May 21, 2010
The students of American University of Kabul are part of a slim percentage of the young Afghan population (53% of Afghans are 18 and under) who are by any standard in their country affluent. They pride themselves in going "western", wear jeans and oil their hair. They invited a rock ‘n roll pick-up band made up of staff members from the U.S. Embassy to play at their “fun day” charity event last Saturday. They are predominantly business majors, some of them already successful business owners who are merely trying to increase their net worth. There are many people in this country who look at them with distaste. Capitalism is just another ideology that has had its decade-long invasion, albeit in the form of aide and security and war industries. Just as with communism and fundamentalism its effect has been predominantly treacherous for the vast majority of Afghans. But it is a mistake to look at these students with scorn simply because they are fortunate and are looking forward to creating prosperity in their lives. There are a wide variety of social strati here. So little of this makes it into the psyche of the outside world. What you see are Taliban fighters and poor farmers and burqa-shrouded women and once in a while the fat warlords with their turbans sitting in the parliament. Some images of Afghan women opening shelters and legal aide agencies in Herat would be nice, and of others working for democracy at a conferences for peace in Kabul, archeologists searching for artifacts in Bamyan, and yes, young students dancing awkwardly to Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison.
But something special happens when a group of fifteen orphan girls shows up at your party to sing songs of a homeland that has suffered the loss of identity, songs of the insanity that erases any meaning to war, and of standing up for justice, freedom and love, fists in the air, the resilience of the human spirit and the truth of innocence.
We arrived at the university about 5pm like a cluster of baby chicks huddling together for fear of being separated. The undergrad students were having technical difficulties with their computer and sound, so the show had been delayed. To pass the time and alleviate nerves I brought the girls outside on the lawn to warm up their voices. In minutes a crowd formed to watch. We only sang the opening measures of each song, and had fun doing vocal exercises. The applause was electric just for this. Once the show finally got off and running the girls really brought the house down. Several hundred Afghans in a hurry to arrive at their future and achieve their individual dreams stood up from their chairs and reveled in suddenly remembering who they are beneath their ambitions. First on the playlist was Blowin’ in the Wind. Nabila, my soloist turned to me just before I strummed the first chord and asked, “Ian-jan, where does the white dove sleep? I can't remember where the white dove sleeps!” She was so nervous her eyes were round and petrified. I told her not to worry. It would all come to her by the time she reached that part of the song. All of the girls were terribly nervous. They, nor I had realized just how big an event this would be. An entire auditorium full of fancy people wearing fancy shoes was entirely focused on this group of girls who not long ago knew only trauma, poverty, fear. Some of the girls mumbled the words, others missed notes, the sound system was completely mishandled, but still the orphans shined. After the first anthem the older girls sang a Dari song most Afghans know, an homage to their homeland and their resilience as a people, then If I Had a Hammer, then a patriotic song in Pashto. The organizers had asked me to bring all the children together after the last song. After the last note of the last song, after the bow and sustained by a unified and astonishing applause, I led the singers down from the stage and asked them to line up in front of the audience. I called Sosan to please bring forward the other twenty or so girls who had come to watch. Then, one university student after another came forward and handed each girl a rose. The immensity of this experience then began to wash across their faces. The organizers thanked them, and announced that half of the proceeds from the event will go to AFCECO. Again the audience roared.
An hour later it was time to filter out of the auditorium and count heads. Standing in the beautiful lawn of the university, the night sky crowding out the setting sun, the girls fluttered with excitement. Several of the student organizers came up to me and thanked me and commended the children. One dropped fifty dollars on ice cream for all. It all happened so fast, those three hours. One after another the girls thanked me. Their appreciation squeezed my heart, for they were like the seeds of hope thanking the soil for water, the sun for light, and the foot for not crushing them.
Only a few days later the orphans were given the opportunity to enchant an entirely different group of players in this landscape of war and reconstruction. Soldiers from the new Kabul Compound have been tasked with the distribution of items to needy children, notebooks to stuffed animals to Frisbees that have been piling up in Army bases across Afghanistan, gifts from home as part of a hearts and minds campaign. You can imagine the alarm in our minds when a small convoy of American armored personnel carriers pulled up to Mehan orphanage. Andeisha, open hearted and inclusive as she is had to advise the officer in charge of the impression this might have on the local population, and the possible repercussions. So when the soldiers returned with the goods they downsized their profile significantly. Not that long ago I spent a year living with Marines, so without thinking I almost made the mistake of yelling oorah! instead of of hooah! One soldier stood about six foot-six, built like a brick house from Alabama. I watched him hand out stuffed dragons and puppies to the kids, and my mind rushed with a mix of joy and tragic irony. The children are victims of poverty, the Taliban, warlords, fundamentalism or the drug trade. But plenty are victims of American policy and more to the point have lost their parents to American airstrikes. I watched as another soldier, this one from New York City squatted down to help his comrade dispense the tokens of caring from across the world. Then another soldier joined them, this one from Kentucky. The men were gracious, professional, and expressed their appreciation of the chance to do something that connects them with a justification of sorts for the job they have been charged to carry out in the dangerous mountains surrounding this capital city. I do not know about that word, justification. It is almost impossible for me to imagine an appropriate definition of the word. What I do know is that the soldiers’ hearts are in the right place, and the children can only benefit from the experience, well beyond the toys they received. AFCECO’s mission is to expand their world, to understand and create alliances with the world as much as to watch with a discerning, educated mind.
In the midst of their spreading cheer to a group of Afghan children, I knew what sat heavily on the soldiers’ minds. A day earlier five of their warrior brothers had been killed by a suicide attack just a few miles down the road, three of them high ranking officers in their forties. A Canadian soldier and nineteen civilians had also been killed. Once again I wondered about the broader repercussions of so much killing and fear of killing over so many years, without being able to escape it. Whether civilian or soldier, there is no time to process these things. The trauma is buried.
For my part, life consists of maintaining a continuum of learning for each of my 12 groups of kids, and to steadily guide the twenty-one children who braved auditions and now work excitedly to lend magic to a re-imagined version of Prometheus and his gift to humanity. It is a tall order to open doors of opportunity for one child let alone two hundred. Much will depend on each individual orphan and his or her will. People come through this town as part of an incredible array of believers in what is good in the human spirit. They are opening vocational centers for women who boldly sneak away from their abusive husbands to become literate and gain marketable skills. They are providing legal aide to women seeking rights under the constitution. They are opening shelters, providing food, risking their lives and organizing peace conferences. These people come from Boise and Newark, but also from Florence and Milan, from Liverpool and from Sydney, from Johannesburg and from Berlin. They work with a small army of brave Afghan men and women of all ages devoting every minute of their lives to overcoming the insanity of these last thirty years. Every one of these people sooner or later tilt a glance my way, as if to say they don’t quite understand how it is I could leave my life in America, take up this uncertain mantel of teacher in an uncertain country teetering on the brink of collapse under the weight of so much suffering and injustice.
I try to give a practical answer. Philosophical answer. Physiological answer. It began with this or that particular moment in my life, which leads me to say it actually began earlier, and earlier still, all the way to some crucial event when I was ten years old. Finally I do what Andeisha and Jamshid do. I hold my tongue, look into the person’s eyes and smile.
“Have you seen the children yet?” I ask.
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