August 13, 2010
I made my way to Mehan, even though it is a holiday. Several girls would be gone to practice Roza (fasting) with family members in Kabul. I arrived at the orphanage just as the house mother Nasifa set up a chair to begin cutting hair. The girls would be transformed into tomboys today. For the most part they were good sports. Only one, Gulalai from Nuristan was unhappy with her cut. She hid herself in the bathroom and wailed for thirty minutes. This ritual is a practicality for seventy girls who get to wash hair twice a week. After greeting everyone I proceeded to teach my three beginner classes. My heart was not quite into it. Students were missing and I didn’t want to get too far ahead of them. When lunch came around I sat with the majority of girls who were not fasting. Outside the walls of the orphanage, to go against the grain and not observe Roza takes a different kind of will. But in Mehan Ramadan and praying and fasting are integrated into life in such a way as to appreciate these practices without having them mandate the entire spirit of the orphanage. Some girls will fast for three days and that will be enough. Others don’t participate at all. A handful of four or five will do Roza for the full month. Last year I fasted for two days, no water or food between 4am and 7pm. I go back and read my journal entry and sense deliriousness between the lines. Ramadan affects this city with a surreal timelessness, like gauze in front of the camera lens. Everyone is praying to God with a little extra verve, and everyone is weary.
I ate a boiled chicken leg and a plate of rice and one very hot pepper. Having a meal with the kids is one of my favorite things to do. Everyone is very relaxed. It is a time for conversation and joking. From the day I arrived on April 15th, 2009 I have made an effort at every turn to provoke a smile on every face I see in the orphanage. Even if I am just walking up the stairs and I pass one of the girls sitting on the landing staring longingly out the window, I will say something, make a funny expression, tug on a braid or touch the palm of a hand with mine. Though life for the children is spectacular compared to where they come from, it is important to acknowledge just how difficult it is for them. They are misfits. When they go to school they are surrounded by children who live with a mother and father and siblings and extended family. They are looked upon with pity or with scorn by many of their peers and even their teachers. Many of them are privy to floating ridicule. Especially the girls. The whispered words such as they live like westerners, or the orphanage is really a brothel. Others are jealous of the orphans because of all the attention they get, cameras and fancy people coming to visit, computers and extra programs, trips to America and Italy. There are teachers who mark up one of the orphan’s tests while overlooking a “normal” student who scribes the same answers. It is true that having their own school would increase isolation, but the benefits for AFCECO’s children would far outweigh the detriments that are already to some degree a reality. In addition, the government program is thin, and it pushes out primary elements to any good curriculum by requiring the children to study Arabic and the Koran. These are meaningless to many Afghans who, although they may be good practicing Moslems, see school as a place where they should gain skills that can help them feed, clothe and house themselves and their families. This is compounded by the fact that all told there are only about five months of actual school days per year, and those days are comprised of three hours of instruction from teachers who are tired and live on $30 a month. At this point, appearing elitist is relatively negligible; we’ll take our own school if we can somehow find the donor. Besides, to alleviate any cloistering issues this school could be made available to other children, those who can afford to pay and those who cannot, but who otherwise bring more diversity into the school.
I pulled out the papier-mache masks the children had made for the Greek drama we are to perform next week. Six of the girls set up a workstation and we spent a few hours painting them. Some chose to be patriotic, using up all the black, green and red poster paint. Others went with all white and black eyes, or Mardi Gras style with red lips and stars, like a harlequin. The atmosphere was light and festive. Masks are the quickest way to bring magic into the classroom. Their transformative power is unequaled from time immemorial. Their power in Greek Drama is associated with connecting the chorus with the audience. Prometheus Bound (and Unbound) involves 21 children, a chorus of ten, a steel drum, Pandora’s Box, a combat field-stretcher and a lot of call and response and choreographed movement. One of the university students helping to organize the event next Saturday sat in on a rehearsal. Though he was transfixed by the unusual display, he shook his head and wondered how the thing will get pulled off. It is particularly challenging for me to direct a play that I had translated into another language, but there are benefits. For instance, I focus more on how an actor communicates with her body and her voice, depending little on the actual words. Nevertheless, the organizer is right. The whole thing may completely flop. Especially since these days it is difficult to get all 21 children in the same room at the same time, and to get the half that are starving and thirsty from their Roza practice to have enough energy to lift their heads.
After painting the masks I rehearsed a song with a group of the younger girls, Pete Seeger’s vintage anti-war song, Where Have All the Flowers Gone. In my group of ten three of the girls cannot sing at all. They sound like honking geese. It is a dance that I must dance every day at the orphanage, parlaying the emotional, character building needs of each and every child, those who are doers, those who are shy, those who are ablaze with talent, those who do not think they have talent in their tiniest fingernail. It is widely accepted that a rope is only as strong as its thinnest point. But there is a way to do things I learned about while living in proximity to the tribal people of Southeast Alaska, a way to turn weakness into strength, translating into the notion there is a place for everyone. This belief has been mishandled from time to time in the developing world with its rush to communistic ideologues and in developed liberalized schools that have in my lifetime gone back and forth several times on whether this means each classroom should in the name of democracy be a pastiche of children of all skill levels or in the name of progress they should be divided up in order to more allow those who excel to excel and those who don’t to gain more self esteem. Politicians and teachers and administrators and board members should spend a few months in a tribal village. Much of what they will see will shock, much will rightfully be written off as archaic, but much will send light bulbs exploding above their heads. Specifically I am speaking of a strange blending of democracy and communalism. We don’t know what anarchy is because it has never existed formally as a system of governance. It is, of course, the antithesis of governance. That is why it gets branded with anything chaotic and dysfunctional, Afghanistan for example. We do have examples of Socialism, but these resemble the antics of governments and school systems trying to make everyone happy more than what is functional in the tribe. So what is it, this blending?
I don’t know, exactly. I only know it is happening. It does not have a name, but it has the potential to create peace, and perhaps even a new Renaissance in thinking and feeling.
I am here not only because I love these children and I feel responsibility as an American. The AFCECO orphanage is a place where for once the positive elements of the tribe can be grafted organically with positive elements of western culture. I want to be a part of its development. For me it is as exciting a place to be as I imagine a laboratory on the cusp of a breakthrough is for a scientist. This experiment is small, but it is growing. In addition to educators willing to learn as much as teach, it will require someone to document its progress, someone to make the lessons here transferrable, replicable and understandable to greater and greater audiences. This is something I think I can do, if I don’t give up, if I don’t lose my nerve, if I don’t let my desire for a cabin, a boat, an ocean, a fishing pole and a bottle of wine overwhelm me.
Every step of the way I remind myself that the willing participants in this experiment, the children, do not have it so easy. To be sure, compared to their life in the streets or in the throws of violence, poverty, drugs, and fundamentalism, they have the most luxurious existence. But being misfits, away from home and family, knowing how much all the adults in their world expect of them, and most unacknowledged but deeply affecting having a world of knowledge explode upon their psyche is a tremendous challenge. These children are learning four or five languages, they are discovering the concept of the Earth spinning in space. This is always on my mind, and this is why on the stairs, in the hall, sitting and eating rice and chicken and especially in my classroom I venture to make them smile and if possible once in a while to laugh at me, at the world, at themselves.
Ten masks each reflect one child’s personality, the chorus of humanity catching its breath. The eleventh mask with its long yellow beak is for Frishta, who plays the monstrous Eagle that, at Zeus’s command tears into Prometheus every day of her imprisonment, devouring her liver that then regenerates for yet another onslaught, and another. We placed the masks on display in the library, and I watched as the artists gave little tours to other curious children. They explain the parts that are played, and who will play them. This is how they learn the concept and feeling of what it means to belong.
It was 3 in the afternoon. The veil of Roza falls heavily at this time. People begin to lose focus. An energy fills the room akin to the cusp of weeping or mania. I called it quits and asked Yasin if he could drive me back to the office. I didn’t even say goodbye to everyone the way I always do. There was something heavy on my mind. I sat in the minibus and waited for Yasin to finish his chi. Sabsagul and Medina waved from the garden. I waved, sank lower in the seat. Yasin approached the minibus, handed his empty cup to one of the girls, rolled his sleeves, climbed into the driver’s seat and asked me in Dari if I was tired. I nodded, though I didn’t know how to say this tiredness I felt was not the same as sleepiness. The guard opened the gate and Yasin backed us out into the otherworldliness that is Kabul city. On the way back to the office as usual I watched the people in the streets, the dust, the garbage, the bricks. A moment of weakness overcame me and I wanted to go home. But what is home? What life would I begin? How could I ever leave Andeisha and Jamshid in the throws of their battle against forces akin to Almighty Zeus himself, and how could I leave the children, to bear deserting them and to face an unmeasured depth of despair for missing them? I wondered about Farzana, her having been back in the orphanage and now returned to Italy. She has told me in a letter how it is for her, how strange. An orphan with everything and nothing, she will move forward, apply herself further to her studies, embrace the goodness that has come to her life. I cannot help but feel a profound kinship with her. It has to do with mirroring images moving in opposite directions, my immersion deeper into Afghanistan and her further estrangement from it, my approaching fifty and her approaching sixteen. A teacher and his favorite student, we are a photograph and its negative likeness.
In a place such as Afghanistan it is impossible to ignore God. Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Communism, and Islam have had their way here. Even Pathans, descendants of the Ten Tribes of Israel who ironically are now Moslem infiltrate the landscape. The very first monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism was founded as early as 600 B.C. up in Balkh, crystallizing for the first time a clear distinction between the forces of Good and those of Evil. In Nuristan, until recently an ancient and undisturbed form of Animism existed with its pantheon of deities. For many people in those isolated mountains, the trees themselves are to be worshipped. This must be why, as godforsaken as Kabul seems, I often see God.
On this first day of Ramadan, returning from Mehan orphanage, negotiating the sun as it beat its stored late afternoon radiance from the ground up, God appeared to me in the street. Yasin was negotiating a small traffic jam. A bus going to Bamyan had tried to turn around and stalled in the middle of the effort. Cars piled up behind us. We could not move back and we could not move forward. We could only wait. Right beside us a small gray and white donkey stood frozen in the heat, harnessed to a handmade wooden cart. The cart was flat, medieval and empty. I watched the animal blink, and knew it was alive, but I wondered what it would take for the beast to move that cart once again. My window was only half open. I pushed the button and lowered it the rest of the way. The donkey blinked again. I suddenly loved this hopelessly simple animal. I wanted it to see me, to acknowledge my love. It blinked once again, but otherwise did not move, did not even flinch the skin of its back to shed the flies that had settled there. Without warning I felt a swelling in that place between the chest and the throat, like the onset of emotional retching. I turned and faced the donkey squarely, to hide my tears from Yasin and, futile as it was, to offer them up as solace or penance, a kind of alms that might alleviate my solitude and fear. But in that moment the Bamyan bus ignited and belched a cloud of diesel fumes. Yasin pushed his controls and my window went up. He punched the transmission into drive. We lurched forward. The donkey, its cart, its blinking eye were gone. Just as quickly, so too were my tears.
We are all just trying to live.
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