A Student's Letter From Afghanistan

July 21, 2005

Salaam from Karte Seh, Kabul.

Nearly one month ago, what little I knew of Afghanistan I knew by pictures and words—a couple of good books, like The Kite Runner and An Unexpected Light, and printed sound bites from The Boston Globe or The Washington Post. Even though I knew better, I still had in my mind images of stoic men in turbans, and rocket launchers hidden in caves.

The news wasn't very specific: "Seventeen suspected dead in helicopter crash . . . Explosion in internet café kills several foreign NGO Workers . . . United States forces move closer to Osama . . . Concerns for escalated violence as parliamentary elections approach . . . Hamid Karzai to root out 'foreign spies' in government . . ."

What the media's words and pictures didn't, and don't, convey about Afghanistan is what I consider so far to be at the heart of my experiences here this summer: the laughter, tenderness, hospitality, and religious and ethnic diversity of daily life. I hope I can share some of that with you, to round out the news reports.

A week ago, I found myself bouncing around in a van with a cracked windshield on the famous road between Kabul and Heart, with six married Afghan men, for 10 hours at a time. We passed through the former Kush empire, through lands once under Greek rule by Alexander the Great, past the mysterious caves and mountain-castle of Zoroaster, through herds of goats and dozens of streams, past upside-down tanks and spent rocket shells. And finally we went through the remains of the Bamyan bazaar, a site where Buddhists and spiritual seekers have lived, studied, and gathered from around the world since the fifth century ce. (This was the location of the famous Buddhas that were destroyed by the Taliban because they were considered false idols.)

Along the way, my companions—Hamid, Du'ad, Nadir, Asad, Jamil, and Sher Khan—have more than a dozen laughing fits. Until this trip, I had never seen a group of Afghan men laughing playfully, even though it happens all the time. They sing to the radio and clap until my ears echo with Indi and Afghan pop music. We stop along the way and squat by a river, to eat fresh mangoes and watermelons, then for daily prayers. They tease me like a close friend and we break bread together at every meal, eating naan flat bread for breakfast, then potatoes, rice, oils, and naan for lunch and dinner.

In Bamyan, we gave six performances in different schools, for both boys and girls. One of the Mobile Mini Circus for Children girls even gave her own juggling performance at a girls' school. (Imagine the impact on a young girl's sense of self-confidence and self-agency when she juggles three clubs in front of hundreds of her peers, meeting great applause and laughter!)

We also performed beside the green waterfalls of Banda-amir, and at schools in Shaidon and Didir. These performances are entertaining for the audiences, but they deliver important messages in powerful ways as well. Skits include, for example, a piece on conflict resolution that uses a frog, a horse, and a bear, where the frog and the horse can't get along and the bear enters as peace-maker. Because it would be inappropriate for the MMCC performers to speak about conflicts among Afghan ethic groups directly, the metaphorical use of animals conveys the message indirectly. Other skits teach about hygiene, malaria prevention, and safety measures to avoid land mines.

In a region in which culture and custom is often said to trump law, the use of persuasion through circus arts is an especially pragmatic method of promoting social change. Simply handing out brochures, posting posters, or talking to local elders seems to change very few minds.

I'm back in Kabul now, training a group of Afghan kids for an upcoming tour of Germany and Denmark, beginning August 3. For most of them, this will be their second time out of the country. The first time was when they fled to Pakistan or India during the Taliban regime. Nearly all of the MMCC kids are refugees, and the population of Kabul continues to soar as Afghan families return to their native land (some ethnic groups have waited generations for this chance).

The www.Unicycle4Kids.org website has been updated, and so has the MMCC's website: www.AfghanMMCC.org. If you're curious, I invite you to check them out.

Hodahafez, blessings, and care,