We Will Not Be Silenced

by - 4:08 PM

In this place, death does not knock politely on the door and wait patiently before sneaking in to steal one’s last breath. On this bright and cloudless Sunday (22nd April 2018), death assaults our world with shrapnel and fire and the blood red of people walking or cycling on the streets, buying and selling at road-side shops, ordinarily clambering on and off the local bus or taxi. This insidious enemy comes to steal, kill and destroy. Young men, old men, girls and boys, mothers, cousins, brothers, fathers, sisters, strangers, all of them sons and daughters. The real enemy is not ISIS or the Taliban or the corrupt so-and-so domineering at the top of the chain. They are all just pawns in the game. Oh yes, there are the schemers, the deceivers, the oppressors; then there are the ones who are trapped by fear, coerced into an ideology, threatened into submission. But are any of them the enemies? Should we hate them? How do we really stand against the tide of darkness? Last night, I wrote this on a piece of paper and stuck in on my wall: “Know the real enemy”. It became very clear for me that the true enemy is the destroyer and accuser of our souls, not the humans who can merely tear apart our bodies.

The suicide bombing that occurred on Sunday ripped apart a voter registration center located in a neighborhood of mainly Hazaras, a minority ethnic group who have faced systematic killings by their countrymen (what you would call genocide) over many decades just because of their ethnicity (the way they look), and also because they belong to the Shite sect of Islam rather than the majority Sunni. Someone I know was at the site to collect information for radio reporting and they saw the bloodied (and missing) arms and legs of children.


I won’t go into the details of what happened; there are complicated nuances to the socio-cultural-political turmoil that is going on as elections are coming up and the notorious Taliban ‘spring offensive’ season is on. But there’s an Afghan journalist I follow named Mujib Mashal who writes for the New York Times and he covered a unique angle of the bombing through the tragic story of a local man who was known as a wrestler and a brave fellow who often arrived at bombing scenes to rescue the dead, dying and injured. Sadly, at this incident, he was himself a victim. You can read about it here

Afghan residents inspect the site of the suicide bombing outside a voter registration centre in Kabul on Sunday. [Source: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Image]
For those of us who were not close enough to witness the scene of destruction, the news traveled to us as the minutes of the day ticked by from the event of the blast in the morning hours. The terrible thing is that such bad tidings have become almost commonplace considering the city we are in. Yet, it is still disconcerting enough to trouble even the most war-weary soul. On the way to work last morning, as we passed some buildings under construction, our driver commented with a sigh in his language, “See these new buildings being built? What is the use if we have no peace in this city?” The wrinkles on his forehead revealed unspeakable sorrow from years of unabated violence and loss.

No peace in this city. This is not an ordinary war. I’ve read countless books about this long-standing conflict, dragged on over the last few decades by various power struggles and bloody battles exacerbated by different groups of both locals and outsiders representing a myriad of nations, political parties, factions, rebel groups, extremist networks, power-hungry thugs, brainwashed youngsters, and… you name it all. As the old Persian saying goes, “When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.”

Afghanistan war painting. [Source: Pinterest]
Through my work, I get to listen, understand, and weep along with the stories and faces I encounter daily who represent the metaphorical ‘grass’ that gets ‘trampled’. They are girls and boys who have never known any other childhood but one that is fraught with uncertainty and lack of opportunity for any proper education or creative expression. They are women laden with layers of burden heaped upon their weary shoulders, covered in a shroud of oppression. They are men who fight to survive, to provide, and yet despair daily that no amount of hard work (or fighting) has changed anything for their families and society. They are teachers, doctors, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and soldiers who hope daily to escape death one more time as they go about their work. They are the young and old alike who stagger along with a missing limb or two as they were unfortunate victims of land-mines. 

Local women and school girls crammed into a tuk-tuk. This photo was captured while on the way to visit a local area (close to where the recent bombing happened). The small vehicle is not allowed in the city or green zone areas, but only in the further neighbourhood areas of Kabul.
 Then there are the ones I call the living dead. A few days ago I passed by an infamous strip of land dividing two main roads, notoriously known for its heroin addicts. The living dead. They have found no other relief than to waste away their bones by the roadside, without family, without friends, rejected by the world, seemingly forgotten by God. The lowest of the low, the scum of the earth. Yet my heart bleeds for these ones as I return to my hiding place to sing and write, pray and cry.

It is a critical time right now. In the physical and the unseen. There are many threats and fears for the people. However, I find myself daily wondering how in the world did I end up in a place where I can both laugh and weep and sing in the same day?

One of the most powerful moments this week occurred when I shared a poem by my sister Janna titled “Bleeding Voices” with two of my students who I knew would appreciate it. Janna wrote the poem for me before I left, and she said it was for the ones I would teach here. After reading the poem to my two thoughtful students on different days, I encouraged each one to discover the power of songwriting if they’d never done it before.

The next day, one of them brought a notebook along saying that this morning while practicing the piano he was struck with inspiration and he wrote a song. It was beautiful to see the words scribbled on paper. He said he’d never written a song before, much less one in English! But here he was with his first song ever, written in English and poignantly titled “Oh, Afghanistan”. He wanted me to sing the lyrics as he played.

I couldn’t believe how this is all happening so fast – every single day in this place brings fresh insight and inspiration. For me, progress is not about skill, technology or money, but it is about the way one’s heart is yielded to the new, the spiritual, and the revolutionary, and thus it naturally pumps with renewed vigour to revolt against the ordinary, the old, and the oppressive. The song was full of sadness and pain, but also determination and courage. We agreed to work on it and record the piano and vocals with the new RODE microphone I brought with me. Ah. My poor heart. ‘Excitement’ is an inadequate word to describe my elation at this creative breakthrough happening in my teaching, in Afghanistan, of all places. My life will never be satisfied with normal again – ever.

After he shared his song, I told him about a song called “I Will Not Be Silenced” that I wrote a few days ago with my ukulele amidst all the terrible things happening. I sat at the piano and sang it simply:
I will not be silenced

I will not be silenced

I declare your love to the nations

I will not be silenced

I am not afraid

I am not afraid anymore

When I sing in your presence

I am brave in your presence

You make me brave

You make me brave

Needless to say, this marks a new beginning in the way I bring and share and teach music in the nations. Fear will find no foothold in us.

Wednesday was a momentous day for me and my students as well because I never thought I would be able to implement so quickly (in my 3rd week here) an idea that brewed urgently in my mind even before I came. One of my first goals was initiate something that had never been done with the piano faculty before: a weekly concert class for all my students to perform for each other on the grand piano, give feedback, and provide a space for creativity to flow in an indigenous way, so that those who are discovering improvisation and songwriting can get a chance to share their music in whatever style they liked, not necessarily just classical. My dream is to see them develop their own pianistic and compositional style as an Afghan generation.

We had our first concert class today, and it was a success. I can’t believe that it’s only been three weeks since the school year has started for these kids. To my delight, about 8 students signed up to perform. One of them got to play the piece he wrote for me, and he invited two friends who play flute and clarinet to improvise together with him. I asked him to share with the others how he gets his inspiration, so he could kindle the flame for creativity in the younger ones. It was so much fun. I could feel their nervousness before they performed and see the light in their eyes by the end of it.

Two of my young piano students performing an Afghan piano duet by memory in our first ever piano concert class!
Later that afternoon, I had an especially memorable lesson with one of my little students, a very bright 12-year old who performed a Minuet by Bohm from memory at the concert class. To my utmost amazement, at the end of our lesson, he tries to tell me (in broken English) that he has composed something. He plays it... and my jaw drops. It is brilliant. I had no idea that he could compose, because he just started playing piano a year ago! I quickly called a senior student (the one who wrote his first song that very morning) to come and verify (in the local language, Dari) that what the little guy just played me was actually his own composition. My senior student confirmed it was and had a listen to it. He too was impressed. Barely containing my joy, I encouraged him to look out for this little guy and help him do what he's been discovering in songwriting and improvisation. (Fun fact: I found out yesterday that there’s no word for ‘improvisation’ in the local language.)

The thing that makes me so, so ridiculously happy is that I am doing what I always believed is crucial to see the next generation come alive: to mentor my older students to mentor the younger ones in creative freedom. It cannot and will not stop with me. When I leave, I should have many after me who can do exactly what I’ve been doing, and do it better, their way. When I die, whether sooner or later, I shall rejoice because the life in me is not over and I know that beyond music, the seeds of healing have been planted. When that time comes, the world will know bright and clear why I came to this land and why these very ones were my students. The real enemy we face has no power over us. We will not be silenced.

Joyous moments daily as we practice, learn, and make new music together. This was taken after a small surprise performance a few young students planned for all the music faculty and academic teachers. It was so sweet.
 [Cover Photo Source: Reuters]

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