Birthday in Afghanistan
I call it a re-imagining rather than an arrangement because I added numerous Afghan tunes, changed keys, wrote new sections and entire movements, and even changed the meters. For instance, the third movement of "Spring" is originally in 12/8. I changed it to 7/8, or mughuli, considered by some to be the national rhythm of Afghanistan. The movement then becomes a short story about a little girl (represented by my youngest and most precocious violin student) who asks her father (represented by the rubab, which is the national instrument of Afghanistan) to buy her some pistachios (represented by the popular Afghan tune, "Pesta Farosh").
The preparations were hectic as we set up chairs in three different hallways and even on the staircase, placing the audience opposite the staircase and behind some members of the orchestra for an astonishingly intimate performance in which the pegs of a sitar or a flying cymbal might clip your nose if you weren't careful. The excitement built as the hour approached. Some of my other little students who weren't quite ready to join the orchestra asked eagerly, "Emrooz orkesta man?" (literally, today orchestra me?) I gently informed them that they would be ready to join the fun by the public premiere in February.
It was far more successful than any of us anticipated. The trumpet intoned a prayerful fanfare intended to represent the "Bismillah" phrase before the tabla thumped off the kerwa rhythm and got us off to a roaring start, the violins happily sawing away with Vivaldi's melody while the djembes joined in the fun. Movement after movement proceeded not only without incident, but with many moments of beauty that made me extraordinarily proud of the astonishing feats these students could accomplish.
In the slow movement of Winter, which I chose to end the entire cycle, the ghichak plays Vivaldi's most exquisite melody before the rubab improvises a reflective cadenza, intended to represent the hope for peace in Afghanistan, over a sustained F Major chord that gradually fades away into silence. The applause began slowly, but soon roared into sustained rhythmic clapping with whistles and whoops. The audience may have consisted primarily of the ANIM community and a few invited guests, but the kids more than proved that they are ready for the big public performance in February; they gave a great concert in its own right.
The next day, the American Ambassador visited ANIM. We had choreographed every aspect of his visit like clockwork, and to our relief, it worked out according to plan. Ambassador Eikenberry and his wife were astonishingly personable, taking the time to shake the hand of each and every student who stood, smiling and lining our driveway, to welcome them. Dr. Sarmast escorted the Ambassador and his entourage to the percussion room to begin a tour in which each department would perform a short piece in their own room.
I took the hand of my littlest student, who had also given the Ambassador flowers, and hurriedly brought her to the strings studio. We rehearsed "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" (from Suzuki Book 1) until it was perfect and then she obediently waited until the Ambassador, his wife, and their entourage entered. She did a fantastic job, and through their interpreter, they asked her many questions. "Oh dear, she has a cough, does anyone have a cough drop?" the Ambassador's wife kindly asked, and one was found in due course.
Immediately after they left our room, I collected the members of the orchestra and rehearsed them while Dr. Sarmast and the Ambassador met. They came down and listened to all of Spring from "The Four Seasons of Afghanistan," which went better than it's ever gone. Then, the Ambassador came outside and addressed the media. "Someone asked me what I saw here today," he said, then paused as the cameramen and notebook holders waited with baited breath. "Let me be plain: I saw the future of Afghanistan."
His interest was very gratifying, but we didn't have much time to rest, for the next day, the Ambassador of Finland arrived for a similar tour, around which I worked to fit the violin and orchestration final exams into the schedule. During the morning, I raced around, hunting for students, ushering them into the orchestra room so my colleagues could listen to their exam program, checking my watch the whole time to ensure we would finish before the Ambassador arrived.
He arrived with less ceremony and security than the American Ambassador, but his visit was no less appreciated. For the American Ambassador, we had offered him a musical farewell of two trumpets (our American trumpet teacher James Herzog and one of his Afghan students) playing "Amazing Grace." For the Finnish Ambassador, we greeted him with a version of "Finlandia" by Jean Sibelius that I had arranged for two trumpets and cello.
Like his American counterpart, he showed keen interest in the activities of ANIM and indicated that this was just the beginning of the relationship. I told him how much I enjoyed going to the Rock Church in Helsinki in 2005 with the Juilliard Orchestra and ordering reindeer at the hotel. I had a great time in Finland and have a lot of respect for it, so I hope that both of these prestigious visits do indeed forge closer ties between ANIM and both Finland and my home country.
After he left, I hurriedly graded the orchestration exam, in which the students had to arrange the Albeniz Tango for string orchestra. Was the day done when school ended and my youngest violin students finished their exams? Far from it. The famous rubab virtuoso Homayun Sakhi was in town, so I invited him to ANIM to rehearse a piece of his that he taught me back in April and to teach Robin and me another piece he created for rubab, violin, and cello. He is an extraordinary musician with a phenomenal sense of rhythm and an instinct for exploring every possibility of his ancient instrument to the fullest. We had an amazing jam session with him late into the night before heading to our faculty's favorite restaurant, where I ordered a much-needed steak.
The next day, Thursday, was the last day of school before the Eid holiday vacation began, so I had told my students that it was the last day they would see me before I returned from my month-long annual leave in the US. I rushed around to prepare the violin students for their studio recital, which they would share with the clarinet students. I was racing between tuning violins and calling the pizza place to confirm the party I'd planned for my students, when one of my older students asked me to come into a practice room. He motioned for me to close my eyes. "Uh-oh," I smiled. I remembered that they knew my birthday was coming up.
When I got into the room and opened my eyes, my oldest students, five tall, lanky boys, were all standing around a music stand grinning. On the music stand sat a beautiful cake with two candles reading "2" and "8." I almost cried. As they told Dr. Sarmast, they wanted to make sure that although I am far from home, I would not forget that I am always welcome in Afghanistan. Guys, thanks to you, I never have.
The two studio recitals went well, although the orchestra room is a bit small to encompass the entire student body. Therefore, it was hard to get everyone to keep quiet while the violinists played, but the distractions were good performance practice for them and they all did their best. I was particularly proud of one of my young students for whom even the easiest piece is extremely difficult. She wasn't really ready to perform anything, so I had the brainchild to ask her to play the open D string while one of the older students played "Musette" by Bach, a piece which is supposed to have a D drone throughout anyway. She loved doing this, and when they bowed at the end, a huge smile illuminated her painfully thin face.
The pizza arrived right on time at the end of the concerts, and I loved seeing my students chow down, particularly the girl who played open D in Musette. Pizza is a rare delicacy for most of them, and though I ordered more than enough, they easily finished both the pizza and the cake. "Bisyar mazadar ast!" they said, licking their fingers and smiling. Even the toddler niece of one of my students managed a few bites.
I worked two short days after Friday, the day off. Though there was no school, a variety of journalists had asked to come to the school Saturday. Dr. Sarmast asked for student volunteers, and to our delight, nearly all the students volunteered, so I was able to work in a last day of lessons after all. We very nearly had a crisis when one of my young girl students sadly told me that her brother wanted this to be her last year in school so that she could stay home and sweep the floors for him next year. Dr. Sarmast solved it with a call to the mother, who declared, "If she wants, my daughter will attend your school as long as she lives!"
On Sunday, my 28th birthday and my last day in Afghanistan for just over a month, I woke up to discover that the manager of the guesthouse had purchased a cake for me. "But you have to play Happy Birthday to yourself on the violin!" he teased, so I did.
After school, which was dominated by a meeting about exams, I packed and then headed to the Serena Hotel for a delicious buffet dinner with friends from Afghanistan, Gambia, Germany, India, Italy, the US, and Zimbabwe. I was very touched that my colleagues presented me with a qaraqul, the Afghan hat made from the fur of fetal lambs and made famous internationally by President Karzai. I was so proud that I wore it all evening.
This morning at the airport, security personnel asked to open my violin case. One of them started to pick up my violin, but I wouldn't let him. "Can you play it?" he asked.
With the X-ray machine and a line of bored, tired travelers just behind me, I plucked out the strains of the popular Afghan tune "Bia ke Birim ba Mazar" as the security personnel smiled in spite of themselves. As they joined in the last phrase with me singing instead of playing by that point, I reflected that despite the challenges and struggles of eight months of teaching violin in Afghanistan, music connects hearts there as well as anywhere.