National Cleaning Day
I asked to be the captain of the smallest children, who were assigned the task of cleaning windows. About twenty milled around me as four of them received rags and I was handed a soapy bucket. "OK, you two carry the bucket, you folks can take turns washing the windows—" I floundered for a second. "You two stand against the wall with your backs straight," I said. And the chubby little fellow who studies violin with me and recently burst into tears when he accidentally broke a bow? "When the window's not clean, you will say 'neest!'" I told him. He grinned. "Neest" is Dari for "it's not," as in, "it's not clean." He delighted in pointing an accusatory finger at a streaky spot and shouting, "Neeeeest!" dragging the "ee" sound out like a shrieking teakettle. Though some of the other kids grumbled, he kept them on task.
Some of the little girls did an outstanding job, and soon the windows were cleaner than ever. A few little boys acted silly, pointing to each other and saying in Dari, "He's not clean," before dusting each other off. The pint-sized impish brother of one of my students gleefully snapped me repeatedly with his rag. Though a few kids managed to make their assigned areas a wee bit dirtier than before, most of the kids did a stellar job. It was a great idea to help them develop a sense of responsibility for their environment, and apparently, other kids at schools throughout Afghanistan did the same thing that day.
The pride in our students' faces only grew later that day, as we inaugurated our intramural concert series with a performance by the piano and percussion students. From seeing a small girl play a beautiful pentatonic piece with her teacher to seeing the percussion ensemble rattle off an irresistible rendition of Khachaturian's "Saber Dance," the concert symbolized how far we've come in a short semester whose frenetic pace has left me with little time for this blog.
The third week in September saw a lot of returns and additions to ANIM: first, our Italian piano teacher Adriana arrived; then, our new cello teacher and my old friend Robin; then, pianist Allegra Boggess, whom Cultures in Harmony brought to Kabul for two weeks to develop a practice monitoring system; and finally, Dr. Sarmast, our beloved founder, returned from a well-deserved vacation in Australia.
We had little time for orientation though: just a week after they arrived, the Afghan Youth Orchestra performed for President Karzai, members of the Afghan Cabinet, and the American Ambassador in celebration of Literacy Day! Early in the morning of September 28, we entered a high school assembly hall to find that a couple hundred people were already seated. A couple hours later, the guests, who by this point numbered well over one thousand, all stood up. President Karzai entered with his entourage. He was wearing his signature white shalwar kameez, tailored suit jacket, chapan (long colorful shawl), and karakol (hat made from the fur of fetal lambs). He seemed very happy and sat down about thirty feet from where I was seated.
After a recitation from the Holy Quran, I slipped to the front of the orchestra and led them in my arrangement of the National Anthem of Afghanistan as President Karzai, his full cabinet, numerous Ambassadors from countries including the US and Saudi Arabia, and the hundreds of guests stood. The Minister of Education gave a short speech, after which Mr. Shefta came to the front to conduct "Sar Zamin-e Man," a heart-rending, beautiful song protesting the rule of the Taliban.
The President seemed very touched. Afterwards, he came to the orchestra, pointed at a couple students, and said, "Bisyar khub" (very good). His subsequent speech to the assembly was captivating. I don't know much Dari, but his charisma is so tremendous that you don't have to understand the words. He had the audience eating out of his hand, and managed to mingle uproarious jokes and pathos in the same speech. He finished on a rousing crescendo and walked out of the hall to a storm of applause. The American Ambassador, Gen. Karl Eikenberry, gave the only other speech.
Back at school, we taught a little more, and then that same evening, some of the faculty, including myself, went to Babur Gardens to perform for an event celebrating Afghan and German friendship. I was delighted to discover that the evening event had been moved from the Kervansaray to a much more glamorous destination: the music room of the Queen's Palace! While waiting for the rock group to finish their sound check, I took in the fantastic view of Babur Gardens, most of Kabul, the surrounding hills, and the Hindu Kush in the distance. After a long series of speeches, I played the Bach E Major Prelude and then joined my friends, the rubab, tabla, and cello teachers, for a couple Afghan tunes.
We ended up back at Babur Gardens just a couple weeks later to play for the National Day of the Arts, a glittering, nationally broadcast event celebrating a variety of Afghan performing arts, ranging from music to theater to a man doing excellent bird imitations. In recognition of this performance, the Ministry of Culture later gave Robin and me a certificate and gave me my very own chapan! Words don't express how excited I am to own this exquisite, hand-woven, near-mystical garment.
Shortly after that, I was pleased to see a friend and wonderful advocate for cultural diplomacy, Cynthia Schneider, former Ambassador of the United States to the Netherlands, visit our school during her brief trip to Kabul. As visitors often are, she was impressed with the progress of the school, the credit for most of which goes entirely to the indefatigable Dr. Sarmast. We shared a memorable dinner with ANIM faculty, the head of Tolo TV (Afghanistan's most popular TV network), and, at the very end, the last Prince of Afghanistan, son of the late King Zahir Shah.
Yet such honors are not the main thing keeping me excited to come to work. Awards and contacts with important people are not what keep me going through the extraordinary difficulties of creating music in a metaphorical minefield of cultural sensitivities, through the disappointment of exciting concerts postponed and difficult compromises made.
A couple weeks ago, I showed my little students The Art of Violin. Mostly it held their attention, and I was especially impressed with one talented but rambunctious girl who sat there mesmerized the whole time. Each time a famous violinist played a piece that is on the curriculum I designed for ANIM, I told the kids how many years from now they could learn it. If the piece was particularly difficult and they weren't in love with it, this would scare them: "I don't want violin!" they would say in Dari, or "Moshkel!" (Difficult). But if they liked the piece, they might say something like "Dars-e man!" (My lesson!).
One piece I told this girl she could start learning in five years. "But will you be here in five years?" she asked. I stopped and thought of all the stress I'd recently experienced due to the difficulties of shepherding the orchestra towards a performance that will now take place over 3 months later than planned. But then I saw her little face, anxious, waiting for my answer.
"Barayetan? Hamesha." For you? Always.
On these cold autumnal days which sneakily hint that winter is closer than you think, the sun will briefly bathe Kabul in warmth around noon. The effect is pleasant, yet can't match her smile upon hearing my answer.