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Christopher Wilkins’ Report from Kabul – Chapter 4

December 9, 2014

CW  Sarmast at the Gardens of Babur (lo res)

“Dr. Sarmast is a national hero.”

– James Cunningham, US Ambassador to Afghanistan

It has been an honor to teach at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music these past two and a half weeks at the invitation of its founder, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast.

When Dr. Sarmast founded ANIM in 2010, he invited the most famous musicians of Afghanistan to lead its curriculum. Most who answered the call returned from exile. The founding faculty are a courageous lot. The performance of music was entirely banned by the Taliban. Today, the school’s emphasis on ethnic diversity, cultural tolerance, and the education and advancement of girls remains controversial with many Afghans.

Among the founding faculty is Ahmad Farid Shefta, a vital and joyful presence in the life of the school. He is Afghanistan’s premiere clarinetist and founder of ANIM’s Wind Ensemble. Shefta’s involvement represents the continuation of a long friendship with Dr. Sarmast: they had been classmates at ANIM’s predecessor school, the School of Fine Arts, more than thirty years ago.

According to Milad Yousufi, ANIM’s conductor, Shefta was the only teacher of music in the entire country during Afghanistan’s Civil War. No one else dared. But after the Taliban took over, he was forced to abandon his professional life in Afghanistan. He eventually moved to Russia. Over dinner recently, Shefta explained how he reached that decision (if only you could have witnessed the delivery and facial expressions):

When the Taliban first seized power, Shefta submitted to the diktat that all men grow a beard. For a while, he felt distinguished in his neatly cropped beard and kola (white skullcap). But as his beard grew, he thought it made his head look too small. So to compensate, he started wearing a loongi (a full turban). As his facial hair grew more and more unruly, he acquired an even bigger loongi with lots of extra waves and folds. Finally, growing less attractive by the day and having exhausted his options in headgear, he moved to Moscow.

Many people have described the mood of the citizens of Kabul as nervous but hopeful. Nearly everyone in my circle believes that the newly elected government has set a brave course, and that popular support for the insurgency has all but vanished. The recent past is so filled with horrors that only a new direction seems acceptable. One young musician recounted being with his mother during the Taliban era when she was brutally beaten by the religious police. They left her bruised and battered on the street, punished because her ankles were visible under her burqa. Head-to-toe burqas concealing every part of a woman – even her eyes – is still a common sight in Kabul. Change is likely to be slow and unsteady.

We had our concert at the Embassy yesterday. Milad called it “an historic day.” There were over a hundred Embassy staff and Afghan guests in attendance. The Ambassador had sent his personal greetings prior to the concert, but by coincidence had relinquished his post that very day. The Deputy Ambassador, Michael McKinley (former Ambassador to Colombia) and his wife Fatima, served as attentive, eloquent and generous hosts. The orchestra played by far the best they had in my time with them.

Last Day with ANIM Orchestra

Afterwards, there was a holiday party given by Public Affairs. A staffer told me that serving in the Embassy is like living in a sealed can, as they almost never leave the Green Zone these days. Even a year ago, some mobility in Kabul was possible. But not now. Everyone is hopeful that calmer days will soon return. For that to become a reality, Afghanistan must first weather the impending exodus of foreign troops. Things may get worse before they get better.

I had the opportunity to visit with the head of the CIA detail at the Embassy following our concert. He confirmed what many have said: that security throughout the country has deteriorated somewhat in recent weeks, but that in the long run, the Afghan National Security Forces are greatly improved in their ability to maintain security and fend off the insurgency.

There is, by the way, nothing green about the Green Zone. Driving through a dreadful grey maze of concrete and dust, there’s nothing to see but colossal barricades crowned by razor wire, interrupted by stations manned by guards with machine guns. At each of the checkpoints – I counted eight of them – there is a series of gates. And at each gate the weaponry appears more sophisticated than at the last one. Most of the guards work for foreign contractors, and a great many of them, I’m told, are Nepalese.

A couple of notes for fans of skateboarding:

The music school is one of many creative enterprises setting a new course in Afghanistan. One of the most talked about NGO’s here is a skatepark. Skateistan began in Kabul, but the organization has now built parks in Cambodia and South Africa as well. At the US Embassy, I met a staff member named Billy O’Connor, a skater from the old days – as in Dogtown and Z-Boys days – who is quite involved in Skateistan. We had a lot to talk about.

And I made one more skateboarding connection here. I have shared breakfast every morning with Nick Turner, a teacher of First Aid whose two sons are skateboarding enthusiasts back home in Wales. Nick’s wife recently led a successful effort to raise an astounding 500K pounds to build this stunning park in their hometown. I’ve extended an invitation to the Turners to pay us a visit stateside whenever they have the chance.

I fly home tomorrow. Kabul – Dubai – Dulles – Columbus. I look forward to enjoying the company of family and friends, celebrating the holidays, and of course, finally having a beer.

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