social justice

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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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: