The violins in the shipping container
We spent a lot of time waiting in small offices before hurrying through the halls to get someone else's signature on yet another form. My experience of Afghan bureaucracy was no different than American bureaucracy, with a pleasant exception: the Afghans serve tea.
Banks in the US have security, but my new bank has them beat: towers of sandbags, concrete barriers, soldiers with their fingers just near the triggers of automatic rifles, and every man gets a full body pat-down. The main room overflowed with people waiting, so I stepped outside so that I could play with the little boys of an Afghan customer who was also applying for an account.
After one of my Ministry friends kindly treated me to a lunch of kebab and bread, I headed back to Dr. Sarmast. I was thrilled to learn that a German shipment of new violins will soon arrive for the students, yet I thought I should see what they had been playing on.
A few employees of the school guided me toward the back of the campus, past the table from which cooks serve a simple lunch to the students. They opened the lock of an old shipping container, and the door creaked.
Sticks of bows lay like twigs on the bottom of the container, wisps of horsehair wrapped around them like gossamer shrouds. The broken-down cases were coffins holding what once were violins. Many had no pegs, strings, tailpieces, or bridges. I jiggled one, hearing the soundpost rattle around. I shook it some more in disbelief, until a short, kindly fellow who had helped me began to dance along with a gleam in his eye. He was right: this object's only future in music was as a toy percussion instrument. He proceeded to help me inspect all the instruments in the container.
In the cabinet up at the school, I found one out of 37 that did not need to be thrown out. I also found one so marred by dirt and scars that I held it up to my growing beard and mimed shaving for some male students, who grinned: the surface of the violin was just about rough enough to take care of my emerging stubble. By the time I got to the bow held together with tape, I was getting discouraged, so once again, my short friend cheered me up by pretending to play the violin with the stout, fuzzy, and misshapen bridge with the taped bow. I borrowed them and got in on the act.
Really, I should not have been sad. These children will soon get the beautiful new violins they deserve. But at no point should a violin look like these did. Any well-maintained violin, no matter how cheap, would never get to this point: I know what the topic of my first group class will be.
It is wonderful that these children will soon get good violins, but tragic that it took one of the longest wars of recent history (and the astonishing toil and commitment of Dr. Sarmast), to get the funding to give these children the instruments they deserve.