April 09, 2010
I wrap my new black and white scarf over my head and step out from my little classroom, onto the rooftop of the guesthouse where I now live. It is a clear, crisp spring morning. There is still snow in the mountains to the west. It is Juma, things are khomush, quiet. This is a residential neighborhood, full of large houses, opulent by standards. There are trees here; all young but for one tall pine that survived the thirty years of strife Kabul has endured. Many members of parliament live here among others who have done well for themselves in the “great game” that is the struggle for the future of Afghanistan. Since the Nineteenth Century this game has gone on, maybe even since the time of the silk road, when the same players jostled for dominance: Russia, Britain, Persia, India, China. Add to these their extended families the U.S. and Pakistan. And then of course there is the Arab league, keenly worried its power and influence might be leached away. For a long time there has been a pipeline in the works, one that would service those vast land-locked reserves way up north. And waiting beneath this dry earth, more oil, natural gas, gold, gems and the new kid on the block, copper, soon to be as valuable a resource as any of those old stalwarts. I look down onto the street and I watch three homeless children pick among the garbage for something to eat, something to sell. One girl, two boys. Millions have come to Kabul for the simple reason there is nowhere else to go. Returning (often deported) refugees, entire villages fleeing the war, people suffering from drought, poverty, and those looking for a scrap that might somehow fall from the table to the floor, a tiny morsel from the billions of dollars that have poured into Afghanistan through its capital city. I watch the children tiptoe through the refuse scattered around two overstuffed dumpsters. Alongside of them is the Kabul River, a trickle now, a swill of sewage. A feral dog trots along its bank, healthier by far than the scavenging children.
I want to listen to Ahmad Zair sing his soulful love songs. I want to hear the western instruments he infused with those of the east, the accordion that transplants my imagination to cafes and conversation, the echoing electric organ flawlessly scored with the tabla and rebab. I think of students from Kabul University smoking cigarettes and some of them hashish and sparring not with guns but with poems by heart recited. I want to see yellow and red roses along the electric rail moving straight through the city, and I want to eat kabab sitting on clean grass beneath an elderberry tree. How is it possible to be nostalgic for a place I never knew, a place that might never have existed?
Kabul is like a clotted heart. All who are able to walk and then escape the claws of this great game make their way finally here. They jam into this crossroad of history like the city’s traffic, everyone for him or her self, the dented cars from Japan, lilting buses from Germany, even the air in their tires un-yearning to escape, and their fly wheels whirring and exhaust pipes exhausted, the donkeys like death standing, the hand pulled carts made of crooked sticks, the bicycles with springs bursting from their great triangular seats, and there among them like radical cells, un-digestible, piercing the walls of the city’s arteries like cancer waiting to happen, the beggars, mostly women in their ghost burqas, and the filthy children scampering through the fissures in the stream of metal and dust, the whites of their eyes visible three hundred sixty degrees around their contracted pupils and cloudy irises. There are no stints, no thinners, not even surgeons that will cast a glance from each their specialty, their statisticians and meeting rooms, their trucking lanes or stock gains or the wealth that a drug will bring. No minister, no general, no mullah, no elder, no CEO, NGO, CIA, ISI, NATO, ISAF, CNN, BBC, war lord, drug lord, Christ lord, Moses lord, Allah lord, Buddha lord is willing or able to wrench their eight little fingers and two little thumbs from the cookie jar that is the industry of war. What, oh what would Dwight Eisenhower say if he were alive today, the very man who warned us of such a trend? A busy place, this world, but from not so far away, lonely and blue. I’ve often thought the most important novel ever written was The Modern Prometheus, otherwise known as Frankenstein. Mary Shelly wrote it when she was eighteen.
Though I have helped raise one, though I have worked with hundreds on and off for thirty years, for the first time in my life I have begun to listen to children. It is estimated 52% of the 26 million Afghans are eighteen years old or younger. In a country where life expectancy is forty-three, it seems prudent to recognize those children, what they have and continue to endure and the power they one day soon can wield. This week, aside from the joy of spending many hours teaching the orphans, I had the opportunity to meet two boys from Bamyan Province, Faiz and Abdul, who for some time and under their own volition have been campaigning for peace. They are part of an Afghan Youth Volunteers for Peace movement. They held vigils through the cold winter, made videos for the Internet, and met with their governor (the only female governor in Afghanistan). Both have lost parents to the war. A man named Douglas who I met on my speaking tour connected me with the boys’ mentor, a gentle man from Singapore named Hakim, who agreed to bring the two peaceful warriors to visit me in the guesthouse.
I immediately knew I had to somehow get them together with a few of the orphans. Luckily, one of my top classes met that afternoon. Maria, Pashtana and Manizha are especially hungry to learn. I try to challenge them and keep them on their toes. On this occasion though, I was lax. We read an Afghan folktale then drummed through a grammar lesson. My mind was elsewhere. We went downstairs a half hour early and waited in the living room for Hakim and the boys to arrive. Once they did and tea was poured, the flurry of Dari in that room was peppered with a growing recognition of kindred Afghan spirits. These boys were two of the most loving, kind hearted and deeply forgiving faces I’ve seen. As impressed as I was proud, I watched as the girls did not play coy. They were inquisitive, supportive and strong. They were all five paradoxically, adult. They exchanged notes, emails, grievances, visions and sat with backs straight and took turns plugging into their conversation. In no time Hakim and I became wallflowers. I felt such excitement, that these young people really could, if given the opportunity, take the helm and change their world. The meeting could not last long, as the girls had to return to the orphanage, but their effect on Faiz and Abul was palpable. Even though the boys had been only the day before rejected by the U.S. embassy (they had attempted to get visas for their planned Peace Tour, having scheduled talks about Afghanistan from Washington to Chicago to Seattle), they told me that they were inspired and would not give up.
So it is I must listen to the children, I must hold back my views as to how they “should” or “should not” see the world. I must ask more questions than I do give answers. Still, once in a while I cannot help myself. Transparent as a thin clear pane of glass I sit with my cittern and play a song that I know Nabila or Negina, or Maqbola or even Maria will ask me to play again, and then of course they will ask me to teach them. This began last year withBlowin’ in the Wind. Now I have given them something a whole lot more akin to a call for action to their government and the international community, an anthem Pete Seeger gifted to Peter, Paul and Mary, which in turn was gifted in 1963 to the famous March on Washington, led by Dr. M. L. King. If I Had a Hammer may have receded from the airwaves, but it resonates louder than ever in an orphanage in the heartbeat of Asia.
What does it cost to create love in the world? I no longer believe it is a measure of how much I give, or teach, or protect or convert. Nor is it a measure of how much I myself feel loved. I sit on the steps of Mehan and Frishta sits beside me, rests an elbow on my shoulder, looks at me like I am a mirage. Then Nabila, Manila, and five or six others crowd around. We sip green tea. We talk about whose hair is the longest, whose the curliest. We thumb wrestle. Some of the girls skip away, some return. We point out the seeds in this year’s flower garden that have sprouted. Marwa, the two year old arrives. She talks in both English and Dari about the moon in the early evening sky, and then she sits in my lap as if it was made for her. One of the new orphans stands outside our circle, watches me. “What is this creature?” she seems to say with her eyes. “I have known of this, but I do not know how…” I think perhaps love is not created, it is recognized no differently than the moon. We can stick a flag in it, steal a piece of it, sing to it and even howl, but it will never depend on us for its existence. Still, without it the oceans would not move, and we would never wake from a dream with the shadows of trees in the wind flickering across our soft white sheets.
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