Letter From Afghanistan

I clamber on top of the rusted tank, my salwar kameez fluttering in the sharp wind coming up the mountain. Beneath, mud-colored homes hug the hills and crowd valleys, with only a few mosques and wedding halls rising higher than two stories. Opposite, television masts crowd one of the many hills surrounding the city; far away, the towering mountains of the Hindu Kush keep watch. 

(Photo by Dr. Ahmad Sarmast)
(Photo by Jay Harvey)


The whole country is having a party—to celebrate the first day of spring, not my arrival—though the Nowruz festivities, which mark the Perisan New Year, make me feel welcome all the same. My moments atop the tank provide a brief break from the colorfully dressed crowds milling about the city streets, and the once deadly purpose of the object on which I perch focuses my mind wonderfully: I am in Kabul, Afghanistan, to teach violin.

My journey here began in 2001 when I was a freshman at Juilliard. Shortly after the fall of the Taliban, I read an article in The New York Times in which a 16-year-old from Jalalabad said, “We are searching for any kind of music. It’s been six years since I heard music. There are no words to explain the happiness I think I will feel when I hear it.”

In the spring of 2002, I called the State Department and said, “I’m a student violinist and want to tour Afghanistan.” The bemused woman on the phone told me, “There’s a war going on, we don’t really send musicians abroad anymore, and even if we did, you’re a student, so we wouldn’t fund you. Goodbye!” I never like to be discouraged, so in 2005, I founded a nonprofit cultural diplomacy organization called Cultures in Harmony (culturesinharmony.org) that promotes cultural understanding through music. We have since conducted 20 projects in a dozen countries, ranging from Pakistan to Papua New Guinea. 

In March 2009, a friend told me about a job opening. Ahmad Sarmast, believed to be the first Afghan with a doctorate in music, had founded the first music school in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, with the support of the Ministry of Education of Afghanistan, Monash University of Australia, the World Bank, and the Goethe Institute. Did I want to teach violin there? 

I sent in my C.V., scheduled a Skype interview, and on July 4, 2009, I won the job! Seven months later, and eight years after the State Department declined my request, here I am. 

Soon after I arrive, Dr. Sarmast gives me a tour of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). Modestly set off a dirt-caked road, the rust red building boasts facilities comparable to those of the finest music preparatory schools in the world. Wood paneling and soundproof doors transform each studio into an ideal music-making environment. Books and scores fill the gleaming cabinets of the library, and high-quality donated instruments cram every corner of the storage rooms. From the immaculate, flower-lined campus, the notes of a violinist playing an Iranian film song soar far beyond the barbed wire lining the walls to touch the distant dusty hills.

My first challenge proves to be adjusting the teaching techniques I learned from Mimi Zweig at Indiana University. One way to get children to hold the violin out from their body before bringing it in for playing position is to have them imitate the Statue of Liberty. For an American violinist teaching Afghan children, this doesn’t feel right. Instead, I introduce “mawqiyat-e La,” a position in which they form the shape of an Arabic letter.

Cultural sensitivity extends to the orchestra. Dr. Sarmast asks me to make two arrangements: a version of the Afghan national anthem to include both Afghan and Western instruments for the first time ever, plus a patriotic song by an aging, highly respected singer. I struggle to adapt my orchestration ideas to Afghan tastes, but eventually come up with the version I conduct on national television. 

I thought I acquired cultural awareness traveling the world with Cultures in Harmony, but my job here shows me that I still have a lot to learn. With Dr. Sarmast’s help, I do my best, working on everything from a new practice policy to a 10-year violin curriculum while trying to make friends and avoid stepping on any toes. Performing Afghan songs at the British Embassy with the rubab and tabla teachers reminds me that great music comes from everywhere. 

I want my students to grow up knowing that “Western” music need not only be Western. So I design a 10-year curriculum that includes works by Juilliard’s Behzad Ranjbaran and Giti Razaz, both from Iran. I study more than 200 Afghan melodies and select 10 to arrange for my first-year violin students to learn.

My older students—polite, English-speaking teenage boys from supportive, middle class backgrounds—progress quickly. Yet ANIM does not cater only to them. Dr. Sarmast came up with the idea to reserve half the available spots for children who used to work on the street. Many of these are rambunctious young girls who study with me.

One of my girls has a father who was paralyzed when the Taliban beat him with a cable. Her mother does laundry to support her and her five siblings. She used to sell chewing gum on the streets of Kabul. Now, donors to ANIM’s sponsorship program enable her family to receive $360 per year to replace her income from the streets, and instead of selling chewing gum, she learns “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Her talent is such that a career in music is not impossible, provided that Sarmast and I are able to remove or reduce the obstacles in her path.

She has a problem with the second “Twinkle” variation. “Moshkel,” she says, scrunching up her little face in consternation. 

“Yes, it is difficult,” I tell her in Dari. “But if you practice, in 10 years you can work as a violinist.” She thinks for a second, and immediately puts her violin into playing position. “Kor mi konim!” she says. Let’s work!


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