poverty

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

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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: