justice

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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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.

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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

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: