I clasp and unclasp my hands, waiting by the barbed wire fence in the dust at the airport, surrounded by families. The sun beats down already at 7 a.m. "Are you sure we can't get any closer?" I ask my driver. I can't see anything that even looks like an airport.
He reluctantly says yes, he's sure. I berate myself for telling my parents I could meet them at baggage claim, where they always meet me at the airport in Indianapolis. I buy a cold drink; my driver declines.
Eventually, my parents show up. I can't believe it's actually them, walking toward me after three days of travel, finally here in Afghanistan. They look exhausted. My mom is hard to recognize at first. I've never seen her with a headscarf.
We hug, and I eagerly pick up my mom's old suitcase from the trolley, so we can head towards the air conditioned van. I have a busy day planned for them, hoping that this will keep jet lag at bay.
We check them into the guesthouse, and after a delicious breakfast, we head straight to ANIM. We barely have time to settle in before the gong strikes for my 10:30 class: Ensemble. This group of teenaged guys came to me a couple months ago, saying they wanted to play the Blues. They showed me their version, and I thought they could benefit from some coaching from my dad
, who writes about jazz for the Indianapolis Star. He lectures from notes, and although my guys don't know much English, they eagerly listen. They particularly connect with Bag's Groove
, a blues riff he introduces them to, and the trumpet student loves learning more about Louis Armstrong. Their blues sounds much more interesting underpinned with the harmonic variety my dad urges them to explore.
After lunch in the faculty lounge, my mom helps me with my studio class of young girls from Kabul's streets. These girls are all wonderful and I get along with all of them, but although a couple of them are very talented and work hard, I have been unable to get the others to progress as quickly as I'd like. My mom, who has been teaching piano since roughly a decade after Cristofori invented it at the beginning of the eighteenth century, quickly identifies the problems. I expect too much too soon, and do not include enough games to solidify a sense of rhythm for girls whose grasp of rhythm was more tenuous.
Soon, she is playing hand clapping games and marching with them. They all grin and love every minute of it. Before the end of class, all of them request a maternal hug at least once.
From school, we go straight to Babur Gardens, my favorite spot in Kabul. They love the beautiful layout, planned by Emperor Babur himself half a millennium ago, but I keep accidentally bounding ahead until I catch myself, sadly reminding myself that my mom does not move as fast as she used to.
The next day is our concert at the British Embassy. The Land Cruiser picks up my parents, myself, and my colleague Norma early, with plenty of time to adjust to the sound at the garden within the Embassy where we will perform. We begin more or less on time. Britain's Deputy Ambassador enthuses about how happy he is that we will begin with the great British work for violin and piano, The Lark Ascending
, because the Deputy Ambassador's grandmother was a violinist and played the piece for Ralph Vaughan Williams, the composer!
My mother plays the soft opening chords. I reflect how lucky I am that she agreed to play with me and is playing the accompaniment so well despite her jet lag and our limited rehearsal time. I take a breath and begin Vaughan Williams' soft, rootless, soaring cadenza, a hushed and magical beginning that uses the pentatonic scale to approximate bird song. The work is suffused with an unreal, impossibly pure beauty that we do our best to capture. I am grateful that at the end, as the violin disappears into the stratosphere, the sound of our instruments fades into the sound of real birds singing in the trees around the garden.
My colleague Norma improvises percussion parts to some half-forgotten Pashto melodies I selected from a book compiled by an Afghan musicologist and published in 1991. After that, I take the stage for a half hour: Bach's D Minor Partita. I begin the Chaconne only to stop immediately. "We pause for the call to prayer," I tell the microphone, standing respectfully for several minutes until the otherworldly, haunting adhaan of the muezzin comes to an end and I launch into the monumental Chaconne.
Two more colleagues, ANIM's rubab and tabla teachers, join me for four Afghan pieces they have taught me. I was thrilled by the opportunity to learn these pieces from them, and eventually I summoned up the courage to add some harmony. The concert ends, and as musicians do, we gather afterwards at a Lebanese restaurant, sipping fresh, cool fruit juices under the stars and eating what my mom avers is the best hummus she's ever had.
Friday, our day off, is the ANIM faculty picnic at Lake Qargah, just outside Kabul. I've spent a while organizing this. It is important to me to encourage our faculty to think of themselves as one unit, and I thought we should have some time to socialize outside school. I enjoy my first excursion outside Kabul since my arrival over three months ago, and am glad that the other faculty took the invitation to include their families seriously. One teacher shows up with his adorable four-year-old boy, who loves shaking my hand, and another brings his daughter.
As a pleasant surprise, the rubab and tabla teacher bring their instruments and entertain us during the long wait for our food. I would never ask them to take this busman's holiday, but we all love their music as we take in a view of the lake and the surrounding mountains.
School begins early the next morning, and immediately, we all head to Radio Television Afghanistan
. Historically, this mammoth compound of recording and TV studios set among gardens formed the locus of Afghanistan's cultural scene, employing and engaging the country's most important musicians, such as Salim Sarmast, the father of the founder of ANIM, known as Afghanistan's first conductor. I admire the enormous artistic portrait of him just above the stage, baton seemingly at the ready to bring in the next orchestra to grace the stage of RTA after his orchestra fell silent long ago.
We wait for a long time as the stagehands set up the microphones. My mom stays with the young girls to make sure they behave, and I seek out the canteen to buy them each a cookie and juice. Eventually, Mr. Shefta records his pulse-pounding arrangement of "Dareen Watan," and I get to record my orchestral arrangements of the Afghanistan National Anthem and Ustad Guzalman's "Da Watan." Scarcely does the actual recording begin than it's time to leave. It is a great honor to record for national television at a site that did so much to celebrate and preserve Afghan music throughout communism, war, terrorism, and Taliban.
The last day of my parents' visit is here. Far too short. When I tell my little girl students that it's time to say goodbye, they don't believe me at first. "Ten more days!" one says in Dari, holding up ten tiny fingers in an attempt to get them to stay. More hugs, More pictures. Then, school is out.
We go first to the Fourth of July celebration at the US Embassy. We pass the security barriers, surrender our passports, collect our temporary IDs, and walk onto the Embassy lawn, greeted by the welcoming scene of red, white, and blue bunting, milling crowds of happy people, hot dogs and hamburgers, and babies holding balloons. We enjoy some American camaraderie before browsing at the Shah Mohamed Book Company
, Kabul's famous bookstore that carries every imaginable book in every language on every subject even tangentially related to Afghanistan. I knew my parents would love this, and am thrilled that they buy a couple books.
At Chicken Street, my mom searches for a lapis lazuli necklace. For 7,000 years, Afghans have extracted the luscious blue stone from a mountain in Badakhshan that is the oldest continuously operated mine in the world. That mountain supplied the lapis on King Tut's death mask, so anything with lapis is the perfect souvenir of Afghanistan. My mom has a necklace in mind, and is delighted when she finds one that matches her mental image exactly. The owner knows he won't have to bargain too much.
A final dinner at the fancy Italian restaurant brings their visit to a close. Six days later, I still don't let go. I type on my blog, writing in present tense, knowing it sounds pretentious but hoping that the very now-ness of the present will bring the visit back into life. I'll see them in November, of course, but as I work 8,000 miles away from home in a culture I still struggle to understand, their five days in Kabul had a more powerful effect than their trips to New York, even if we sometimes went longer between visits when I lived there.
Two images in particular stay with me. One of my girl students is painfully shy, and always seems to fade into the wall. I'll never forget how brightly she smiled when my mom worked with her to finally get her to do a rhythm that had always eluded her. I'd never seen this girl smile that brightly before. I hope to see that smile on her more often as I apply what I learned from my mother.
The other image is a picture. Emperor Babur carefully designed his gardens along an axis, which he intended to be filled with water (to avoid extravagance in drought-prone Kabul, it is usually dry these days). We had just climbed to the top of the hill in which the gardens are inlaid. The axis stretches out far below, with Kabul bustling beyond the peace of the gardens and the Hindu Kush mountains rising in the distance. I suggest a picture, my dad on one side, my mom on the other.
"Let's hold hands," my dad says to my mom.