Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Safe and Sound in Cambridge

I arrived home safe and sound on Wednesday, Nov. 23, just in time to celebrate a wonderful Thanksgiving with my family. It was quite a trip back. I brought Khaleda back with me, who as you might recall has a serious illness that needs immediate treatment. She was a trooper and the two of us managed to wield our way through the Kabul airport, where the guards were skeptical, despite documentation, of my taking her with me.

We then had a 4 hour layover in Dubai, much of it waiting to “confirm” our luggage so it could be transferred to the United flight to DC. We finally boarded our United flight at 12:50am. Khaleda fell sound asleep. I was not so fortunate but did manage to get some sleep over the next 15 hours.

Approximately 24 hours after leaving Kabul we arrived in DC. Khaleda’s host Mom, Amanda, who she spent time with last summer, was there waiting for her. Khaleda flew into her arms. It was really quite touching for all of us. Khaleda was so, so sad when she left her parents in Kabul and couldn’t stop crying. I felt much better when I saw how happy she was to see Amanda. I knew all would be well. They headed off to North Carolina and I headed to Boston. I was greeted at Logan by my son, Jason, and my good friend Susan Fisher who was holding up a sign – “WEL COM HOME” (spelled like the sign the kids made in Kunduz!) I loved it.

Having now a few days to regroup, catch up on sleep, and unpack, I am clear-minded enough to reflect on my time spent in Afghanistan. I feel very positive about what was accomplished, despite the security issues, a couple of earthquakes and a few other challenges. I am quite confident that the project is moving along in a good direction and that new systems are in place in Afghanistan that will allow the project to run more smoothly and to be even more Afghan-driven.

Future plans:
1. We’re close to printing another 5000 songbooks. I just need to do another accounting with the Folk Arts Center.
2. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Kabul is working with Vaheed to collect songs for a 2nd songbook.
3. I will continue to fundraise for the production of the 2nd songbook and for additional printing for the first songbook.
4. I have been asked to do a couple of presentations about the project, one at a school and one at an Afghan-American organization in DC. Those will occur in February. (By the way, I’m always happy to do this kind of presentation and feel it helps educate people about Afghanistan, beyond war and terrorism. Please contact me if you have any ideas.)
5. I’ve designated Rauf Meraj, one of SOLA’s students, to be my in-country songbook distribution manager. This frees me up from that task, which was always very difficult to manage from afar.

Although hard at times, going to Afghanistan was an important journey for me to take. I thank all of you for following along and providing support. Many of you sent in contributions and I am very, very grateful to all of you. Every donation means a huge amount to this project. If you'd like to make a contribution to help print more songbooks, go to www.afghansongbook.org

Please feel free to share this blog or the songbook website (www.afghansongbook.org) with anyone you feel might be interested (music teachers, classroom teachers, families, etc.) in learning more about Afghanistan and/or this project.
Thank you again. Happy holidays everyone and may there be peace on earth.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Headed Home

"My bags are packed and I’m ready to go….....”

I head out this afternoon with mixed emotions, leaving many new and dear friends behind.

Last night Ted and I were invited to Meena’s home for dinner. Meena is a student here at SOLA (Meena is the young woman in the red scarf at the lunch table. The photo shows a typical lunch with the SOLA family!) She went with me and Rauf to the orphanage. Ted and I set out early to avoid traffic. BUT the taxi drive was yet again another ordeal. We spent 2 ½ hours going about 15-20 miles. At one point the taxi just turned off the engine and we sat, and sat and sat. I wondered if it was really worth it. I was feeling tired and thinking I should be home packing.

But once in Meena’s lovely home I knew it was all worth it. Her mother and father are simply wonderful and gracious. They had prepared a feast for us. AND they couldn’t stop thanking me, and Ted too, for doing what we are doing for Afghanistan. Time and again Afghans told to me how grateful they were that I had come to this country to help them. They know how hard it is to be here. They feel terrible when something happens – like the rocket attack incident.

So I head for the airport feeling sad about leaving the students I’ve become so connected with, the children in the orphanage, the sweet children in Kunduz and the many, many other wonderful [people I’ve met while I’ve been here. Thank heavens for email and Skype! I will at least know, unlike when I was here before, that I can keep in contact with all these people.

I saw Vaheed again yesterday and he is definitely working on the second book. He plans to be back here in late spring. I would love to be here when he records the songs with the children with Kabul. We’ll see. As they say in Dari – En Shallah (God willing)

I am taking Khaleda with me today on the plane. I think I mentioned before that she is the little girl who has Thalassemia and is coming to the States to receive necessary treatment. Her mother says she’s 11 yrs. old although she looks 6 or 7. She’s quite small and frail. She speaks no English. I speak a little Dari but I’m sure we will manage somehow. I worry about the long layover in Dubai – almost 4 hours. We don’t board the plane until midnight. She’ll be exhausted, I’m quite sure. I am going to try to convince United that she needs 2 seats so she can lay down. We’ll see how that goes. We land in Washington, DC in the early morning where Khaleda will be met by her host family. Then I will go back into the airport and head for Boston and Thanksgiving Day with my family.
There’s a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. That’s for sure.

khoda hafez (goodbye) from Kabul.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Rocket Attack - Too Close for Comfort

Last night was quite a night. Deni ( the other SOLA teacher ) and I were invited out to dinner and were meeting our friend Vic in downtown Kabul. The traffic was horrendous from the onset. The taxi was almost 2 hours late with the excuse there was an accident or something. The driver wasn’t quite sure. He started off going a strange route, obviously avoiding the main drag as long as possible.

Traffic in every direction was literally at a standstill from the minute we set off. Bikes and pedestrians wove their way through the cars, even they made little headway. We had just rounded the corner in front of the infamous Serena Hotel when there was an enormous explosion. My first reaction – oh no. This isn’t good. I knew it was close to us (within 100 yds) and my immediate thought was – we need to get out of here, but how? I was quite sure it was a suicide bomb.Deni later confessed he actually saw the rocket come across in front of us and then saw the explosion and gunfire.

I looked out the car window and in front of us there was suddenly nothing. The street had cleared out. It was so strange. In a millisecond there were no cars where seconds before there was nothing but cars. It looked like a dark plaza – completely empty. I'm not sure where all the cars went. There we were, Deni in the front seat, me in the back, the driver looking stunned, Deni saying, rocket? The driver agreeing. And me really still hoping it was a suicide bomber because then I knew it was most likely over and there wouldn’t be a second attack.

My mind was racing – turn around? NOPE – not an option. Sit here? Hm…not a good idea since we were in the front row and so close to the attack. I thought to myself, we’ll never get out and what if there’s another rocket or more gunfire? Suddenly, with no warning, the driver gunned the engine and went full speed ahead right across the dark empty space which seconds before had been the scene of rocket fire and gun shots. I thought, oh no. Deni shouted, DON'T. But there really wasn't another choice. We all knew that. The driver, having been, we found out later, through three of these kinds of attacks before, knew what he had to do.

We got to the other side and stopped dead. The driver pushed the taxi as close as he could to the other cars, trying hard to wiggle our way into the traffic and get as far away as possible. I realized we were now on the other side but really not that much farther away. In a foolish moment I asked, “Should we get out and walk.” "NO" of course, was the instant reply. Really dumb idea on my part but I hated the idea of being paralyzed in the traffic.

The driver ordered us to get down. Deni pulled his wool hat down as far as he could and slunk down in the front seat. I ducked down in the back seat, pulling my headscarf over my head. Deni could see much more than I could. From then on and for the next hour I was only experiencing what was going on through the sounds I heard. I could hear a lot of men shouting which scared me a lot and Deni said later that policemen with guns were looking in every window of every car.

We crawled along for over an hour, moving hardly at all. The driver would edge forward with a jerk and then slam on the brakes, honking at every car. The voices finally calmed down, sirens quieted. The driver suggested he take us home but we had heard from Vic that the restaurant was still open. It was much closer and we both decided it was better to try to get there then head home. I really wanted out of the car. Besides, Deni has sent a text to Vic, who, once she heard what had happened, immediately said dinner was on her and a bottle of wine was waiting. We told the driver we wanted to go to the restaurant! Going home seemed crazy. Too far.

An hour and a half later we finally arrived at the restaurant and walked in, past the usual two metal barracades and 3-4 armed guards and once inside it was as if nothing had happened. I wanted to tell the guards at the door what I had just been through. But I realized they’ve been through hundreds of these attacks and probably wouldn't care. I wanted to shout to the restaurant goers– do you know where we just were? What just happened? How close we were to the rocket attack? But I realized that they too have lived through many moments similar to this one. They were happily wining and dining, aware there had been some “incident” but beyond that weren’t really concerned.

We finally got home, hours later and I was still completely wired. I found it hard to go to bed. I tried "Skyping" my family and finally reached my son. I was eager to share the experience with someone at home.

I have to confess that I really wasn't scared when I heard the explosion. Hearing the men's voices, shouting in the street did scare me. And at one point the driver actually opened the car door, got out and pounded on a car in front of him who was not moving. THAT unnerved me. He did quickly jump back in and lock the doors and I felt better. My back hurt from crouching down so long. I was disoriented and didn't have any idea where we were. I kept asking Deni and the driver. I was very happy to be out of the car and in the restaurant. We paid the driver 4 times the usual fare when we arrived at our destination safely and he seemed shocked but grateful!

Bad news travels fast here. Rauf heard about the rocket attack within minutes. He called me on my cell while I was still in the car. He was so worried and was considering trying to drive in, find our car and walk us to his car. Very sweet. Ted was beside himself.

Now it feels like maybe we made the whole thing up except Deni and I have each other as a witness and we each have similar stories to tell. We’re thankfully safe and sound and once we checked in with everyone here at SOLA, I did try to go to sleep. Not easily. I was pretty wound up for quite awhile.

Of course, today my email was filled with one message – “come home.” And, that I will–in 2 days. In fact, oddly enough, my original reservation was yesterday. Had I left as first planned I would have been in the “friendly skies” and missed the whole thing.

The point is, I can leave. I have that option. The Afghans, after 30+ years of this, must continue on. That incident was a blip on the screen for them – no more. Not for me. I think it will stay with me for some time. I leave with an ache in my heart for those left behind here, those just trying to get by. I want nothing more than peace for Afghanistan. It's been way too long.

Rock Star Sighting at SOLA

Much ado occurred yesterday, minutes after I casually remarked that Vaheed Kaacemy (the musician who is partnering with me on the Songbook Project) was coming by to pick up some songbooks on his way to Ariana Television. Within minutes, the girls in the office were racing around in a flurry, cleaning up the living room, dusting, straightening up, giggling with great excitement. Cookies were arranged on a platter. Plastic flower bouquets, left over from my visit to Kunduz, were swept up ready to be presented.

I had no idea Vaheed would create such a “stir.” I was delighted. He arrived, walked in with humility and grace, greeted everyone, endured numerous photo opts, ate a cookie or two and headed out! I felt I had, if nothing else, contributed to SOLA’s notoriety. They can now claim that Vaheed Kaacemy has made an appearance at THEIR school!

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Future of the Songbook Project

My time in Afghanistan is rapidly coming to an end. It feels like centuries ago since I arrived here on Oct. 6th. The seasons have changed dramatically. When I arrived the roses were in full bloom. The Afghan geraniums (geribuns in Dari – love that word!) were happily and profusely decorating the porch outside the dining room. Now, there is snow on the mountain tops, the geraniums have been carefully moved to the windowsill inside the dining room and the roses are resisting the cold with two brave pink buds, determined to bloom despite the early morning frost. Wonderfully juicy "Persian" melons have been replaced by pomengranates and today I spotted piles of oranges in the fruit bazaar.

The nights drop to below freezing, and there is ice in the morning on the hardpacked dirt roads which can make driving a bit treacherous. In the morning I put on layers upon layers to keep warm, but by mid morning the warm sun has begun to heat up the house and I thaw out a bit. Heaters are in short supply so most of us hover around the windows to work where the sun beams in and keeps us toasty warm.

I will have been here just 7 weeks when I head home. Although that seemed like a long time to be here when I planned the trip, I also knew inherently that things in Afghanistan take time. Time here moves at a different rate than in the U.S. It takes time to build relationships, meet people, maneuver the system, the security, and the way of doing business.

I extended my departure four days in order to have the opportunity to meet with CEO, Jolyon Leslie, of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Vaheed Kaacemy (the musician for the songbook). Aga Khan, among many things it focuses on, has a music initiative in Afghanistan which was created to support the effort ”to sustain, further develop and transmit musical traditions that are a vital part of the cultural heritage.“ Aware of Aga Khan’s interest in cultural preservation, I had contacted Jolyon early on in the project. But the timing was not quite right. At that point the songbook project was not well enough established and Aga Khan's music initiative was also not in place.

Happily, the time is now perfect. Jolyon is completely behind the songbook project and our discussion focused on creating a second songbook. Jolyon was pleased I had spent enough time here to assess the project and thus be in a position to make an informed decision about next steps. Vaheed currently is alreaday contracted to research traditional music for Aga Khan and will now add children’s music to his research. (He actually has already gathered some material) By the end of our meeting we had established a plan of action and a tentative timeline. We hope to produce a second book of 18 songs, 4 in Pashto, 4 in Dari, 2 in Uzbeki, 2 in Balochi (from Badakhshan), 2 Hazargi and 4 chants that are also singing games.

Vaheed will spend about 1 -2 months in Kabul where he will hopefully gather the repertoire needed. He will return to Toronto and will work on arranging the songs. He plans to, as with the first songbook, record with Afghan children. He will do some of the recording in Toronto and some in Kabul when he returns next spring. Jolyon has offered to cover Vaheed’s expenses and my job will be to find matching funds to support the graphic design and printing costs. Jolyon, originally from South Africa, speaks fluent Dari and Pashto and has lived in Afghanistan for 20 years! He has a real grasp of Afghan culture and a wonderful longtime relationship with the Afghans across the country.

This is a huge step for the songbook project. I left the meeting feeling I had allies in Afghanistan who truly supported this project and were helping to move it forward. This feels reassuring to me. I will, of course, continue to work on identifying funding sources and will continue to reprint the first songbook since there is clearly a need. Once the second book is printed, hopefully by late spring, early summer, I will work on funding the production of that as well.

The other change I've put into place is to establish a formal relationship with SOLA. One of the students, Rauf Meraj (who escorted me to Kunduz) has agreed to be songbook administrator in Kabul. Instead of my figuring out the distribution from Cambridge (which really made no sense), Rauf will work with NGO’s like Save the Children, Afghan Institute of Learning, etc. and organize the distribution efforts from Kabul. He has also agreed to follow-up with the recipients to see how the songbooks are being used, if more are needed, etc. During the time I was here Rauf went to Kunduz and to the Sweet Heaven Orphanage with me and has a very clear understanding of the impact of the songbook with children. I know I’m leaving the distribution component of the project in very capable hands.

The new relationships with Aga Khan and SOLA move the project in a positive direction. It is now much more Afghan-centered. Jolyon and I spoke about how to get more Afghan businesses supporting this effort. He has offered to work on that. TriVision Kabul (our printing company) has also offered to assist in this effort. I can do some follow up work from the States. If Fulbright finally agrees to allow their awardees to go to Afghanistan, I will happily return to do some teacher training and follow-up work on the songbook project. In the meantime, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens next!

We’re within $3000 of being able to go to press for the next 5000 songbooks. I can smell the ink on the paper! Thank you all who have generously supported the project and for spreading the word. I’ve had people as far as Bainbridge Island, WA writing articles in their local newspaper and talking up the project! Every little bit counts. It is my belief that getting these Afghan children’s songs back into circulation and out into the world is just plain good karma!

Tashakor besyar ziyad (Thank you very much)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Time for a Political Commentary: What's Best for Afghanistan?

As you can well imagine, there is continuous discussion and debate here about what strategies should be taken in Afghanistan. What is best for this country? What should Obama do? What role should the U.S. play? Of course, we don’t have the answer(s) but I do know it’s very complicated, much more so than, I believe, is conveyed in local newspapers or television reports. Below I’ve posted a very interesting article published recently in the NY Times. Some of you might have read it. It struck home for many of us and provided a ray of hope. First I share Ted’s comments (in italics) He’s been here 7 years and I believe provides a good perspective given his longevity in Afghanistan and his strong relationship with Afghans. After my short time here, I agree with him wholeheartedly - couldn't have said it better myself! My students agree as well.

Go to the people. Go to the villages. Strengthen them. Gain their trust. Keep it simple. They can and will deal quickly, easily, effectively with corruption at the local level. Help them today, help them to sustain themselves and they will do for themselves now what their larger governmental structures will mismanage and deplete by theft for decades to come.
Take our aid to the people and build the economy from the bottom up.
Out perform the Taliban at the local level, build faith in our longevity and build the economy from the bottom up:
With care, side step the central government and build good governance and the economy from the bottom up.
Top down does not work in Afghanistan. Is there anything that has been proven with more certainty than this simple statement? The sooner we get this straight, the sooner the successor generation, the leaders of tomorrow and especially the women among them, will be able to add tangible evidence to and will reinforce the intuitive optimism that some of us hold for this country’s future.

November 13, 2009
Afghan Enclave Seen as Model to Rebuild, and Rebuff Taliban

JURM, Afghanistan — Small grants given directly to villagers have brought about modest but important changes in this corner of Afghanistan, offering a model in a country where official corruption and a Taliban insurgency have frustrated many large-scale development efforts.

Since arriving in Afghanistan in 2001, the United States and its Western allies have spent billions of dollars on development projects, but to less effect and popular support than many had hoped for. Much of that money was funneled through the central government, which has been increasingly criticized as incompetent and corrupt. Even more has gone to private contractors hired by the United States who siphon off almost half of every dollar to pay the salaries of expatriate workers and other overhead costs.

Not so here in Jurm, a valley in the windswept mountainous province of Badakhshan, in the northeast. People here have taken charge for themselves — using village councils and direct grants as part of an initiative called the National Solidarity Program, introduced by an Afghan ministry in 2003. Before then, this valley had no electricity or clean water, its main crop was poppy and nearly one in 10 women died in childbirth, one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Today, many people have water taps, fields grow wheat and it is no longer considered shameful for a woman to go to a doctor.

If there are lessons to be drawn from the still tentative successes here, they are that small projects often work best, that the consent and participation of local people are essential and that even baby steps take years. The issues are not academic. Bringing development to Afghans is an important part of a counterinsurgency strategy aimed at drawing people away from the Taliban and building popular support for the Western-backed government by showing that it can make a difference in people’s lives.

“We ignored the people in districts and villages,” said Jelani Popal, who runs a state agency that appoints governors. “This caused a lot of indifference. ‘Why should I side with the government if it doesn’t even exist in my life?’ Jurm was tormented by warlords in the 1990s, and though it never fell to the Taliban, the presence of the central government, even today, is barely felt. The idea to change that was simple: people elected the most trusted villagers, and the government in Kabul, helped by foreign donors, gave them direct grants — money to build things like water systems and girls’ schools for themselves.

Local residents contend that the councils work because they take development down to its most basic level, with villagers directing the spending to improve their own lives, cutting out middle men, local and foreign, as well as much of the overhead costs and corruption. “You don’t steal from yourself,” was how Ataullah, a farmer in Jurm who uses one name, described it. The grants were small, often less than $100,000. The plan’s overall effectiveness is still being assessed by academics and American and Afghan officials, but the idea has already been replicated in thousands of villages across the country.

Anecdotal accounts point to some success. There have even been savings. When villages in the Jurm Valley wanted running water, for instance, they did much of the work themselves, with help from an engineer. A private contractor with links to a local politician had asked triple the price. (The villagers declined.) Even such modest steps have not come easily. Jurm presented many obstacles, and it took a development group with determined local employees to jump-start the work here.

One basic problem was literacy, said Ghulam Dekan, a local worker with the Aga Khan Development Network, the nonprofit group that supports the councils here. Unlike the situation in Iraq, which has a literacy rate of more than 70 percent, fewer than a third of Afghans can read, making the work of the councils painfully slow. Villagers were suspicious of projects, believing that the people in the groups that introduced them were Christian missionaries. “They didn’t understand the importance of a road,” Mr. Dekan said.

Most projects, no matter how simple, took five years. Years of war had smashed Afghan society into rancorous bits, making it difficult to resist efforts by warlords to muscle in on projects. “They said, ‘For God’s sake, we can’t do this, we don’t have the capability,’ ” Mr. Dekan said. “We taught them to have confidence.”

Muhamed Azghari, an Aga Khan employee, spent more than a year trying to persuade a mullah to allow a girls’ school. His tactic: sitting lower than the man, a sign of deference, and praising his leadership. He paid for the man to visit other villages to see what other councils had accomplished. “Ten times we fought, two times we laughed,” Mr. Dekan said, using the Afghan equivalent of “two steps forward, one step back.”

When it came to women, villagers were adamant. But forcing conditions would have violated a basic principle of the approach: never start a project that is not backed by all members of the community, or it will fail. “People have to be mentally ready,” said Akhtar Iqbal, Aga Khan’s director in Badakhshan. If they are not, the school or clinic will languish unused, a frequent problem with large-scale development efforts.

Five years later, the village of Fargamanch has women’s literacy classes and a girls’ high school. Over all, girls’ enrollment in Badakhshan is up by 65 percent since 2004, according to the Ministry of Education. The number of trained midwives has quadrupled. Health has also improved. Now, 3,270 families have taps for clean drinking water near their homes, reducing waterborne diseases.

The councils are also a check on corruption. When 200 bags of wheat mysteriously disappeared from the local government this year, council members demanded they be returned. (They were.)

When a minister’s aide cashed a check meant for a transformer, Mr. Ataullah spent a week tracking down a copy. (The aide was fired.) “The government doesn’t like us anymore,” Mr. Azghari said, laughing. “They want the old system back.”

While Badakhshan’s changes are fragile, the forces of modernization are growing. Televisions have begun to broadcast the outside world into villages. Phone networks cover more than 80 percent of the province, triple what the figure was in 2001.

Perhaps most important, Afghans are tired of war, and seeing the benefits of a decade of peace might be enough to encourage new kinds of decisions.

Ghulam Mohaiuddin, a farmer, seethes when he remembers the past. “The jihad was useless,” he said, sitting cross-legged in his mud-walled house. Suddenly, a loud blast went off, startling his guests. He laughed. It was the sound of canal construction, not a bomb. “Now we’ve put down our weapons and started building,” he said, smiling.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Songbooks Travel to Sheberghan

Sheberghan is located in the northwest corner of Afghanistan, northwest of Mazar-e-Sharif, very near the Turkmenistan border. One of SOLA’s students, Kudooz, came up to me about a week ago and asked if he could, “PLEASE, Ms Louise,” have 80 songbooks for his mother’s elementary school. I have only about 100 songbooks left, but I couldn’t turn him down. He told his mother about the project and she had immediately asked Kudooz to find out if her school could receive books. I was amazed at Kudooz's willingness to hand deliver them as soon as I gave my approval.

The trip to Sheberghan is arduous. It’s about 300 miles from Kabul and the bus trip takes 12-14 hours. Kodooz left Kabul around 3:00am and finally arrived at his home in the late afternoon. He did ask me if I wanted to go along but I declined! I think of myself as a hardy sort but somehow that trip seemed a bit more than I could tackle.

I’ve posted a few photos from his trip. I was delighted to see from the photos that the teachers were really using the songbook to teach basic reading skills. You can see, particularly if you click on the photo and enlarge it, that the letters of the alphabet are written up on the board. Kudooz reported that they sang the Alphabet Song and then went to the board and identified the letters. This pleased me no end.
(Kudooz is the handsome young man in the photos with the bright purple shirt!)

When Kudooz returned he presented me not only with a camera full of pictures but with a very official "thank you" certificate, elaboratively written in Dari and English, bordered in gold and green with official stamped seals in all four corners and signed with a signature of great flourish! I’m learning that the Afghans don’t take the gesture of saying thank you lightly. This certificate deserves to be framed.

My time here is rapidly passing. I have only about ten days left and I head home. I can't believe I've been here almost 2 months. It's been an incredibly rewarding experience and one I will not forget.

It is still somewhat uncertain, because we’ve yet to get the final visa approval, but the plan is that I will take little Khaleda back with me. She’ll be met in DC, where we first land from Dubai, and taken by her host family to Charlotte, NC. The SOLACE group has arranged for her to receive treatments for her disease, Thalasemmia, which is, as I understand it, a severe lack of iron. It is fatal if untreated. Her treatments could take from one-two years. SOLACE miraculously arranges for doctors to provide all their services free. Arranging all of this has required a couple of trips to the U.S. Embassy. One of those included Khaleda’s parents. Both are sweet and gentle people, terribly grateful to have someone helping heal their very sick daughter. Her mother, with her burqa pulled up off her face, sat quietly in the backseat of the car as we drove to the Consulate Office. Perhaps I was projecting how I would feel parting with my daughter for a year, but I felt compelled for most of the car ride to convince her that I really was a good person, a mother, a grandmother and I would take good care of her daughter on the plane! She just smiled tenderly and thanked me for all we were doing to help Khaleda.

I’m reminded daily how complicated it is to live here. There are so many problems, many of them seemingly insurmountable that it is easy to get off track. I need to daily remind myself what I can and cannot do. Stay focused is my motto!

By the end of this week I hope to have met with the CEO of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and Vaheed. I’ll report in on the status of the second songbook. The prospects of producing that are quite good at this point.

Thank you all again for your moral and financial support, for taking time to follow along and for allowing Afghanistan and the Afghan people to become a small part of your life.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Faces of the Children

There is nothing so precious as the children in this country. They hold the hope for the future. Now that I've mastered uploading a slideshow I can actually share many more photos with you. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. I find these children completely irresistable.

On another note, today I was reminded of how tenuous it all is here. A student from SOLA arrived this morning distraught, reporting that four men tried to kidnap his brother yesterday in his village a hour or so outside of Kabul. It was a terrifying experience and one that brings the situation here very close to home. It was Taliban related. Their strategy is to kidnap someone, ask a very high ransom, (often $100,000+) which is most often paid, and the funds support the local Taliban.

There is a great amount of conversation here about Karzai's role and what will happen next. The women I teach, in particular, greatly worry that if the United States pulls back they will be left to return to a life that is now unthinkable. It is very clear that it will be the women who will suffer, as before, the most.

Winter is coming. Snow is on the mountains, the mornings and evening temperatures drop drastically. For many here who struggle through the winter without heat, the saving grace is the warm sun the daily heats up the body and soul.

As always, thank you for your suport throughout this Afghan journey.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Scenes from the Wood Bazaar

Dear All,
It's Friday here, the day of rest, so I have been working hard to figure out how to share photos from the bazaar with you. After much consternation, I think I've managed to accomplish the task!

A couple of days ago, Rauf, Meena and I headed to the nearby wood bazaar to purchase enough wood for the winter at the orphanage. Rauf got out to make the arrangements. Meena and I stayed in the car and I enjoyed photographing the local scene. As it turns out, Afghan men love to have the picture taken so I didn't feel I was intruding! The one slide of a man pushing a cart is carrying a rather large load of peanuts! He manages, as many do, to walk miles without spilling a one! As you can see, at the end of this slide show, after the photo of the truck delivering the wood into a small window which goes to the basement, there are pictures of some of the children. They were delighted we had returned and thrilled with the soccer balls and crayons we brought along.

It's quite obvious to me that these children and the Small Heaven Orphanage will hold a place dear to my heart for quite a long time.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ali Baba Song - Small Heaven Orphanage

Salaam. This little video shows the children at the Small Heaven Orphanage singing their "favorite" song - Ali Baba. As it turns out, Ali Baba was also the favorite of the children I worked with years ago. It's similar to our Old McDonald song. Ali Baba has a garden and in his garden he has all sorts of animals - a dog, goat, duck, cat, all of whom say things. By the way, ducks in Dari say gheck, gheck, gheck! But finally, and the punchline of this song, the last thing he has in the garden is a rabbit, who just doesn't say anything at all!

I hope you enjoy watching this.

Thanks to Rebecca who "talked" me through how to upload a video on the blog. And many thanks (Tashakor besyar ziyad) to all of you who have sent in a donation for printing more songbooks. We're moving closer to the printing goal. All very exciting.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Small Heaven Orphanage visit

Yesterday Rauf, Meena (both SOLA students) and I headed off to visit the Small Heaven Orphanage in the nearby Karte Char neighborhood. This orphanage received songbooks about a year and a half ago. In fact, a photo of children from this same orphanage is in the introduction section of the English version of the songbook.

This is a government-run orphanage so by definition lacks funds and is run on a shoestring. We were greeted by the Director of the Orphanage , Nazita who took us upstairs to meet the children. As we climbed the stairs of a very stark, concrete building, I could hear the children exuberantly singing the Alphabet Song. We entered the room and there were about 20 children, ages 5-12, sitting on the floor, each with a songbook, happily singing away with the cassette tape.

I sat down on the floor and joined them and quickly realized they knew every song and many of them were taking their finger and reading the lyrics. This gave me great pleasure since I’ve been hoping that the children would be able to use the songbooks as a basic reader and indeed it seems they are.

I purposely chose a site to visit where the children already had the songbooks for awhile because I felt it was important to find out just how the songbooks were being put to use, if at all, after so long. We sat on the floor and I listened to them go through song after song, enjoying each one. I asked them which ones they liked best and which they could sing all by themselves, without the cassette to accompany them. It was great fun to hear from them and many volunteered to get up and sing by themselves! We have some delightful video.

The American woman who teaches ASL at SOLA had given us a big box of hats, mitts and gloves that someone had sent her so we ended our visit by passing those out, each child wrapping themselves up. As you can see by the photo, it looks like they are expecting a veritable blizzard any minute!

As we left, Nazita thanked us profusely. She also mentioned that the government had told her that there wasn’t enough for wood so there would be no heat for the winter. She said she’d have to shut down the orphanage for 3 months and send the children away. I’m not quite sure where they go – perhaps to a relative or perhaps on the street. (Sometimes the children in the orphanage are there because the mother or father have died and the extended family can’t take care of them.)

In any case, on the way home I asked Rauf how much it would cost to buy wood for 3 months ($200) and I told him I’d take care of it. He nodded in approval. We will deliver the wood in a few days along with some crayons and other school supplies I brought with me. We also bought 3 soccer balls today. There didn’t seem to be any toys around at all and given how much fun the kids here have had playing ball, it seemed like a good idea. Those children gave me a great deal of joy yesterday. Giving them some warmth in the winter seemed like a small gift in return.

Big news! I just heard that Vaheed (the musician I worked with on the songbook project) is coming to Kabul on Nov. 17th. This is great news for me. He works closely with the Aga Khan Cultural Trust. I met with their CEO last Thursday and he seems very interested in helping fund a 2nd songbook. Aga Khan’s focus is cultural preservation so it's a good match,not to mention they are great admirers of Vaheed's work. I count my lucky stars daily that he is part of the project. I contacted Aga Khan initially six years ago but nothing panned out. Now it seems the timing is much better. The project is well-established and they are very impressed with the fact that the books are now completely produced in Kabul. Vaheed has already collected other traditional songs from several ethnic groups so creating a 2nd songbook should not be too complicated. We can record the songs this time in Kabul. I’m hoping to squeeze in one or two planning meetings with them before I head home.

I’m still hoping to be able to begin the process of printing the next 5000 songbooks before I leave. We’re close to meeting our goal. I suggest this with some trepidation BUT….if any of you feel so inclined to support this next printing OR know others who might, I’d be most grateful. Any donation goes a long way. It's easy Just go on the songbook website – http://www.afghansongbook.org/
That’s the easiest way to donate. AND if you have any ideas of other funding sources or fundraising ideas, I’m delighted to receive that information too. That would be GREAT! Each songbook costs $5.00/ea which includes the entire package – songbook, CD, cassette tape and packaging and some minimal distribution costs. The cost of supplying the 30 songbooks to a place like the Small Heaven Orphange is $150.00. Not a lot in our lives but A LOT in theirs. It makes a huge difference in their lives.

Thanks again for your interest and support for this project and this blog! It’s been great fun writing up the posts and I've appreciated your comments and questions. It’s hard for me to believe how the time has flown by here. Each day has provided new insights for me and I continue to be inspired and moved by the Afghan people.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Safia's Poetry - Speaking from the Heart

Safia is in my class here at SOLA. She recently shared this powerful I Am Poem with me. It has since been published on the Afghan Women's Writing Project website - http://www.awwproject.wordpress.com/ I've also included her poem, Winter in Kandahar which I find to be beautifully written. When I first met Safia she was shy and unsure of her ability to write, and in particular to write poetry. I am so pleased to see what has emerged. I'm incredibly proud of her. I encourage you to go on the AWWP website and read more! Since Sofia speaks about her experience growing up in Afghanistan, I have added a few scenes from Kabul to this blog. If you click on the image you can get a closer look.

I Am From...................
I am the daughter of a land in south central Asia
The daughter of the strong and hospitable people of Afghanistan
I belong to a nation which suffered three bloody decades in war
Which left us millions of orphans and widows
I am from those Afghans who migrated as refugees to our neighbor’s land
And returned homeland after a long voyage to find our identity
I belong to a loveable family with parents, five brothers and two sisters
I am from parents who come from south and west Afghanistan
Parents who had different ways of life since childhood
But after meeting, compromised and loved each other
I am from a kind, courageous and hard-working mother
Who protects us from the ills of society
Who teaches us the value of honesty, faith, and education
I grew up with siblings who held pen and paper instead of toys or kites
Who have been heroes in my life and good examples of success
I am from my eldest sister, who is like my second mother, caring, generous, and helpful
I am from young Afghan women with goals and desires
A woman who is educated, independent, and makes her own decisions
A woman with a friendly, softhearted nature
And a strong belief in Allah and His creatures
Enthusiastic about exploring cultures and lifestyles
Eager to travel the world to meet people and places
A woman who feels the pain of other deprived and vulnerable women
And wants to support them
Who dreams of Afghanistan as a peaceful place
No bomb explosions or suicide attacks, killing us like flies
No fear of walking to school and work, as if we’re entering hell
I imagine Afghans holding pens as weapons
Women walking in the gleam of education instead of the dark shadow of illiteracy
Children reading books with shining faces instead of begging and picking trash
I am from women with dreams and wishes
I am an energetic, optimistic, and responsible woman praying for a better Afghanistan
A woman wearing a green scarf as a flag
Protecting myself against winds that can take away my identity and homeland again
I am an Afghan woman from green mountains, wanting unity and peace for Afghanistan.

Winter School Days in Kandahar
The arrival of winter reminds me of those rainy days when I was going to school
Sleepless from the cold nights and the tup-tup sound of raindrops leaking from the roof
Cold air through the broken windows waking me up from my warm bed
Each morning my mother making me hot tea and naan (bread) with her kind, soft hands
Walking in my burqa through the long, narrow streets of our neighborhood
Holding my blowing burqa tightly to cover my school uniform from unwanted views
Folding it around myself to warm up my cold hands and red running nose
Bundling up my white pants and burqa to jump over puddles across a broken bridge
Cheering in my heart like an Olympic champion for succeeding in crossing the broken bridge
My burqa flying in the wind like small birds learning to fly in the sky
Slipping and getting my school uniform and shoes muddy before reaching the bus station
Pleased to arrive at school, like a lost bird returning to the nest after a long voyage
Being punished by the school’s monitors for being late and wearing a messy uniform
Those freezing classrooms with hollow windows and doors giving me flu and fever
Finding raindrops on each page of my books, like the shabnam (dew drops) Spring brings to leaves and flowers
The cracked benches like rocks freezing in the mountain
Snuggling with my friends and classmates to warm each other against the cold
Praying for sunshine to melt our frozen muscles
The arrival of winter giving us a lesson on how to be strong against hardship
The end of winter giving us a blossom of hope for Spring

The Sweetness of Pomegranates

Suddenly it’s November. The night air is colder. The days are shorter. There’s a morning chill in the air. Pomegranates are in season. I’ve been here a month and I’m finding myself wondering how the days have passed so quickly.

I would be telling a lie if I said it was easy to live here. There are many things that make it difficult, particularly for a Westerner and for a woman. I must constantly be careful of what I eat and avoid fresh vegetables and fruit when I eat out, for fear they have not been washed in “good” water. I had one serious intestinal upset and would really like to avoid another. When we drive around Kabul, the dust in the air is thick. Sometimes I can really feel it in my eyes and in my lungs. I’ve adjusted to a life of living within the compound walls except when I go out in the car. For me, a person who exercises fairly judiciously, this has, at times, not been easy. But I’ve come to accept the situation and know it is temporary. Oddly enough, I have less freedom than the young Afghan women I teach. This is due to the high security warnings for Americans. It is really highly recommended that we keep a low profile – and that means not roaming the bazaar, as much as I’m tempted to do so!

Each time we head into town in our old Russian jeep, we have to cross over a large section of the road that’s being repaired. It’s about 50 feet across. The first time we drove across it, it was soft dirt. For a newcomer like myself, I thought we’d never make it. But we did. We wobbled and slid around but by gunning it we could not only get across but gain enough speed to merge into the oncoming traffic and turn left, I might add. A few days later, the road became a large ditch which we then had to drive down into and up the other side. I was again quite sure we were done for, but no – we made it across. The next trip out the ditch was filled with large boulders of dirt, making the going down and coming up the other side even more challenging. Yesterday, the ditch was filled with large rocks. I wasn’t sure the jeep could make it, bouncing around on such an uneven surface. BUT….today it was smooth, level and paved.

It occurred to me today that this road repair is a perfect metaphor for living in Afghanistan. Every day presents a new challenge. And each time we manage to traverse this patch of road, we are pleased. We think we’ve mastered it. BUT…soon it’s changed and we are subjected to an entirely new challenge which we face and somehow, by some manner of miracles, we master. AND just when it seems everything is in place and we can breathe easily, it’s changed again.

A good example – the election! Just four days ago, all the talk was about the election. Everyone seemed resigned that even though Karzai would win there would be a runoff election. There were questions: Would there be demonstrations? Would people really be able or want to get out and vote a second time? Would the Taliban sabotage the process? Then suddenly, Abdullah Abdullah backed out. Then there was more speculation. Would the election be put off until spring? Would this surprise event cause other bad reactions and more demonstrations? Before we had much time to figure it out, two things happened. Karzai was suddenly approved to be President by the court (not a surprise since the head guy is his good friend) AND there was an announcement that Afghanistan was having a H1N1 flu epidemic and all schools were closed for 3 weeks! The advice the Peace Corps issued us long ago seems to hold true today – Be Flexible!

Some of us cynics wondered if the closure was an election closure or flu closure. Closing the University certainly kept any demonstrations from happening. And it is true, the flu, H1N1 or some other variety, seems to be rampant. Several students who come to SOLA are sick. I brought a large quantity of EmergenC with me, so we’ve been passing that out along with Ibuprofin and lots of advice on washing hands, covering your mouth when you cough, etc.. Just for the record, there doesn’t seem to be a thermometer in Kabul. We aren’t sure if that is because Afghans don’t use them OR everyone needed one and bought every last one. In any case, after great searching, none was found.

The University students I teach are actually quite upset about the forced school closure. They were all about to go into exams. Now it is unclear when their semester will end, if at all. Many of my students are claiming that the school closure is another example of how uninterested Karzai really is in strengthening education in this country. You can see that there is not much support for Karzai. When you ask the students if they thought he would win, they answer, “Of course.” If you then ask them, will things change, they quickly respond, “Of course not.”

I met with a small group of my women students today and asked them, if they could write Karzai a letter and ask for one thing, what would it be. The overwhelming response was education. Education and particularly education for women is on the top of their list. Educating girls in this country is, for them, essential and the only way they imagine the situation will improve for everyone. One student talked today about an image she recently witnessed on her last trip home to Mazar-e-Sharif, an image she says, she can’t get out of her mind. She noticed, as she walked down the street in front of the mosque, a line of about 15 women, all seated on the ground, covered in burqas, selling loaves of nan. All these women, most likely widows, were desperately trying to care for their families, keep their children fed, and guarantee a roof over their head, and were doing that by selling nan, nan they had most likely made themselves and sells for about .20/each. For Shugufa, these women are the symbol of what must change. The rights of women must be addressed. Young girls must be educated and their education needs to be seen as a valuable. . Girls must not reach puberty and be sold off in marriage. They must be treated as equals in Afghan society. Their voice must be heard.

After a lively and passionate discussion, we decided that their next assignment was not to write Karzai a letter but rather to create what in their mind would be the “ideal Afghan woman.” Who would she be? What qualities would she have? What would she care about? We all agreed that young Afghan girls have so few role models so they have decided to create that model, a model perhaps they can live into. That’s next weeks assignment. You’ll have to wait for the next blog to see what they come up with!

The sweetness of pomengranates. Ah…yes, I’ve never tasted pomegranates quite like these. The sweetness stays with you for a long while. And there is, indeed, a sweetness of being here. Despite the hardship, the worry of getting sick, the concern for security, and now an anxiousness of catching the flu bug, the Afghan people hold a sweetness like the pomengrantes here; one I’ve rarely experienced. There is something, almost intangible, that is so endearing. Maybe it’s a child holding on dearly to his father’s hand, or maybe it’s the soldier in the street that smiles and returns the Salaam Alekum that you’ve just offered him. Maybe it’s the bus full of people, that when you stop and let them turn left in front of you – which you actually can’t avoid anyway without being run over, they all wave and smile at you as if you’d done them the biggest favor ever. I know it’s that solider in Kunduz that decided he wasn’t going to inspect my luggage because I was helping the children in his village. And it most certainly was the excited, rambuctious greeting, accompanied by a large welcome home sign that I received upon returning home from Kunduz after being away only two days from my students here at SOLA. There is an appreciation and kindness, a graciousness and humbleness that tugs at your heartstrings. Perhaps it is why, even after 40 years of being away, I’m back. Whatever it is, I’m glad I’m here to remember how sweet it is. I’m sure it will stay with me a long time.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

School Visit in Konduz

Rauf (one of SOLA’s 19 year old male students) and I headed to Konduz by plane on Oct. 27th. Rauf’s mother is the Principal of a public kindergarten, serving 120 children. It was Rauf’s idea that we go to his home town and bring songbooks to his mother’s school. I am greatly appreciative of this generous offer.

Konduz is about 160 miles north of Kabul. Driving is slow and dangerous so we opted for the quick 45 min. flight. Konduz has been the target of a lot of Taliban insurgency in recent months so the only way I could safely make this trip was to have Rauf and his family “watch over me” while I was there. It is not safe, as an American woman to travel alone and/or to take taxis (kidnapping is real problem) but Rauf arranged for his family to drive us everywhere we needed to go. I felt very well taken care of.

We landed in Konduz and my first big surprise was to be met at the airport by a group of six children, holding a “WEL COM” sign and showering me with bouquets of flowers. The children were all beautifully attired in their regional dress. Rauf’s mother and one of the teachers from her school stood quietly by in their burqas but as soon as we got into the car, they pulled them off their faces, laughing with me about how they couldn’t see. They rode through town with them off. Burqa’s are worn by all women in Konduz due to the presence of the Taliban. Although dressed in burqa, they were both on their cell phones while we rode in the car!

Our first stop was a meeting with the Konduz Director of Labor and Social Affairs. He and three other men met with me and Rauf. Rauf graciously translated for me as I explained the project and told them how pleased I was to be bringing 120 songbooks to the Konduz Central Kindegarten. He was very appreciative and truly understood the value of having these traditional songs back in the culture. He also appreciated my offer to share ideas with the the teachers about how the books could also be used as a basic literacy tool. Everyone is very aware of the lack of teacher training in Afghanistan. Most teachers have a 5th grade level of education.

At the conclusion of that meeting we headed for the school. As we opened the gates to enter I was shocked to see (and hear) 120 young children, lined up on either side of the walkway, singing a welcoming song to me, in full voice. The girls handed me flowers, the boys gave me a salute while other girls tossed rose petals at my feet! I continue to be overwhelmed by their graciousness. The Afghan have truly invented the real meaning of hospitality.

We were escorted to red velvet couches in front of the stage. For the next 2 hours we were entertained by the children singing many of the songs from the songbook. Rauf had sent up 5 songbooks a week ahead of our arrival, and the teachers had taught the children most of the songs! It was a delight to hear them. There were a group of children in Pashto dress, singing the Pashto song, in Hazaragi dress for the Hazaragi song, etc.. They also performed the national dance, the Atan.

I was asked to speak to the group (again Rauf translating. My Dari is coming back but not well enough to address a group!) and at the end of the program we handed out songbooks to every child. The songbook is the ONLY book they have and they did tell me they plan to use it not only to teach the traditional songs but as a basic reading text. Many of the teachers told me how much they appreciate the inclusion of songs from many ethnic tribes. I give total credit to my wonderful musician collaborator, Vaheed Kaacemy, for insisting we include a wider variety of tribal songs than was in the original songbook .

I was able to talk further with Rauf’s mother who did emphasize the need for more educational resources like this. She also, like others, emphasized the need for a 2nd songbook with even more songs in Pashto (Dari and Pashto are the 2 national languages.) I agree with her assessment and of course, it all comes down to my finding the funding!

To keep this blog to a minimum I will skip some “interesting” stories of staying in the guest house – well-guarded, but I might add I was the only guest and the only woman. I will end with a brief anecdote that I feel sums up this trip. We arrived back at the small Konduz airport the next day, delivered by Rauf’s brother. We walked up the dirt road to a solider, armed with his AK47, standing outside inspecting luggage. (There really isn’t a terminal building.) He asked Rauf to put his luggage up on a cement pillar so he could check it. Rauf’s luggage was full of songbooks upon our arrival but on departure was filled with all the flowers and signs the children had given me! He then spoke to Rauf and looking at me said, “She is doing good things for our country. She is helping the children of Afghanistan. I don’t need to inspect her luggage!” With that we put our luggage into a cart which was pushed by 2 people out to the plane. He had been at the airport the day before, witnessed my arrival and knew all about the project.

The response of this one soldier, I have come to learn, is typical of most Afghans. We hear a lot of news about anti-American sentiment. The Afghan people truly appreciate Americans and other foreigners who are actually doing something, something that is tangible. They need so much and this one kindergarten was only one small example. Imagine running a school for 120 children, ages 4-6, with virtually no educational materials. It is these small projects, one by one, that make a difference. Unfortunately, U.S. dollars are often spent on enormously expensive projects that do not make a difference, that do not really connect or are meaningful to Afghans. Many of those projects are implemented with absolutely no input from Afghans and many do not create jobs and do not make a difference to the ordinary Afghan trying to provide for his family and give an education to his children. (Last week I was part of a very interesting and hopeful meeting with Ambassador Mussomeli at the U.S. Embassy. Seven NGO’s, headed by Americans or Afghan Americans who have been working in Afghanistan for at least 5-7 years, came together with Embassy personnel to offer their services and expertise given their long-term commitment and experience in the field, meeting Afghans, going to villages, speaking the language, hearing what is going on. The U.S. Embassy personnel spends between 6-12 months here at best and due to security constraints rarely leave the Embassy grounds. They admit there is a disconnect. More about all of that in another blog! I will say it was a hopeful meeting.)

I come away from this experience moved, once again, by the tenacity and determination of the ordinary Afghan, trying to move this county forward. We arrived back in Kabul the day of the attacks on the UN Guest House. The Taliban are trying hard to sabotage the elections thus proving Afghanistan is no place for democracy. We drove home the long way, avoiding downtown where many roads were blocked. I noticed many soldiers out and about but life seemed to be going on as usual. The Afghans have put up with war and unrest so long they find no other option but to just keep going. As Vaheed said to me once, “We just need to get on with our lives.”

Based on several conversations with people helping me with this project, I see my job is cut out for me. I need to find funding to print another 5000 songbooks (we are down to 100 at the moment) and to begin the process of creating a second songbook. Vaheed has already researched more traditional songs, many in Pashto. Unlike the first book, we can now do the recording and printing in Kabul.

Despite what you are reading and hearing, all is well here and I continue to greatly appreciate this opportunity to connect once again with these wonderful people here and with you.

A large green banner hung over the stage at the school and a reminder to all of us: The Children are the Future of Afghanistan.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Women in Afghanistan

In my 2 ½ weeks here I have just begun to learn about some of the many, complex, multi-layered issues that surround women in Afghanistan. I’ve heard stories, I’ve read accounts, I’ve had long conversations with my students. When I go out, I see women wearing a burqa and women wearing head scarves or at times I see no women out at all. Each has a story. I know that my students, with all their varied family experiences, want more than anything else, to get an education, to improve the situation for women in Afghanistan, and to push for the rights of all women. These young women represent the “Taliban generation” and they are determined to make Afghanistan a better place for the women who follow them. I am inspired by their tenacity.

There are heartwarming stories about fathers who would and continue to do anything to ensure their daughters as well as sons have an education. They risked cutting their daughter's hair, dressing them as boys, and sending them off to secret schools during the Taliban era. There are equally heartbreaking stories about families who sell their daughters off to marriage, eliminating any hope of further education or families with deceased fathers whose sons rule the roost and forbid the girls to even have a voice in the smallest of family decisions. Those girls become invisible and lose all sense of self.

There was recently an excellent article written by an Afghan woman, Wazhma Frogh, published in the Washington Post on Sun., Oct 18th that addresses many of these issues and challenges the international community to stay the course.

“I find unbearable the thought of what will happen to the women of my country if it once again falls under the control of the insurgents and militants who now threaten it. In 2001, when the war in Afghanistan began, the liberation of Afghan women was one of the most important justifications for military intervention. Has the world now changed its mind about Afghan women? Is it ready to let them once again be killed and tortured by militants? Does the world no longer believe in the principles it supported in 2001?” https://mymail.lesley.edu/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/16/AR2009101602649.html

She makes a strong case, I believe, by relaying what she heard from a group of taxi drivers sitting by the side of the road at the airport. They were mourning the loss of Italian soldiers in a recent suicide attack in Kabul. "Today, after eight years, if the foreign troops leave . . . we will go back to the same Afghanistan that seemed like a funeral every day," one of the drivers said. "This time, the loss will be huge, because during the past eight years we have made significant progress in becoming part of the rest of the world, so much so that our enemies despise us for it."
Despite that story coming from a male perspective, many women, most certainly the young women I’m working with, feel exactly the same. They have dipped their toes in the water, they know life can be better, they so want to move forward.

I share these thoughts with you as a way to begin to make sense of it all. It’s not simple. The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.
Again – thanks for following along…………………….
Oh...for those of you who might have read in the news (my daugthter did, of course)we did indeed had an earthquake here a couple of nights ago. I awoke to shaking and my good old S. Calif. upbringing kept me calm as I got out of bed and headed to a door jamb. The possibility of it being an explosion and not an earthquake did cross my mind but I decided not to dwell on that! It was not a big one. The houses built up on the hillsides in Kabul would come tumbling down and cause enormous destruction. Thankfully all is well here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A contrast of experiences

I headed outside to the backyard this afternoon to study a little Dari, only to find Fatimeh and Husnia playing ball with Kadija. Kadija, who is deaf, lives in a nearby orphanage but is part of the SOLA "family". She comes here daily and Maria, an American living nearby comes over to teach her ASL. All the other students are learning ASL in the process. Up until SOLA “adopted” Kadija she had no language at all. She’s about 7 yrs. old. She is the only deaf child in the orphanage. I’ve noticed a remarkable change in her development in 2 weeks. I took a couple of semesters of ASL years ago and it’s coming back although it's stretching me a bit to try to recall both ASL and Dari at the same time! Soon Shiehk joined in with the ball game. He’s on crutches due to an injury early on in his life and really only has one functional leg. I gave up on my Dari and joined in. They were having too much fun. We tossed the ball, kicked it, soon everyone was trying to bounce it off their head. I taught them the concept of “hot potato” which got translated somehow. The laughter was contagious. Simple fun, everyone having a good time. Shiehk managed olympic moves on one foot. Life is simple here. I’m continuously struck by how easy it is to have fun with seemingly very little.

In contrast, last evening we were out to dinner with an American who is working with the election, trying to sort out the mess. He told us, but I’m sure you now all know, that there is to be a run off. Karzai, after all the fraudulent ballots were thrown out, ended up with about 48%. He believes the run off must occur within a week or two because otherwise the weather gets bad in places and no one can get to the polls. It is predicted that Karzai will win but this runoff will at least try to make it seem legitimate. The outright fraud that occurred was ridiculous and does make Karzai look quite bad. There was a story of one polling station in Kabul was checked at 8:05AM, only minutes after opening, and 5000 ballots were already submitted! I liked this fellow and was particularly struck with his care and respect for the Afghans. This is not true, unfortunately, of all “internationals” who work here.

GOOD NEWS! He was very excited about the Songbook Project and made a sizeable donation on the spot. Oh my. I was beside myself. His comment – What you and the work SOLA are doing restores the kind of image we used to have in Afghanistan. I think the same goes for him. A big Tashakor goes to him as well.

Getting to the restaurant, by the way, provided the contrast in living here. We went through 3 check points on the road to the restaurant at which point policeman look into our car. Ted's jeep is well known and we were waved through fairly quickly. Then, in order to get down the road to the restaurant there was a check point barrier, a guy with an AK47 who checked us out, another gate, another guard. And a guy at the door of the restaurant was also armed. Before going to the restaurant we stopped at the super market to get cash at the ATM. Again, at least 3 armed guards were standing in front of the market. I find it scary, sobering but also reassuring. Someone, it feels, is paying attention. Perhaps it's false security but even so, they are there. All of it, though, a reminder that Afghanistan is on high alert.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sometimes things happen in the realm of miracles............

Today while working in my office, I was told to we had a visitor - Fakhreia and her mother and grandmother had arrived. There was great excitement. I was told I must come downstairs to meet them. Here’s her story……..

Fakhreia is 7 years old. She was born with a serious heart defect and was not expected to live. Miraculously she made it to her 7th year at which point she was identified to be part of the SOLACE program, a program based in Charlotte, NC that raises funds to bring children identified with life-threatening illnesses from Afghanistan to the U.S. for treatment. This is a tremendous undertaking as you can imagine and involves arranging visas, identifying “flight leaders” who are SOLA students, (The SOLA students, as part of their leadership training, stay with the students, help translate for the doctors and keep in contact with the child’s family) finding host families for each child (last year they brought 34 children over for treatment) and selecting doctors willing to donate their services. Each child stays in the U.S. for at least 4-6 weeks, sometimes longer, if needed.

Fakhreia arrived in the U.S. early last summer with her flight leader, Husnia. Afghan doctors were unable to diagnose her condition and after careful diagnoses by American doctors, it was determined that she needed open heart surgery. It was the only way she could survive. SOLACE could not find a surgeon/cardiologist team who could perform the needed surgery. She returned home, still very ill. At that point, given her condition she was able to only walk a few steps without being completely exhausted. Everyone was keenly aware of the seriousness of her condition. In late August, the SOLACE folks identified a cardiologist and surgeon willing to perform the open heart surgery needed to save her life.

In early October, after having recovered from a successful operation and well enough to travel, Fahkreia returned to Afghanistan with Husnia and was met by her most grateful family. Today she arrived here at the SOLA compound a happy, normal child. Her prognosis: she is expected to live a normal, healthy life. (The photo is of Husnia and her “little sister” Fahkreia, taken today.)

I watched her mother and grandmother today as we took pictures and fussed over Fakhreia. They were so, so happy and so relieved. As a mother, I thought about how incredibly hard it would be for me to part with my 7 year old child, not knowing if she would survive. I thought about the courage it took for Fahkreia to leave her country and her family and the trust she put in Husnia and the trust Fahkreia’s family put in the Americans who were going to take care of her. I thought about the hundreds of people from Afghanistan to North Carolina who were involved in making this small miracle happen. People who are really doing good work, making things happen, changing lives, working towards a common good. It is inspiring and I’m happy to be able to witness it firsthand.

This is most certainly not what you hear about in the news. It’s not the picture that’s painted about Afghanistan. Each day I hear about more and more people from around the world who are working here, working hand in hand with Afghans to improve life here, build opportunities for a better life for everyone.
Today, as they were leaving, I asked Husnia if Fahkreia was scared during the operation. “No”, she said. “She took it all in stride. When they took her into ICU after the operation, the nurses asked her if she wanted anything. Her response was – a cheeseburger!”
I just had to share this story with you. I seem to find myself daily faced with new surprises! Thanks for reading along. It's nice to be able to share these stories with you.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Story from Roya

After visiting Afghanistan for the second time last year, the novelist Masha Hamilton started the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. The project connects Afghan women with American writers and teachers and gives the women space on the blog to share their stories.

I am now in the presence of these young woman and this writing is even more meaningful. With permission, I’ve copied one of the essays for you to read. If you are interested in reading more or supporting the blog, go to: http://awwproject.wordpress.com. Or contact masha@mashahamilton.com They are eager for your comments and support.

Wedding or Jail? October 2, 2009 by Roya
During Taliban years, all wedding parties were at home, and taking pictures or video was forbidden. The wedding guests were always thirsty to hear a song, but it wasn’t allowed. Sometimes, close relatives to the bride or groom hid a cassette in a pocket or under a dress. Then the music was played low, and young boys stood as security near the door or at the street. The girls would dance, but we couldn’t clap for the girls who were dancing. Fear was the only word we had in our mind. Often, after two or three songs, the boys would come and shout: “Stop, stop. Taliban are coming.” The party would stop and the guests would escape.
My cousin’s wedding was different. I had very nice blue dress. It was color of hope for me, the color of sky and the sky has great secrets in it. I was happy for his wedding and for my blue dress. Everyone was dancing and singing and clapping, forgetting the Taliban. My hands hurt from all the clapping, and my voice was wearing out from the singing, and I was dancing in that blue dress—oh, I can’t forget.
Some of the relatives were afraid and they came and said, “Please stop singing, stop dancing, don’t clap.” The woman playing drums was fantastic. She said, “If Taliban comes here, then they will enjoy from our party and they will start to dance with us.” But the groom’s father told her, “That it is not funny. Please don’t be careless.” No one paid attention. That day, from morning until evening, we sang and danced. Everyone was enjoying the party.
At last we went to bride’s house to bring her to the groom and her new house. The mother of the bride was crying because it was her daughter’s last minutes to stay with her. The bride was happy to start a new life. She bid goodbye to her past and we, dancing, separated her from her house. A car full of flowers waited to carry her to her new house. The bride’s eyes were blue and that day, the sky was blue, and the car waiting for her was blue and she looked beautiful with her blue and white dress. The groom wore Afghani white clothes with a hat which had mirrors on it. They held each other’s hand. It was like a promise to stay together for all of life and to live with love.
Finally, we arrived at the bride’s new home. We were still singing and dancing and it was 11 p.m. The father of the groom came. His face was red, his eyes worried, and he asked, where was his son? Everyone stopped dancing. We turned off the music and the singer stopped singing. We were all worried.
My mother and I were in the bridal suite. There were flowers everywhere, a very nice bed and a red carpet, cake and Sprite. I think the groom’s sister decorated the room. My mom was crying. All the women and girls were crying, and everyone felt regretful. Why had we danced? Why had we been happy? Yes, happiness was a fault at that time.
The men were outside the house. They were talking with the Taliban. The father of the groom was swearing to God that there was no music in the house. The men were trying not to let them enter the house, because there were cassette tapes and drums in the house. Everyone was trying to think where to hide them, but no one took responsibility to hide them.
Suddenly the Taliban entered the house and searched everywhere. I was afraid because I wasn’t wearing a veil and my dress didn’t have sleeves. My mom was worried for me. We were still in the bridal suite and the room was dark. My mom was crying and praying and looking for something for me to wear on my head. Finally I wore the bedspread and my mom wore a curtain on her head.
The Taliban found everything: cassettes and drums and tape player. They had the elderly father of the groom with them, and they told him: “We want you to go with us until you find your son, the groom, for us.”
The groom was hiding in the mosque next to their house, but when he heard about his father, he came out of the mosque and apologized to the Taliban. They didn’t accept the apology. They took my cousin and his father.
It is very difficult to think about it. Think, dear reader, if you were there? If it was your wedding? If you were the groom?
The groom who was to spend his first night with his bride, and his father, who had waited all his life to see his son married. Both of them were taken to jail.
After the Taliban took them away, I was in the bride’s room. She was crying and saying she wanted to stay in jail with the man she’d married. It was hard for her to be in that room, to sleep in that bed. Her eyes were looking like a garden waits for rain.
After one week they released from jail. But the groom’s father was suffering heart pain after being in jail, and he died within a few days. We went to pray at his grave, and some flowers grew there, and I thought perhaps that was a sign he was happy at last. May God bless him.
By Roya
From the blog: Afghan Women’s Writing Project.
To subscribe, go to: http://awwproject.wordpress.com or contact masha@mashahamilton.com

Monday, October 12, 2009

BLOG #3 First week in Kabul - Kites and Kebabs

On Wednesday, I will have been in Kabul a week. I feel I’ve been here for months! So much is going on; I’ve met many people, experienced and observed many new things. My perceptions of Afghanistan are rapidly shifting. Here is a brief list of recent observations for you to ponder.
*Kabul is much cleaner than it used to be. There are now garbage trucks which pick up neatly swept of piles of garbage. Plastic is now included in the piles since bottled water is readily available. *Driving through Kabul is crazy – hazardous at best. Air pollution is terrible in downtown Kabul since there are so many vehicles.
*The Afghans are known to be wonderfully hospitable people and I have, after only a week, experienced more than my share of that fact. I have been treated to a scrumptious meals, been given presents (head scarves, shawls), and been treated with great respect. I receive brief glances when riding around in the car, but there has not, as of yet, been anything hostile in those looks.
*We are reminded and must be always aware that we are, living in country at war. We daily read the State Dept. Incident Reports. U.S. tanks move through Kabul on occasion but our daily lives, when we are home, function in a normal manner. No one mentions the conflict unless there is an explosion or something that takes place in Kabul.
*We stopped today on the way home from the bank at a café and the guard at the door was fully armed with some kind of impressive machine gun. There was a sign at the entrance – No weapons allowed! We had a smoothie as an afternoon treat! Imagine – a banana/yogurt smoothie!
*The word on the street is that there will be a run off election. Most feel this is a good thing and that Kharzi will probably still win but it will legitimize the election.
*All the Afghans I have spoken to feel strongly that education is essential to bringing peace to this country.
*I had dinner with Mrs. Fahima Haliz, Director of Kindergartens in Afghanistan. Fahima is an impressive woman, probably in her late 50’s with an overwhelmingly important and difficult job. When I asked her what her biggest concerns were she listed, in this order: developing a standard kindergarten curriculum, obtaining supplies and educational materials and providing children with nutritious food. Some of the kindergartens are residential schools and feeding children a balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables is not typical. Fahima knew about the songbooks and was very grateful they were available. She would like to have more distributed in the Provinces. She knew the people from Save the Children who help me distribute the books and she also knew and really respected Vaheed Kaacemy, the musician. All of this great news for me!
*I held my first seminar class today with 5 young women here at SOLA to work on their college interviews. I continue to be impressed and truly moved with how hard each of them is working to improve their English and push themselves beyond the expected cultural norm of being a reserved, quiet, somewhat self-effacing Afghan woman to being one who is full of confidence and articulate. Given they quite literally have no role models for this, they are doing amazingly well. Their desire to succeed, to study in the U.S. and to return to make Afghanistan a better place is inspiring.
*We have plans to drive Thursday, Oct. 15th to Bamyan for a celebration hosted by PARSA, a NGO supporting Afghan women and children. They are opening a new Family Park. While there, I will visit the Ayenda Learning Center and meet with the headmaster. This is a newly built school/orphanage that recently received 500 songbooks.

As you can see, a lot is happening here. There are hundreds of individuals, NGO’s and Afghan organizations working hard to put this country back on its feet. Sadly, these stories don’t make the news. I will try to continue to paint the picture as I experience it here. Oh....and yes, kites darting through the sky are a familiar site , particularly on Friday, the day of rest. And last Saturday we had a little one year anniversary party for SOLA and Khafir Mohammad, who works here at SOLA, made ,by far, the most delicious kebabs in the world! (see photo)

I welcome your questions and comments. Thank you again for following along.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Arrival in Kabul

Having spent 2 days in Dubai, sightseeing and adjusting to the time change, I flew into Kabul on Oct. 7, accompanied by Ted Achilles, Director of the NGO, SOLA (School of Leadership, Afghanistan). SOLA is generously hosting my stay.
Upon arrival, I was immediately struck with the size of the Kabul airport, now triple in size from my last visit 40 years ago. The place was hopping and filled with planes and people. We hauled our luggage out to the parking lot in anticipation of being picked up by one of Ted’s students. Much to our surprise, a greeting party of about 8 of Ted’s students was waiting for us. I was presented with a bouquet of roses, warm greetings and friendly, welcoming smiles. As we negotiated our way through the heavy traffic, our jeep was filled with laughter, singing and general excitement of our arrival. With all my anxiety and anxiousness about coming to Kabul, the sound of giggles and joyful singing from the backseat put me immediately at ease.

I found it almost impossible to get my bearings after being away so long. Almost all of Kabul has been rebuilt after being nearly completely destroyed in the late 90’s. New construction is happening everywhere and houses now take up every inch of space on the hillsides that were once barren. The familiar green façade of the bazaar shops, the piles of bags of grain, the wooden carts lining the streets piled high with fruits and vegetables did bring the Kabul I remember vividly back into focus. The city, it is clear, is alive and vibrant and people, despite adversity, are getting on with their lives.

Given the enormous burst in population (from 400,000 in the early 70’s to now almost 4 million) it is no surprise that traffic is a challenge. Cars, bicycles, trucks, buses, taxis and pedestrians all weave their way through the streets while traffic cops stand almost perplexed in the middle of various traffic circles looking as if they haven’t a clue what to do. Interspersed with the array of traffic were various military vehicles amply armed. I was told that it is a well-understood fact that when a convoy of large tanks appear, everyone moves out of the way.

Upon our arrival to the SOLA compound I was treated to delicious Afghan chay and many photographs documenting the event were taken. I felt immediately welcomed into the SOLA family. The area in which I’m living, Karte Seh, is exceedingly quiet and pleasant and coincidently is the same area I lived in when I was here in the late 60’s. As I chatted with the students, I discovered that most of them had, at one time or other, helped distribute the songbooks to schools or orphanages. They all spoke fondly of hearing the songs again and one young woman recounted a time 3 years ago when, as a refuge living in Islamabad, it was those children’s songs that comforted her and kept her culturally grounded.

All this good news does not deny that unrest does exist. This morning while eating breakfast one of the students reported he had just heard that there was an large explosion across town somewhere. News of these events seems to travel quickly. None of us heard it from here. The news was taken in by all of us, and then life went on as usual. We later heard the explosion was near the Indian Embassy and there were serious casualities.

In the already short time I’ve been here, there are lots of plans in the works. This Saturday there will be a kebab luncheon at SOLA which will provide me with an opportunity to meet many YES (Youth Exchange and Study Program) alums who Ted has worked with in the past and who have been instrumental is the effort to distribute the songbooks. I look forward to this event.

I’ve heard from many of you already and I thank you for your interest, support and good wishes. More to follow in the days to come. I’ve only been here a day and a half and I am already quite convinced this trip will be so worthwhile and a valuable for the future of the Songbook Project. I’m so happy to be here once again.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Headed to Afghanistan soon!

The photograph I took, shown to the right, is of one of the Buddah statues that once stood in the Bamiyan valley dating from the 6th century. When I went to see those statues, and climbed to the top, sitting carefully on the Buddah's head, looking over the beautiful, lush Bamiyan Valley, it never occurred to me that one day they would be gone forever, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

I return to Afghanistan with memories from an Afghanistan of 40 years ago. Although I most certainly did not understand it at the time, the Afghans think back to the late 60’s as the glory days, the time of peace and prosperity. A calm before the storm, a storm that has raged for almost 35 years.

With my trip rapidly approaching, I’ve spent some time these last few days writing down what I remember about my time there. Swarms of memories are returning – images, feelings, sounds, smells – all of them very vivid, even after 40 years.

Many of you have asked about what I’ll be doing there. I'll be staying in Kabul for 6 weeks and during that time my main focus is to evaluate and assess how the songbook project is going, what is happening now and what is needed for the future. This information will determine what our next steps will be. There are currently 14,000 songbooks in schools and orphanages across Afghanistan. I’m curious to see how they are being used. I plan to meet with people who have helped distribute the book (some of those mtgs are already set up) and also visit schools and talk to teachers and administrators. I’ll start by going to schools in Kabul and then I hope to visit schools in outlying Provinces. Travel beyond Kabul will depend on security issues.

I’m incredibly excited about this journey. Despite what you read in the paper about recent events in Afghanistan, I am feeling quite comfortable about going and I anticipate this to be an amazing trip. It is really coming full circle for me. Of course I’m a bit nervous and plan to be very cautious. But I’m fortunate to be staying under the wing of an NGO, SOLA (School for Leadership, Afghanistan) directed by my good friend Ted Achilles. (There was recently a great article about some Afghan students from this program in the Globe.) SOLA's compound is situated in Karte-Seh, a quiet part of Kabul and interestingly where I used to live. They have generously offered me room and board and access to their translators and a driver. This is an essential part of being there and I am very grateful for their support.

I’ve packed the appropriate long tunics and head scarves, none of which I had to wear when I was there in the late ‘60’s. I’ve purchased a new SLR digital camera that has good video capability and I have a digital recorder. So I should be set. I’m realistic enough to know you can only plan so much when going to Afghanistan. As the Peace Corps so wisely reminded us when we first arrived, be flexible. Just see how it unfolds. That’s what I intend to do.

Thank you for your interest and for following along. Blogs are a new thing for me but I’m delighted to share this journey with all of you. I invite your comments and questions as well. I’ll have wireless which makes communication via the internet easy. Kabul does tend to lose power on occasion so yes, I am bringing a backup battery for my computer.

I look forward to telling the stories once I get there. On October 4 I fly to Dubai, arriving the evening of Oct. 5th. On Oct. 6th I fly into Kabul, a city that despite years at war, now has a coffee espresso bar, a restaurant that serves steak, wine, and lemon meringue pie and an escalator in the Kabul City Centre office complex. Imagine!