“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!!





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 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.


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:

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: