My amiable, highly energetic, and intelligent new boss, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, picked me up at the airport. Dr. Sarmast is the first Afghan with a doctorate in music and is the founder and director of the school where I will teach, Afghanistan National Institute of Music, conveniently known as ANIM.
Our driver whisked us through streets that laugh at the very idea of traffic laws. Cars careen along an invisible slalom course along both sides of the road, while cars going in the opposite direction compete with donkey carts and ambling pedestrians for the center. At a roundabout, three money changers ran like madmen towards our car, which gave us the opportunity to change my dollars to afghanis at a good rate.
My tour of ANIM was inspiring and motivating. The campus is a secluded island of peace, and though the renovation is not finished, I could easily imagine Dr. Sarmast's vision as he enthusiastically described it. He gestured towards an empty patch of dust: here is where the dining hall will be. The sections of ANIM that are finished impressed me tremendously. Many music schools in the world would be lucky to have the beautiful wood paneling and soundproofed doors that ANIM already boasts.
Next, we checked me into the guesthouse that will be my home in Afghanistan. It is a lovely place, blending modern conveniences like WiFi and a superb DVD collection with Afghan carpets and cabinetry. I enjoyed a refreshingly familiar breakfast: peanut butter and jelly, yogurt, cheese, dried fruit, nuts, a chocolate croissant, coffee, and a banana. The only nod to our location was a compote made of seven fruits in celebration of Nawruz, the Afghan new year, which is always the first day of spring.
Since I had happened to arrive on the biggest holiday of the Afghan calendar, Dr. Sarmast invited me to join him and Hank, an affable, urbane European friend of his, for a day on the town. We bounced slowly along dusty roads scarred with potholes, passing crumbling buildings that gaped with dead space where bombs had fallen at some point over the past thirty years.
As we neared our intended destination, the famed Babur gardens, the streets teemed with Kabuli families heading there to picnic. The road began to resemble a parking lot as cars ground to a halt, surrounded by hundreds of people pressing forward. A young girl giggled as she adjusted a special headscarf, covered with bangles for the occasion, over her long black braid. Colorful henna tattoos snaked up the arms of teenage girls, while their older sisters wore glittery black abayas that failed to hide their eye make-up. Women in burqas held the hands of little boys in adorable embroidered vests. Fathers threw open the trunks of station wagons, making sure that someone was carrying the rug, the food, and the baby. Large groups of teenage boys sauntered along, showing more physical affection towards each other than young men in America: they walked with their arms around each other, held hands, or engaged in playful fistfights that ended in hugs. As this mass of humanity surged towards the gates of the gardens Emperor Babur laid out half a millennium ago, the Afghan National Army skillfully maintained order and vendors hopefully hawked balloons, inflatable yellow bears, and orange popsicles.
Dr. Sarmast decided that it was just too crowded, so we left for a high hill topped by the old campus of the Kabul Polytechnic Institute. Built by the Soviets, it has long since been thoroughly destroyed. Bullet holes riddled the walls of what had been classrooms, and an empty swimming pool was filled with rubble and trash. A short distance away, an old tank used during the 1990s civil war rotted away. I scrambled on top and posed for a picture with the entire city yawning beneath me.
Next, we drove over a road riddled with bomb craters towards a palace built by King Amanullah in the 1920s. He tried to achieve equal rights for women, most dramatically when his wife appeared in public with bare shoulders. He was deposed soon after. Just enough of the palace is left to impress the tourist with its former opulence, but so much has been bombed to smithereens that the overall impression is wrenching and eerie.
We gladly tore ourselves away from these specters from Kabul's recent past to lunch at a fine hotel, approachable only through multiple security checkpoints. Their buffet of Afghan food was superb: three different kinds of aromatic rice, one flavored with carrots, raisins, and almonds; the next with oranges; the third with tomatoes and butter. The lamb, veal, vegetable soup, and dumplings were excellent. An apple, an orange, fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, and cardamom tea rounded it off nicely.
We ascended a nearby hill to take in yet another spectacular view of the city. Given the security at the hotel, the hill was nearly deserted. A girl's long hair streamed behind her as she laughed and chased her little brother around the hill. The calm air bore joyous sounds of the holiday from a nearby park: children screaming in delight, men whooping, drums beating out the infectious seven-beat mughuli rhythm. As we circled the top of the hill, peach trees softly shed their white translucent petals on the stone path, each one fluttering down to the stone path like something out of a dream.
"This is what Afghanistan needs," Hank observed. "A reason to celebrate."