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!!