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Christopher Wilkins’ Report from Kabul – Chapter 2

December 3, 2014

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

If anyone ever doubted that music can affect the quality of the day, she ought to pay a visit to the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. Dr. Ahmad Sarmast has created a sanctuary in which music fills the lives of a diverse population of young people. They come from all over the country. Half are orphans or from impoverished homes. Milad Yousufi, conductor of the school’s orchestras – and for these 2 ½ weeks my student – said to me this morning with a beaming smile: “ANIM is the happiest place in Kabul.”

Here is a pic of me giving an impromptu conducting lesson to young applicants to the school while they awaited their interviews for admission. At the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, we call it the “Maestro Zone.” These are lucky kids to be headed into this environment.

Maestro Zone with Children with Young Applicants

We – Milad and I and the ANIM Chamber Orchestra – are busy preparing a concert for the US Embassy this Sunday. The program will be: national anthems of the US and Afghanistan, Adeste Fideles, Deck the Halls, Silent Night, two traditional Afghan pieces, Bizet’s Farandole, Jingle Bells, and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Yes, everybody’s pretty on edge after the recent attacks. And some of the kids are concerned, especially about us foreigners. The truth is that I am extremely fortunate in my residence. It is out of the way, unmarked on maps, far from any road, well guarded, associated with the Ministry of Education which has never been under threat, there is a good alarm system and a safe room (essentially a bunker) 30 feet from my room, and so forth and so on. And the food is pretty good.

The attitude of most people here that I speak to – including the kids – is remarkably optimistic. It is a dangerous place, they recognize. But over the course of fifteen years, they have seen it go from downright hell to something they mostly believe is moving in the right direction. The mere fact of this school is testament to that.

The absolute rejection of Sharia in the current government is essential. Politically that could change of course, but the general direction does not seem likely to since the alternative is considered unacceptable to a huge majority. The Taliban were at first greeted with open arms because they ended a ten-year civil war. Now they are almost 100% rejected by people living in this city, from what I hear and from the polls I have read.

There are enigmas everywhere you turn, questions that certainly challenge my understanding. According to a recent poll by the Asia Foundation most Afghans are remarkably happy (http://asiafoundation.org/country/afghanistan/2014-poll.php).

And they are optimistic about the future. 79% say they are “somewhat happy” or “very happy.” 55% say the country is moving in the right direction. And 73% believe that reconciliation efforts with armed opposition groups can help stabilize their country. These are all surprising numbers to me, and a cause for self-reflection. I believe these numbers are higher than the statistics of many similar polls in the US.

Tolerance for diversity, a strong push to improve education, and growing faith that democracy will take hold are keys to that optimism. And there is no doubt that the current government’s emphasis on empowering girls and women plays a major role as well. In all of these respects, the music school makes a small but growing contribution, a fact which is now widely recognized. The US Ambassador wrote recently to Ambassador Swanee Hunt, copying me: “Dr. Sarmast is a national hero.”

The school is a powerful symbol and a shining example. But it also improves lives dramatically. With enrollment growing by about 25% per year, ANIM has the potential to lift up many more in succeeding generations of Afghans.

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