Chaos

photo credit SCMP

Cops tear gassing HK crowds around 1am

These are the kind of headlines I would except from Kabul, the city where I currently enjoy political instability, city-wide lockdowns, vehicle born improvised devices and the likes.  These are not the kind of headlines I would expect from my beloved home, HONG KONG, safest and most stable city in the world!!

Why is this happening?  Recently, Beijing issued a statement saying that THEY will choose the candidates to go on future ballots, that they will have veto rights over who gets “elected.”  Essentially, Mainland China is ruling out our democracy.  We already have extremely limited suffrage, and this further diminishes our rights, and swallows us more and more into the gaping maw that is the PRC.    Hong Kongers are peaceful people, and we love our city.  For us, protesting is a way of life.  It is one of the things that makes Hong Kong so great- we are able to voice our opinions without fear of oppression from the government.  But tonight, protests have turned ugly, with police firing tear gas and pepper spray into the crowds of thousands, with a constant rumour of guns (rubber bullets, let’s hope) to follow.

I have been glued to the live feed on http://hongwrong.com/occupy-central-live/ since getting home from work.  It is so surreal, to be sitting here in an ACTUAL CONFLICT ZONE, watching live footage of the unfolding chaos like I would watch in an action film.  The thing is…. it’s not a movie, it’s my home, and it’s happening live.  Scenes of the Admiralty MTR piled high with garbage cans, cordons, and barricades; footage of police in riot gear shooting pepper spray and tear gas into crowds of unarmed students with their hands in the air, reports of my friends getting hit with tear gas canisters; whatsapping with friends on the ground, listening to thousands of my HK compatriots singing “Do you hear the people sing” and “Beyond” through the Hong Wrong live feed……. I am overcome.  I am so frustrated to be in Kabul, and not in Hong Kong right now.  I feel helpless that I am not there with my friends fighting for our democracy, for our votes, for our rights, for our voices.

Something significant resonate strongly with me.  This protest started days ago, and yet, every piece of footage shows protestors with their hands raised and open, no rioting, no aggression, no looting, no violence whatsoever.  You will never find a more peaceful protest.  Hong Kongers just want freedom.  On the other, coming from the Kabul perspective, a city where I regularly see pickup trucks full of police carrying automatic weapons, where I have to avert my eyes at traffic checkpoints, where at any moment those who keep order here can become perpetrators, it should to be noted that the Hong Kong police are actually showing a great deal of restraint.  The whole situation could have escalated way further than it has, and although I am horrified to see my city imploding the way it is, I am grateful for the control thus far.  I just pray it doesn’t go any further…….

This movement in Hong Kong…… is not just important for Hong Kongers.  This is important for everyone who lives in the territory- local and expat alike.  This is important for Taiwan.  This is important for Macau.  This is important for DEMOCRACY IN GENERAL.  Can the world sit by and watch a peaceful and wildly successful, autonomous, first world territory have its rights taken away?

MEANWHILE, Afghanistan is poised just hours before the inauguration of our new president, in the first ever democratic handover of power in the country.  Ashraf Ghani won 55.27% of the vote, but sadly has to share the power with Gul Marjan Double Abdullah, in a deal that has been met by heavy sighs across the nation.  Afghanistan has been crippled for six months by these election processes and recounts and withdrawals from the audit process, so the unsurprising results were met not with the bang that some suspected, but by the whimper they deserved.  And just a few hours ago Mr. Gul Marjan ye na mani threatened to boycott tomorrow’s inauguration!!  Let’s see what, if anything, happens tomorrow in Kabul, my other home.

tear_gas_cops1am

Cops tear gassing HK crowds around 1am

photo credit NY Times

Tear Gassing

photo credit Mazen El-Mahmoud

Beyond the barricades….

photo credit Hong Kong Allies

Face off

Hong Wrong live feed:

Watch this South China Morning Post video on the clashes today:

http://static.movideo.com/flash/movideo_player.swf

photo credits: Joshua Wong, SCMP, Hong Kong Allies, Andrea Banang, Mazen El-Mahmoud

Sticks and stones may break my bones; trampolines may also do the trick

Several weeks ago, I forgot how old I was, and went jumping at the new trampoline park in Hong Kong. As it turns out, once you pass 30, trampolines are no longer recommended pieces of exercise and/or entertainment equipment, and may cause you to do things like double corkscrew flips into a foam pit or break your foot. Guess which impressive feat I accomplished?

So I found myself, one month prior to departure for Kabul, with two fractures and a floating bone fragment. Immediate reactions from my friends and family ranged from “You should postpone your move,” to “This is a sign from God that you shouldn’t go.” I will admit, I may have wavered a bit, but then I realised what a GIFT the broken foot was:

1. Finally, a week off from work after back-to-back conferences and a semester of stressful life decisions, grand scale concerts, and finding replacements for myself.

2. The constant stream of amazing friends ensured that not only did I have meals in my fridge every day, but I also got to spend good quality time prior to the craziness that is my impending departure. And, most importantly,

3. A much-needed lesson in humility and accepting help. Although I still have a fair amount of trepidation at the thought of maneuvering my way through Kabul International Airport with two giant suitcases filled with 6 months of contact lenses, long tunic shirts, and 150 metronomes, all while hobbling around on crutches with a violin strapped to my back,  I am grateful for the fact that I will be coming into the country humbly and in need of help.  Any delusions of gweilo superiority and hero complex were crushed on the trampoline floor with my 1st cuneiform and 2nd metatarsal. I am entirely at the mercy of a kind (or enterprising) local dude with a trolly to help me take my first few tentative steps into my new country of residence. Pride, be gone! So thank you, Ryze Trampoline Gym, for providing the means for a necessary attitude adjustment. I will ride into Kabul not on a white horse, but rather….. a white plaster cast.   10570467_672431312851134_3988628454580313219_n