It was a glorious, sunny day in Kabul. A couple boys kicked a soccer ball around the ridges in the dirt road before rinsing it off from a hose. The friendly librarian ushered me onto the campus. Though classes had not started yet, the students had shown up in droves. Within seconds, a mob of curious boys surrounded me. One by one, I asked "Nam-e chist?" and they told me their names. It may take a few more times before I remember, but each fellow beamed when he told me his name.
I found Dr. Sarmast and asked his permission to play for the students in the yard. I hopped in a car with the school principal, grabbed my violin, and returned to find the boys waiting. I set my violin case on top of a rusted oil drum that served as a trash can, got out my violin, and handed my camera to one of the students. I am making a video to promote the school, raise funds for a Cultures in Harmony project to help the students, and close the Paganini Caprice Challenge.
The performance conditions for Paganini's 24th were less than ideal. The sun baked me in my suit, I had not warmed up at all, and my future students crowded around, staring at me intently. Sweat began to trickle down my face as variation followed variation, and when I finished, they burst into smiles and applause. "Who wants to play?" I said, holding up my violin.
A young man about 17 or 18 stepped forward. With a gentle vibrato that caressed each note, he began to play an aching, mournful tune from an Iranian film. It traces out the minor mode before a two-note rocking motive slowly sinks to earth. The melody arced over the dusty, unfinished ground, over the barbed-wire-topped walls, past broken down bombed out buildings, and beyond the sympathetic mountains, yearning for a place of peace. The sincerity of his music making stopped time. This was a moment when the pain of loss cut through the clutter of our daily experiences. Though I will begin teaching this fellow in the next couple days, his performance was unquestionably the performance of the day.
By this time, Dr. Sarmast had finished his work, and pointed out that beyond the huddle of boys, a small group of hijab-clad girls had just arrived. No one had noticed them. Apologetically, I repeated the last variation of the Paganini and then played the Afghan tune "Let's Go To Mazar." I'll have to work hard in the future to make sure that the female students are not neglected.
As I prepared to leave, a boy shyly asked me, "Didn't Yehudi Menuhin play that piece you played?" I started. "Why, yes, he probably did." The boy smiled and opened his cell phone. "Is that the composer of the piece?" To my delight, he had a portrait of Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) as the wallpaper on his cell phone. "Yes, it is. Soon we will begin lessons, and if you work hard, eventually you might play some Paganini." He beamed.
During lunch, I learned that some students might not be able to practice at home, since some of their relatives are unaware that they study music. Music still carries the stigma of immorality in Afghan culture, and we will need to formulate ways to convince people that one can be simultaneously good, decent, Muslim, Afghan, and a musician.
On the way home, I stopped by a guardhouse. Since my arrival, I have tried to develop friendly relations with the Afghan police and soldiers who are increasingly responsible for the security. Their job is difficult, and they keep me safe. Yesterday, I stopped for a cup of tea and limited conversation in Dari at one guardhouse. At another, a policeman jovially demanded that I take a picture with him.
Today, they were delighted to see my violin, so I immediately got it out and played the traditional song "Pistachio Seller." The guard with a beard called the younger one over, and they both listened as I played the lilting, seven-beat love song that compares the lover's lips to the pistachio nut as it is opened. The older guard closed his eyes and nodded his head to the music, transported to another world.
Back home, I sat outside and read the book "Music of Man" by Menuhin as the birds and wind made sonorous the stillness of the trees. Juilliard students might be quick to disparage Menuhin for not retaining his adolescent brilliance, but I was not surprised that if one of my students knew of a Western musician, it was Menuhin. For children like these, he is the great Western performer. Who else but Menuhin had genuine empathy for the non-Western experience? He loved exploring the meaning of music at the most profound level, whether he discussed the music of Greece, Syria, India, China, Nepal, or Gambia. In his words, music becomes the essence of the human experience. This book, his love of humanity, and his faith in music will be guiding lights for our school in Kabul.
Over dinner, I learned from a fellow expatriate about the gemstone problems here. For 7,000 years, a mine in Afghanistan has continuously provided the world with lapis lazuli for everything from King Tut's death mask to contemporary jewelry. Yet today, rudimentary explosives have replaced the techniques that worked until modern times. This means that workers light a fuse and have forty seconds to run. Many have needlessly died, and over seventy percent of the gem deposits are destroyed. Adopting even slightly more sophisticated techniques (or even going back to the old ones) would yield three times the amount, and this exceptionally rare and beautiful stone is lost daily.