Democracy: A Tale of Two Cities pt. 2: Kabul

Afghanistan’s first round of elections took place on 5th April 2014. An unprecedented 8 million people- men and women alike- came out to cast their vote, despite Taliban threats. As there was no clear majority, the elections went into a runoff vote on 14th June to determine if the next president would be Abdullah Abdullah, former Minister of Foreign Affairs (and warlord from the Northern Alliance) or Dr. Ashraf Ghani, former Minister of Finance and founder of the Institute for State Effectiveness, which focuses on rebuilding failed states (this election should have been a no-brainer, right?). The ensuing months were at first a heated race, dwindling down to a stumbling not-quite finish.  Both sides were of fraud, and an audit of the votes was necessary.  Abdullah Abdullah protested and withdrew from the recount process so many times that his name became synonymous with a joke about Gul Marjan, a village girl, who refused all potential suitors, until she died an old maid. “Gul Marjan ye nemanee.” The months prior to the entire election process were fraught with violence and terror, with devastating attacks on restaurants, guesthouses, and hospitals. The months during the election recount slog were also peppered with violence as well; however, by the time Afghanistan limped over the democratic finish line, there seemed to be no fight left for aggression.

After recounting first 10%, then 20%, then 100% of the ballots, eliminating about a million as fraudulent, Ghani surprised nobody by winning over 55% of the vote.  I don’t know what I can say about Abdullah.  As an outsider, I was so unimpressed at his whining and withdrawing and threats of running a parallel government.  Even up to the very last day, he threatened to boycott the actual inauguration, as his demands that the official numerical results of the final count be kept secret from the public were not met.  In the end, a tragic compromise was reached: the winner would become President, the loser would become Chief Executive, a post which would eventually transition into Prime Minister.  The IEC (Independent Election Committee) had to make an outrageous number of concessions, including giving powerful cabinet positions to both candidates’ cronies, no matter what the Presidential outcome.  So what was the point of the election at all?  The point was that at the very least, Afghanistan got to choose.  The people of Afghanistan got to let their voices be heard.  Twice.  (and then wait, and wait, and wait, and endure, and talk about nothing else but the election).

September 28th marked Afghanistan’s first ever democratic transfer of power, and instead of the customary celebratory pickup trucks full of AK47s and testosterone, Kabul heaved a great sigh of relief, and slept in late on the inauguration day public holiday. A friend, who has been in country for several years, mused that the people were simply too tired of the elections to fight anymore. Today was day one of Ashraf Ghani’s presidency, and the Afghan people are ready to get back to work. Bring back the businesses, bring back the contracts, bring back the projects, bring back the development. People are keen to resume life as normal!

Meanwhile, in my alternate reality, Hong Kong people are surging onto the streets to protest the diminishing of their democratic rights. After the initial night of tensions between demonstrators and police, crowds swelled to a reported 150,000 strong. Solidarity movements are in force all across the globe, from Taipei to New York to Berlin to a small band of Afghan students and teachers wearing yellow on October 1st. The eyes of the world are fixed firmly on Hong Kong this week. And my own eyes are fixed on Hong Kong as well.

Hong Kong, my adopted home. To paraphrase a friend, you do not get to choose where you are born, but (sometimes, if you are lucky) you do get to choose where you live. By the greatest providence ever, Hong Kong seemed to have chosen me 8 years ago, welcomed me into her steamy embrace, molded me, formed me, introduced me to the best friends I could ever know, and gently guided me towards my dream, Kabul. And although I have a different address now (at the end of the access road beyond the second gate past Kabul University secondary entrance…. Who am I kidding? I have no address. It’s Afghanistan.), Hong Kong will forever be my home.

The crazy juxtaposition of these two opposite cities is unbelievably hard to wrap my head around. Most people would think of Afghanistan as a failed state, yet we just peacefully transferred the power over a conservative Islamic republic to a man who spent decades of his life in America, and is married to a Lebanese Christian. Most people would think of Hong Kong as a very developed and stable, but politically apathetic city full of money-chasers. And yet, faced with the mortality of our burgeoning democracy, we take to the streets in peaceful, but adamant protest.

One thing that I have learned this year is that one person CAN make a difference. Our efforts, no matter how small, combine to form world-changing movements. If a little violin teacher from Upstate New York can help bring stability to a child’s life in Kabul, then one person’s tiny voice can add to the roar against tyranny and suppression.   I am writing this from the Dubai airport, as I could no longer sit back and watch history in my home-by-choice unfold in such a crucial manner. I am on my way back to join my adopted brothers and sisters in Hong Kong in the noble struggle for democracy tomorrow on October 1st, Chinese National Day. Please lend your solidarity and support in our fight to keep our democracy and our rights! Wear yellow on October 1st, and send a picture to a friend in Hong Kong. 加油, 香港!!!

Ashraf Ghani is sworn in as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as Hong Kongers peacefully protest for the right to elect our own Chief Executive

Ashraf Ghani is sworn in as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as Hong Kongers peacefully protest for the right to elect our own Chief Executive

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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

A Well In The Desert

“Ce qui embellit le desert… c’est qu’il cache un puits quelque part…”

“What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere inside it hides a well.” -Antoine de St. Exupery

Kabul is a city of walls and gates and compounds. On first glance it is harsh and unfriendly, foreboding and dangerous.   Streets are lined with concrete and steel blast walls- some with bricks peaking through the worn sections, some pockmarked with bullet holes, some heightened with corrugated metal for extra privacy. The mirrored windowpanes of the houses reveal nothing but the reflection of the street below, and at night, not a crack of light seeps from behind the blackout curtains into the inky Kabul darkness. People are likewise covered up- women in dusty burkas float around like blue ghosts, or like solemn graduates in their abayas and chadors. Even men are often swathed in scarves to keep out the swirling dust (which, I have been told, is 15% dried feces. Ick.), hiding their faces from view. Kabul seems to be a place where everything is hidden, where what you see is most certainly not what you get.

However, when you peer over one of these walls (assuming you don’t get shot, eaten by a guard dog, or ripped to shreds by the ubiquitous barbed wire… ok so: don’t peer over walls, just use the gate), there is a whole other world. What lies beyond the blast walls- a stunning blue-tiled mosque, a music school, a garden full of roses- is a total surprise. Homesick for Hong Kong, I and another DAAD guest  embarked on Mission: Comfort Food. We pulled up to a secret-agent-man sliding eyehole on an iron door in a non-descript alley, and were led into a security tunnel with another eyehole on another iron door, which led into another security tunnel with yetanotherslidingeyeholeirondoor, after which CHINESE RESTAURANT IN THE MIDDLE OF KABUL. I’m talking red lanterns, bamboo screens, chopsticks, Xinhua clippings on the walls, legit dumplings, and inexplicable Milli Vanilli playing on the stereo. Girl, you know it’s true. From the dusty, pitch black alley, you would never in a million regular-world years know that inside was a little slice of Sheung Wan—all you can see is darkness and razor wire, all you can hear is… well, nothing. It is this kind of hidden yeung chau chow fan haven that makes Kabul so magical for me (so far). I have been thinking about Le Petit Prince a lot lately- striving to see the elephant inside the boa constrictor- and realizing that behind all these blast walls are mysteries and stories waiting to be discovered. There is just so much… possibility.

Of course, not everything that is hidden is beautiful. I know that also hiding behind the walls is crippling poverty, poor sanitation, girls who are married at 13 years old, children that are starving, people- even kids- who work three or four jobs to support their families. I know that these security walls can be like prisons; not just shielding eyes from looking in, but preventing anyone inside from seeing what is beyond the concrete. These walls can be barriers to education, healthcare, to freedom. The secrecy breeds a sense of distrust and hardness. Kids here are harsh- they grow up in this harsh and unforgiving cityscape, surrounded by dry mountains and dusty dried up rivers, fighting to survive and thrive. The roads are harsh; they cannot even be described as “potholed,” as there is more hole than road in most places. There are no traffic laws- the steering wheels are on either side of the car, and the basic rule of driving is “go.”   You can get a modification to your car so that your horn sounds like a police horn or siren, seatbelts are sometimes present, but seldom used, and in the vast sea of battered Toyota Corollas, shiny Land Cruisers, and janky mini-van-cum-buses, pickup trucks with young men heavy with machine guns careen through the shredded streets.  Even the animals are harsh- herds of goats eat garbage and unmentionables from the dried up Kabul river bed, and then are in turn eaten by us.

I wish all people in this city could step through the gate at ANIM. It’s like the secret garden. Students are transformed when they step inside. A little boy came into my room today and proudly showed off a violin his family had found somewhere. The bridge was on backwards, the strings had not been tuned in ever, and the bow was as horse-hairless as he was shoeless. But he was so proud that he had this instrument, and was beyond thrilled to show it off, excited for it to be transformed into something with which he could make music. I have the privilege of working with several ensembles (Afghan Young Artists, Afghanistan Girls Quartet, the Kabibis (the “choochagak (little ones)” quartet), and the Low Strung ensemble of 2 violas, 2 cellos, 2 contrabasses). At the first rehearsal of the Afghan Young Artists, the kids refused to leave when I said we were done. They wanted to stay in the school compound, stay hidden behind the walls, stay with their instruments, and continue playing. We rehearsed for 2 hours. I had two girls fight over who got to take the extra lesson spot vacated by an absent student. One of my students told me if it weren’t for playing the violin, he’d be selling potatoes off a cart in the street. Now, he spends his time working on vibrato and emotional phrasing.    Music is like le petit prince’s well in the middle of a desert, bringing forth life behind the blast walls.

Kabul by moonlight

Kabul by moonlight

City of blast walls, gates, and bars

City of blast walls, gates, and bars

Door to... Chinese Food!

Door to… Chinese Food!

Afghan Young Artists Quartet

Afghan Young Artists Quartet

My new normal

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:

 

 

 

 

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

The cost of changing the world

For HK$2800 (US$360) a person can:

– Fly economy from Hong Kong to Seoul

– Purchase a “Saffiano Accordion Zip” wallet from Coach

– Drink a bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal

– Consume 101 tall black coffees from Starbucks

– Play Call of Duty on a new XBox One

– Ride the tram in Hong Kong 1,217 times

– Exercise for four months at Fitness First (or, wastefully pay Fitness First for four months of non-exercise)

– Pay for one month out-of-pocket for health insurance in the States

– Break your foot at a trampoline park, take a taxi, see an orthopedic surgeon, and get one set of X-Rays at Hong Kong Sanatorium Hospital

OR

– Receive education, lunch, and family stipend for a year in Afghanistan.

 

Let that sink in for a moment.  US$360 buys an education for a child, and a salary for a family in Kabul for an entire year.  Many of the students who attend the school at which I will be teaching are street kids or orphans.  Many of these kids peddle goods or beg on the streets to earn US$0.50 a day, which supports their families.  Many  parents are reluctant to allow their children to go to school, because it means a significant loss of income for the family.  Therefore, the families of ANIM’s most disadvantaged students receive a stipend so that they are not forced to return to the streets to support themselves and their families.

So with just a bit of money , it is actually incredibly easy to contribute to the *dramatic transformation* of a child’s life.  [In fact, it is so easy, it  makes me downright ashamed of my several four-month-blocks of non-exercise at Fitness First .  OK full disclosure: the only time I actually interacted with Fitness First in the last two years was to cancel my membership.  And in fact, I did that over the phone, so…. Fitness Last is more like it. But I digress….]  

When a child’s life changes dramatically, the impact is not simply on the child.  Her family has hope for a future that is no longer steeped in poverty and subsistence.  Her friends notice her change, and want to join in on it.  Improving one child’s life creates a snowball effect; changing several children’s lives creates a blizzard.  What the Afghanistan National Institute of Music is doing, and what you can join in doing, is changing a GENERATION of lives; a generation that will become the future leaders, educators, policy framers, and peace makers of the country.   Imagine these kids, instead of growing up disaffected, marginalised, and hopeless, are growing up empowered, educated, talented, with a sense of responsibility and ownership.  They are learning to create harmony not just with their musical instruments, but also with each other.  Imagine what a dramatic impact this will have on the future of Afghanistan!!

So, internet, can you just sit there and do nothing, when you know that it would be so easy to contribute to the *dramatic transformation* of not just a child, but a whole country?  I hope you cannot!  I hope you think twice about your handbag or XBox, and instead consider changing a life.  Contact the Sponsorship Program at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (http://www.afghanistannationalinstituteofmusic.org/contact).  Do it!  Do it now!!

 

anim kids

Talking to kids about Afghanistan

This week featured the daunting task of telling my students and their families that I was not only leaving Hong Kong, but leaving to a war zone.  Children are amazing.  I am not sure what I expected from the conversations, but I am beyond impressed with their insightful questions: “Why are you going all the way out there to teach?”  “Are there still bad guys there?  Are there more bad guys than good guys?”  “Will you be teaching girls as well as boys?”  “Why didn’t the bad guys want the Afghanistan people to listen music?”  “Why did the British care about India and Russia?  They’re so far away from England!?”  And the most surprising one: “Why would you put your life at risk to teach music?”

These thoughtful kids with their thoughtful questions really forced me to think hard.  How do you explain multi-generational war and occupation to a child who lives in a country  that does not even have a military?   How do you explain poverty to a child who has her own nanny and driver?  How do you explain, or begin to even understand yourself, the concept of total music censorship to a society where it is expected that every child must play at least one, if not two or three, instruments just to get into a decent primary school?  How do you explain social justice to a young child?

Thus, the condensed modern history of Afghanistan and music censorship for 7 year olds:

For a long time, there were two major powers (British Empire and the Soviet Union) fighting over Afghanistan.  The Soviet Union gave a lot of sneaky economic and political support to the government, which after years of being progressive and open, was becoming increasingly restrictive.  For example, in the late 1970s, the government even controlled what music people were allowed to listen to and make, and in some areas it was actually forbidden. The Soviet Union invaded the country altogether, and the Afghan people revolted against them; tribes banded together to try to get rid of them.  Then the United States jumped in and gave money and weapons to help the Mujahideen fight the Soviets.  Fightingfightingfightingfightfightfight; eventually the Soviets were booted out.  This sounds like good news, but the country was so unstable after being constantly invaded and occupied, that the people who worked together to get rid of the Soviets turned on each other in a civil war.  In 1996, the ones that won- the Taliban- were bad.  Really bad.  The worst, in fact.  They were so bad they forbade girls to go to school, women to go out in public, and all music was not just still restricted, but now fully banned, punishable by imprisonment or death.  In 2001, the United States attacked and kicked the Taliban out of the government, but have been fighting to keep some kind of stability ever since.  Music was deemed legal again in 2001, but an entire generation of silence had already passed.

Here’s the thing, seven year-old kiddo who just got an earful of geopolitical history, as told by a violinist:  Afghanistan is a country full of people.  Beautiful people, real people, God’s people, WORTHY people, who deserve a chance at hope, who deserve a future.  There are still a lot of bad guys there, but there are also a lot of good guys.  And it is the responsibility of the good guys everywhere to change the way things are.   There are a lot of ways to fight bad guys, but the best way is to ensure that kids grow up to be good guys instead.   In order for this to happen, they need what everyone needs: love and hope.  Music is expression- it is audible emotion, it is unspoken language, it is communication across all barriers.  Learning music gives a sense of ownership, pride, responsibility, empowerment…. Giving this back to the Afghan children WILL change their country.  And the time to do it is not later, when things are safer or more stable, it is RIGHT NOW.   The children there deserve this chance to be the change the country needs.  That is why, seven-year old child, I am going to Afghanistan.

You know what?  My incredible kids all get it.  Their incredible parents all get it.  I think for the first time in my entire teaching career, I have finally been able to get the point across that music exists for the purpose of creating an admirable heart, not for the purpose of creating an admirable CV, nor an admirable effort to be a well-rounded individual.  No, it is far more critical and necessary than that.   The families understand this, and I hope that, in some way, me leaving them for Afghanistan will help the kids grow up to be more understanding, more compassionate, more sensitive to their brothers and sisters around the world.  I hope my new residency in a warzone will awaken them to the plight of kids growing up in fear and instability, and move their hearts to be advocates for change as they grow up…

Very providentially, this week, I was able to attend the annual Justice Conference Asia- three days of seminars and lectures by leaders in the global social justice movement.  Our brothers and sisters in the world face so many injustices- poverty, inequality, lack of basic needs, human trafficking and slavery, wars, lack of education.  It is so easy for us privileged folks, with our distinct advantages of having been born in the right place at the right time, to glance at those injustices, and be overwhelmed to the point of inaction, to think “who am I to fight this battle?” “what could I possibly contribute?” “These issues do not affect me,” “I am too busy to help,” “I am not qualified to make any sort of impact whatsoever,” and do nothing.  But those are all lies.  It is within all of our capacities to change the world, even in small ways.  Eddie Byun, a pastor and warrior against human trafficking and sex slavery in South Korea, said: “Awareness without Action equals Apathy.”   God does not want the poor to stay poor, the oppressed to stay oppressed, the marginalized to fall further down the cracks.  He wants US to do something, to use our strengths and assets to fight injustice in whatever way we can.  And my way happens to be a widespread campaign of violins.

Watch this video; you will not regret:

How it all began

“When that guy leaves Afghanistan, I want his job.”

In 2008, after having read several books about Afghanistan, I found myself in love with the country and dreaming of someday living there.  I was particularly inspired by “Kabul Beauty School,” by Deborah Rodriguez, a hairdresser from Texas, who made her way to Afghanistan to do hair and makeup for the embassy and NGO workers stationed there.  Moved by the plight of the local women, she set up  a beauty school to teach them skills that would empower them and give them purpose and independence as they set up their own shops.

I remember thinking that a Suzuki program would have a similarly empowering effect– mothers learn to play the violin together with their children.  They learn how to teach their kids at home, and in a country with so little, a skill like that would mean so much!  Dr. Suzuki originally started his incredible teaching movement in a similarly ravaged post-WWII Japan.  His goal was not to train prodigies, or to raise up concert violinists, but rather to bring peace and hope to a generation of children who were growing up with destruction and despair.  He believed that if children could learn to create something beautiful, they would be more sensitive and caring themselves, that “music exists for the purpose of growing an admirable heart.”  I share Dr. Suzuki’s passion for changing lives through music; I believe in it 100%.  And thus the seed of my Afghanistan dream took root and germinated.

Faced with the realization that the country was too dangerous and unstable for my dream to be a reality any time soon, I focused my attention on adventure travel, teaching around Asia, church, sports, and nurturing my school as best as I could.  God blessed all of this richly- the school has grown to over 150 students, with the most incredible staff you could ask for.  I have more stamps and visas in my passport than I can count, and live in the best city on the planet! My church community is like family, and I can proudly say that I have paddled the circumference of Hong Kong Island. Yet in my heart, I always yearn for more; to be more impactful, to reach disadvantaged children, to go more third world-y.

I remember the moment when I read that William Harvey, director of my favorite charity, Cultures in Harmony, had moved to Afghanistan.  I turned to the person sitting next to me and said, “When that guy leaves Afghanistan, I want his job.”    Fast forward four years, almost to the day; I see William’s blog post entitled “Leaving Afghanistan.” Leaving.  He needs someone to take over to teach the students and train the local teacher for a year.   My heart must have skipped 12 beats.  Was this real?!

What transpired over the last 2.5 months has been a whirlwind:  I email William to congratulate him on his new post, and to enquire about life in Kabul, as I *might* be interested in his soon-to-be-vacant position.  He writes me back within hours, encouraging me to apply.  I freak out.  I apply.  Mind fills with self-doubt.  Awash with guilt at the prospect of leaving my beloved school and my amazing staff and my children that I have been teaching for so long. Prayers.  Then, I feel peace.   Interview- good!   Short-listed for position- great!   Job offer- amazing!  Fabulous colleague agrees to take over directorship of the school for a year- incredible!  Several superb teachers interested in taking over my studio- what the heck!!  Icing on the cake, another of my fabulous colleagues agrees to cat-sit my big fatty Kaseem- hurrah!

 I ACCEPT MY DREAM JOB AND AM MOVING TO KABUL IN 100 DAYS.  

I cannot articulate my joy and gratitude.  God has already blessed me beyond my wildest dreams- who would ever have thought that He would bless me with this as well??  He knows me so well.  He knows the desires of my heart- He planted that desire there in the first place!- and has directed my path to Afghanistan so clearly.  I have no doubts, no fears about going, just only joy and gratitude.

There are a hundred Rumi quotes with which I could close this entry.  Here is how I feel about Afghanistan, and why I am so excited to go:

“Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure.” … “Respond to every call that excites your spirit!”