Only in Afghanistan


There are so many misconceptions about life in Afghanistan. It is true, the Taliban are still here, there is widespread poverty and malnutrition, and the road to recovery from the past 30+ years of war is as pitted and potholed as the majority of our roads. It is also true that we have sustained multiple egregious attacks over the last two weeks, with more casualties than anyone can stomach.

However, there are also so many things that are so delightfully Afghantastic that could only happen here in Kabul:

Adventures in Kabul Airport:

Only in Afghanistan can you run in and out of immigration three times in one hour sans passport without getting into trouble. In fact, during my final, apologetic, sweaty exit from the departure gate through the passport hall, the officer said to me: “I don’t want to see you again. You know you’ve broken the law three times already, right?” Oops.

Camilo parenthesis:

We were driving to Le Jardin for a much-needed dinner of western food and exorbatently overpriced wine. In the midst of a deep conversation, Camilo announces, “Here is big parenthesis: I need to stop and buy two black socks. Right now.” We all laugh at this complete non-sequitor, but then Shabeer stops the car IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD, jumps out, runs across the street, and returns three minute later with two pairs of black socks.

Nacho’s makeover:

I got a really nice tan a few Friday’s ago while… bathing and cutting the hair of my new baby goat. His name is Nacho, and his favorite food is everything that is not made of concrete or metal. I’m pretty sure his favorite activities are pooping everywhere, and ignoring the cat.   All of my students and colleagues are shocked to learn that I do not plan to eat this goat, but that his main purposes are to keep our grass at an acceptable length (and destroy all flowers, vines, and other beautiful things), and to entertain his city-slicker owners.

Kabul Traffic:

Technically, University Road (that’s not its real name. in fact, this street has no name. none of them do.) is a four-lane street. Two eastbound, two westbound. However, during rush hour, which is every hour in which there is sunlight, it becomes seven lanes of absolute mayhem and arbitrary nonsense. The number of east or west-bound lanes is entirely dependent on the patience, or in most cases, lack thereof, of drivers. Wais, our personal king of the road, routinely forms his own impatience lane number eight, careening around anyone foolish enough to get in his way. He has actually driven the wrong way down access roads, between security bollards, whatever, in order to avoid sitting for too long (this is for security reasons, right?), or taking longer than he deems necessary to reach our destinations.


Upon discovering that my housemates were out of town, Bibi, the indomitable matriarch of the massive family that lives next door (upon last count there were 15 adults), took it upon herself to feed me. We are talking mantou, ashak, lubia, naan baked in her own tandoor, sweets, and more visits than I, as a preferably solitary person, could handle in one weekend. She calls me her daughter, and regularly sends her actual daughters and grandchildren over to keep me company. When she can handle the walk (she is my mystic sister in Afghan foot breaking, and is currently hobbling around with a crutch, after being struck by a motorcycle), she herself comes over to sit in state over Casa Mexicana. People talk about Afghan hospitality, but I never truly understood it until now. I actaully sleep better at night now, knowing that I have such an incredible adopted mother looking out for me just next door! (In fact, while writing this, I was summoned outside to hold council with all of the next door ladies, who are literally shouting at me from their rooftop.)

Explosions of Roses:

Recently, the Taliban announced their “Spring Offensive,” which to me, honestly, sounds more like the start of baseball season than a reign of terror. The first few weeks were extremely quiet, but the city emerged from the miserable winter, exploding everywhere with…. Roses. The transformation of this dusty, brown, poop-filled metropolis into a lush green garden was shocking: medians, whose cracked dry dirt was formerly strewn with withering, barren trees, and junkies getting high under their filthy patos, now burst forth with roses of every color you could imagine. Where was once brown, there is now green and red and yellow and orange and pink. Even the harsh brown mountains that tower over the city are now a furry green. Kabul is BEAUTIFUL.

So, lest you be misled by the constant media reports of IED’s, suicide bombings, kidnappings etc, that Afghanistan is nothing but a lawless failed state, please understand that it is a place of constant delights and surprises, and the kindest and most welcoming people you could ever be so lucky to meet. Only in Afghanistan could you have such a juxtoposition of bad and good, barren and lush, chaos and convenience, desolation and beauty; but this is what gives me such hope for its future. Yes, we are in some of the lowest lows, however, in the midst of that you can still see the highest heights. Only in Afghanistan could such intense desperation give way to such intense hope.

Salaam from Nacho-jan!

Salaam from Nacho-jan!

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: