Young men clutching eagles to their chest, jammed against old bearded fellows patiently making their way through boisterous gangs of teenage boys peering at the fighting birds, shoving past fathers kindly helping sons choose from among dozens of twittering songbirds all pressed us relentlessly forward along a narrow dirt path through ancient mud buildings from which towers of bird cages threatened to topple on the seething mass below, past an old man in a tiny hut methodically carving the end of a bird net with a curved knife, past an alcove where one vendor listlessly stirred boiling chickpeas and a cave-like restaurant where men stared at us expressionlessly as they waited for sizzling lamb, until the old bird market itself coughed us up on a wider, quieter street where the blue perfection of the birds' natural home finally embraced us overhead.
The street selling musical instruments and kites made a welcome change, though the sight of bombed-out shops was a sobering reminder of where we were. I delighted in trying out different rubabs, including one worth $2,000. Its strings resonated magnificently; the intricacy of the mother-of-pearl inlaid in the wood was a stunning instance of Afghan craftsmanship at its best.
We crossed a broad paved street on which a tiny boy sat glumly on a cart, urging his donkey to keep pace with the cars. Soon, a gaggle of children surrounded us, including one who pointed out a nearby mosque said to date from the time of the Ghaznavids. The mullah, a young man fluent in English, welcomed us warmly and gave me a hug when we left.
We walked back to the music street so that the Australian film crew could get a few shots of Dr. Sarmast, so I joined a group of young men outside a kite shop as they rapidly spun kite string from small spindles onto a huge one which they would take turns spinning, two at a time. I tried it for a few seconds until my wrists gave out on me; grinning, the boys offered me tea, naan khoshk (thick bread), and lamb. I sat down for a short rest at the end of what had been an eventful week.
A few days ago, I had been in the middle of trying to resolve a student's problem. She seemed upset, and so I searched for a translator to find out why when I got a phone call from Homayun Sakhi that stopped everything. He was just outside the school.
What Yo-Yo Ma is to the cello, Homayun Sakhi is to the rubab. He has toured the world, worked with the Kronos Quartet, represented the rubab at the Smithsonian, and is one of the few musicians able to make a living in the United States playing Afghanistan's national instrument. My father had forwarded me an article about his work with Kronos, and I contacted him to see if he might drop by the school some time.
I ran to the entrance to greet him and invited him to come to my studio. We chatted about the school until I saw one of my two English-speaking violin students through the window and motioned for him to come in. He ran around to my door and answered a few of Ustad Sakhi's questions in Dari before I suggested that he get all the rubab students.
More quickly than seemed possible, three little boys and a girl came pouring into my room, happily clutching their rubabs. The Ustad (master musician) spoke with them kindly, asking them questions, giving the girl a pick from his pocket, and tuning their instruments. We asked him to play a short piece for us. One of the little boys turned to me, pleading, when the gong sounded for lunch, but I sternly said: "Mohem ast! Naan khordan, pasantar." (This is important. Lunch, later.)
Word was spreading. I could imagine students running through the halls, shouting excitedly "The great rubab player is here!" Soon my tiny studio was jam packed. A few of the older students stared admiringly at the two deluxe CD-DVD sets of his that Ustad Sakhi had brought as gifts. Soon the Australian film crew came in, and then the construction crew came into my room and began discussing my electrical outlet and taking measurements.
I asked Ustad Sakhi if I could join him for a couple pieces, so we played "Let's Go To Mazar" and "Anar Anar," though his version of "Anar Anar" was so different than the one I learned that I had to stop, embarrassed. A student tabla player came in to join us. The students clapped enthusiastically and the tabla player glowed as the Ustad gave him a few words of quiet praise that will stick with him the rest of his life.
The visit left us all on a high, and I returned to teaching with new zeal. My methods continue to evolve as I find ways to adapt the brilliant method
of Mimi Zweig and Brenda Brenner to Afghan culture.
Studying the Suzuki Method of violin in the US, I was told to keep the bow straight by keeping it on the "Kreisler highway," an imaginary miniature roadway named after the great violinist Fritz Kreisler and leading from the end of one F-hole to the other. With one student, I decided the highway was in for a name change. I told him to stay on the Kabul-Jalalabad highway, and he grinned and played with a perfectly straight bow (never mind that the real-life highway with that name curves a lot). As Afghans know, that highway hugs steep mountainsides; just a tiny swerve and you'll sail off into the valley.
Since many of the bow games kids play in the US would not translate, I made up a new one: "Grass in a River" (Chaman da Darya). They hold the bow vertically at arm's length and then move their arm languidly, letting each joint undulate, as though their arm were a long blade of grass gently rocked back and forth by the river's current.
Despite my need to use Dari, I've discovered that it doesn't always work to point at things and look woefully at your students for a word. I had been trying to tell one student that his wrist resembled the rigid stone on the windowsill, so I pointed to it and he said "tok." My suspicions were aroused about ten students later, when an older student said "sang." No wonder the students in between had given me strange looks when I begged them to avoid that common student mistake: a wrist that is like a windowsill.
When all language fails, I resort to other means. One student had difficulty remembering the form of Sol-Re-Sol, which is AABA. She got it after two techniques I made up. First, I put three CDs on the floor with my camel puppet after the second CD: AABA form. When that started to work, I put my baton on the floor to divide the room in two. I would sing the A sections on one side, jump over the baton to sing the B section, and jump back to sing the A section. She got it.
In our orchestration class, we watch and discuss Knowledge is the Beginning
to pass the time until our textbooks arrive. The documentary presents the story behind Daniel Barenboim's orchestra in which Arabs and Israelis play together in hope of peace. In 1999, Barenboim decided to have the musicians visit a concentration camp, since they were rehearsing in Germany. When my students saw the barbed wire, high walls, and guard towers on screen, one of them innocently asked: "Is that a school?" I realized with a start that it resembled many schools of Afghanistan.
Yet such grim moments are few compared with the pleasant ones. My initial concern on learning that I was about to get more new students vanished when I saw that one of them was this tiny slip of a girl who presses her face against the window to watch me practice when the other kids are playing during recess. I don't think I have seen happiness so purely manifested as in her smile when she learned she would be studying violin with me.
Today's day of tourism drew to a close as we drove up a hill with a 360-degree of Kabul and the towering snow-capped mountains that surround it. As dusk drew the light from the sky, wedding palaces gave us neon winks from the distance. Children chased each other at the bottom of an abandoned swimming pool. The fast, lilting beat of a song featuring a Pakistani woman singing in Pashto blared from the open window of a station wagon until it gave way to the hauntingly beautiful counterpoint of half a dozen muezzins calling Kabul's faithful to prayer. I clambered on top of a broken-down tank for a spectacular view of a city that should not know anything other than peace. Yet on the way back, we had to stop in traffic as a convoy of heavily armored military vehicles lumbered out of some military base. Those machine gun toting soldiers in their body armor were going to their job, and a grimly necessary one it may be. Tomorrow I will go do mine...with my violin.