I asked the driver if this was the bus to the NH Airport Hotel
. It was not, he responded in an officious manner. As he looked at my shalwar kameez, an outfit commonly worn in Central Southern Asia, he lit up, his professional veneer melting like winter's last snow. "Where are you going today?" he asked hopefully. "Afghanistan," I responded. He beamed, "I am from there!"
I was at the airport in Frankfurt after the conclusion of The Arcos Orchestra
's whirlwind concert tour of Germany. Each day had been a variation on a theme: hotel breakfast, long bus ride, rehearsal, concert, dinner if we could afford it, sleep if we had time. Now that the tour had ended, I wanted to go to the magnificent restaurant created by celebrity chef Ferran Adria
for the NH Airport Hotel for one last gourmet meal before I moved to Afghanistan to teach violin to children
. I needed time to reflect.
The Afghan driver talked to me while I waited, telling me to be sure to learn about a genre of music he particularly loves. When the bus I needed arrived, I chased after it. "I was waiting back there," this new driver irritably exclaimed. He refused to help move my luggage.
Unfamiliarity bred silence. After I heard the driver chatting on the phone in a language that sounded like Dari, I asked him tentatively, "Afghanistan?" He nodded. "Man ba Kabul emruz mi rawam," I said tentatively. Today I am going to Kabul.
The second Afghan bus driver I had met in five minutes suddenly smiled. I tried out what little Dari I could manage as he recommended foods to try. "Kabul is safe now," he said, but added with concern, "Is someone picking you up at the airport?" When we got to the NH Hotel, he walked in with me and pulled my luggage to the front desk, urging them to take care of it while I ate lunch.
Ferran Adria is a genius who compels us to consider familiar foods in unfamiliar contexts. Remembering my mother's constant admonition to eat more vegetables, I ordered the salad. The absence of dressing was surprising and refreshing, as it forced me to taste, as though for the first time, the crisp bitter lettuce, the meaty nuts, the succulent berries, and the harsh parmesan cheese.
Similarly, the knowledge that I am moving to a nation ripped apart by thirty years of war has forced me to experience the past few months with heightened sensitivity. Walking down the streets of New York last month or in a variety of tiny German towns this month, I savored the freedom to meander as I chose with no thought to the security implications. Last night, as an unusually enthusiastic audience in Munich prompted us to offer Sibelius' bittersweet Impromptu for Strings as an encore, I held back tears as the violins and violas etched out his spare, mournful lines that sift through the shadows of memory. "Thank you for the Sibelius," I told our beloved conductor, John-Edward Kelly
, as I gave him a hug. "It will be the last time I make music like that for a while."
For a main course, I selected a lightly breaded chicken stuffed with ham and cheese with a side of braised tomatoes. Adria re-imagined what could have been a pedestrian dish as a brilliant triple pun. It most closely resembled the Chicken Cordon Bleu of classic French gastronomy, but the Spanish cheese and ham evoked the nation of his birth. Yet the chicken was pounded so flat that it looked exactly like the schnitzels that are popular here in Germany. Like so many of us in a world of shifting borders, this rooted yet rootless dish hardly seemed to know where it belonged.
I have been teasingly accused of the same. "Are you going native?" my Arcos colleagues asked when I mentioned my plans to grow a beard, learn Dari, and wear mostly the shalwar kameez. "Will you forget who you are?" was the implied question.
Perhaps I am going to unusual lengths to demonstrate my respect for my soon-to-be adopted culture. However, I will never forget my dedication to peace. I will never cease striving to overcome my personal limitations. I will always do my best to help build a world where cultures and nations never resort to violence to resolve their conflicts.
Even many of us who are secure in our renunciation of violence are as unwilling to assert a heritage as my lunch entree. I have always vacillated between my brother's principled opposition to multiculturalism and my liberal friends' unquestioning adherence to political correctness and their eagerness to denigrate everything the West has done while celebrating everyone else.
I am aware of the awkwardness lurking just beneath my chance encounter with that first Afghan bus driver. Had I been wearing a suit, he would have had no idea where I was going, yet because I wore a shalwar kameez, he correctly suspected that I was headed to his part of our planet. My culture's ideas, language, and clothing have come to dominate the globe, not his, and while Jared Diamond offers excellent reasons for this in his masterpiece, Guns, Germs, and Steel
, he cannot provide us with a roadmap out of the thicket of resentment, arrogance, insecurity, and hostility created by such disparities of cultural influence.
When I started Cultures in Harmony
in 2005, I was aware that the organization would be at once part of the problem and part of the solution. Our musicians have access to the donors who could send them around the globe; musicians in Zimbabwe do not. Our projects exist to facilitate a mutual understanding sorely needed between citizens of the most powerful nation and everyone else, yet the need to build that trust is not as urgent for every nation. No one in Moldova hates people from Suriname; the exigency of Americans traveling on missions of cultural diplomacy stems from the disproportionate and frequently devastating scope of our power. Finally, since my colleagues and I are trained in Western classical music, unfortunate echoes of music's historical role in colonialism might follow us.
My upcoming work in Afghanistan suffers from the same problems. I go to Afghanistan as an American man playing Western music and teaching Afghan girls and boys. Just like the suit I chose not to wear today, my culture's music is what other cultures end up importing, even when they have a choice. I come to Kabul at the invitation of the Afghan government, just as non-European governments have eagerly supported the founding of symphony orchestras while their young people listen to Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson. My intention to publicly learn from and perform with experts in traditional Afghan music becomes vital in this context, so much so that one might wonder why I agreed to teach Western music in Kabul, given my awareness of the way such an act may be perceived.
Yet I cling tenaciously to my middle path. I respect all cultures, but see no insult in preferring my own. I love many kinds of music, but remain proud to belong to the tradition of Bach and Beethoven. I understand the tragic consequences of America's military and corporate imperialism, but I am a patriotic American who loves my country in spite of its flaws. I respect many paths towards peace, but remain convinced that music most easily reminds us of our common humanity. I see no problem in Americans learning Afghan music in Kabul while teaching Western music, just as there should be no problem in Afghans coming to New York to do the reverse.
Perhaps the only qualifier my chicken dish needs is "delicious." I claim the identities of man, musician, and American, while knowing that my most important identity is that of someone who seeks to improve both himself and the world around him.
After this meal, I chose an espresso for its Janus-like ability to prepare us for what lies ahead while catalyzing memory. We order it in the morning in the hopes that the caffeine will kick-start our day; we ask for it after dinner in order to reflect. I ordered mine without milk and sugar: bitter, like the fleeting island of time in which I find myself—-between America and Afghanistan, between free-lancing in New York and teaching in Kabul, between liberty and tradition, secularism and Islam, security and war, comfort and suffering.
People who meet me recently and have never heard of Cultures in Harmony ask why I am going to Kabul. The espresso reminds me of the coin in my violin case, the coin that I showed to John-Edward Kelly before last night's Munich concert, saying "This is my most valuable possession."
I received that coin on September 16, 2001, when I performed for members of the Fighting Sixty-Ninth Regiment
as they returned from a long day of rescue and clean-up work at Ground Zero. That experience showed me that great music deserves more than being a nice entertainment for the wealthy. It is a reason to live, a force to propel society towards truth and love. I started Cultures in Harmony in 2005 with the goal of promoting cultural understanding through music. Since then, we have done 19 projects in 11 countries. The director of another cultural diplomacy organization, American Voices
, recommended me for the job in Kabul, and on America's 233rd birthday (July 4, 2009), I received my formal job offer.
As the espresso reminds me of the past, it reminds of what I will miss. Moments shared with friends in the US come to mind, as well as moments with my father, mother, and brother. I also think of the moment that makes me most patriotic: my first visit to Washington DC in December 2006. In spite of the cold, I thrilled to see the flags snapping in the sharp wind around the Washington Monument, and I cried at the Lincoln Memorial as I read a book about Marian Anderson's famous performance there, a book which enabled me to reflect on the enormous obstacles which we Americans have overcome and must still overcome on our march to the promise implied by our founding ideals.
The espresso effortlessly glides my focus towards what awaits me in Kabul, for my lack of concern for the cold in Washington reminds me of others who do not notice the cold: my students in Kabul. In a meeting at the State Department last month, a bureaucrat told me that he met some student musicians during his brief visit to Kabul. One impression stayed with him: "The building where those students practiced was so cold, you needed to go outside to warm up. Only their love of music kept them warm."
Right now, 35 young people in Kabul await the arrival of the first violin teacher to nurture new generation of Afghan violinists in 30 years. Perhaps they are practicing as I type. I dare not speculate too much about them, but I know this: my dedication to music, and that of everyone I've met, pales next to that of those who risked their life to be musicians. Their zeal will humble me, and I hope they will learn as much from me as I will learn from them.
I finish my espresso. In 12 hours, I will be in another world. Spring is coming to the US, Germany, and Afghanistan: today was the first day I walked without a winter coat, enjoying the comfort of my shalwar kameez in the crisp air outside the airport. Yet even when a chill returns, I will remember how I didn't feel the cold during that DC visit in 2006, and how my students ignore a far more severe cold when they are making music. Whatever the winds of weather or war may attempt, they cannot chill the fingers, still the voices, or numb the hearts of those of us who seek to live together in peace. We will always draw warmth from the dream of peace, liberty, and understanding.
A common greeting in Afghanistan is "Chetor hasti ba hawa?" which loosely translates as, "How do you feel about the weather?" I suspect that for me, the standard response will be sincere: "Khub, tashakor."