The tree in the lamppost
The crisp air carried the promise of spring as we moseyed down a stone path through fields. Deep furrows in the moist earth seemed to hold tiny seeds, so that the whole campus will probably turn into a garden or a small farm in a few months, perhaps for the benefit of the agriculture students. Past the fields, sturdy evergreen trees surrounded the low-lying buildings like patient old professors. In the distance, the enormous dusty mountains, dotted with houses, created a dramatic backdrop as the clear sky purpled with dusk.
Walking down broad avenues with no cars, lined evenly by such huge trees, I felt a peace I rarely feel in Kabul. Indeed, I was powerfully reminded of the leafy campus of Indiana University. Sure, some of the sidewalks are crumbling and the occasional building could use a new coat of paint, but this university deserves tremendous credit for creating the aura of an established, idyllic center for learning after thirty years of war. Before entering the campus proper, we passed a construction site. One of my expatriate friends is a construction expert, and the Turkish mechanical engineer was happy to answer his questions. The new building will feature an exquisite design, vaguely reminiscent of Ottoman architecture, by a Turkish company.
Young men laughed easily and greeted us kindly as we passed. Young women walked in pairs, wearing headscarves and carrying large bags full of books. Shouting, joyous groups played soccer on lawns that will soon be bursting with green. I let out a sigh. One can relax here. My own university days are not so far behind, and I could easily imagine grabbing a quick tea at one of the Alokozay tea stands, sitting down on a bench, and cracking open a French textbook.
We stopped at an extraordinary feature: a tree growing inside a lamppost. Several years back, a seed must have blown inside a foot-long electrical gap and taken root. It found a way to grow up, twist out through the gap, and upward towards the sun. My friends pointed out the bullet holes that tore through this long-defunct, rusted pole, intended as a light source, not as some kind of postmodern planter. “It’s a work of art,” one friend commented.
For me, the highlight of the walk was the stunning College of Arts, a monumental new building that is a gift from Pakistan. The design is exquisite, with the seats of the indoor theater positioned on the second floor, just above the grand entrance, creating an impressive reverse staircase layering effect that warmly welcomes the visitor towards the entrance. The yellow exterior exudes optimism, and the stone caught the day’s last sunshine, inviting me to notice a small corner that bore the English graffito: “L + M = Love Forever,” suggesting that Kabul University students are rather like college students anywhere.
Indoors, sculptures by students and faculty line magnificent atria, some of which are open to the sky, while skylights of an intricate geometric design top other soaring hallways. We marveled at the cleanliness of line, the welcoming tone effortlessly conveyed by the brilliant Pakistani architecture, the well-equipped classrooms, the relaxed friendliness of the students we encountered. One kind professor offered us a tour, so I eagerly requested the theater. Though the new stage is not yet finished, the intimate, classy venue already conveyed a sense that this is a safe and innovative space in which daring, modern theater can take place. The College of Arts manages an annual theater festival, and back in our guide’s office, we saw brochures for past years in which play topics included female self-immolation, the importance of involving a woman in problem solving, a poor family hunted by smugglers and becoming a victim of the drug trade, and other intriguing works. I said to one of my friends, "Here in Afghanistan a playwright need only look out the window to find a dramatic subject." After a delicious china cup of cardamom tea, I thanked the professor and told him I can’t wait till the next theater festival.
I keep thinking of that tree that grows, against all odds, in a lamppost pockmarked with bullet holes. No matter the constraints, no matter the rigid modernity or stentorian violence that threaten to imprison us, we will grow and grow till we can grow through a gap, somewhere, anywhere, and keep growing towards the sun.