Kabul, Afghanistan | March, 2005
So if you recall from the last Diary, it was dumping snow in Kabul and the official conclusion of a seven year drought when my girlfriend Suphala, tabla player extraordinaire, and a few of her friends, decided to turn up in Afghanistan. She was spending her usual winter in India, taking lessons from her guru, Ustad Zakir Hussein, and decided that is would be great fun to “check out” Afghanistan. Visitors like her, coming for reasons of leisure and artistic exploration, don’t come around very often so it was really an occasion to celebrate. With just enough foresight, I got in touch with Robert Kluyver, a very interesting and multilingual Dutch citizen who had been living in Afghanistan for the past four years, dating from before the fall of the Taliban. Robert used to work for the UN, but got ejected after they discovered that he had illegally brought his wife and infant children into the country. Being such a hipster, he had a way of just settling into a place. He spoke fluent Farsi amongst other things and was the founder of the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society (FCCS), an organization that held countless concerts, film nights, and art exhibitions in their beautiful old adobe compound on the hillside of Salang Watt. FCCS was just completing construction of a new performance space and it was decided that Suphala would be the concert with which to inaugurate the space.
It was the 3rd week in January and my People Magazine writer was bitterly complaining about absolutely everything, and justifiably so. You could see nothing but white – snow trucks are non-existent in this charming capital city and it’s each man, house, and goat for himself when the sky decides to unleash its wintery punishment. But somehow, Suphala would not be deterred from coming, though I warned her enough to almost feel that my liability was nil. The day of her supposed arrival, her flight came within 60 kilometers of the city before turning around as a result of poor visibility. Such occurrences were actually very commonplace with flights into the Kabul “bowl”. It even happens in the peak of summer. The flight went all the way back to Dubai, kept everyone sitting in the terminal for 14 hours with little or no information, and then took off again. The following morning, I rush to the airport to greet her. She arrives in a green and embellished flowy Indian outfit, her long locks poorly concealed under a matching green headscarf. In her hand is a smaller tabla that she apparently didn’t have a case for and in tow is Harper Simon, wearing a long black velvet coat, a brightly striped scarf, and patent leather Christian Dior Homme boots. And behind the two of them is Melissa North, an older woman who is clearly a pure product of the 60’s and old family friends of Harper’s dad. Harper has got his guitar case and clearly none of them have a clue that it’s high winter in Afghanistan because Suphala isn’t wearing a coat or even socks. Fresh off the boat from a show in Dubai, she figured Kabul would be “chilly”, but blizzards were not anticipated.
Not to Suphala’s knowledge, she was already being taped for her sudden eclipse into Afghan celebrity. A film crew from Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s answer to free press and youth culture, were at the airport and aired her arrival on the evening news that night. Afghans love Indians for a host of reasons, one of the most obvious being that their celebrity culture is dominated by Bollywood and Indian music. In fact, as we were to discover in the next few days, many of Afghanistan’s great classical musicians have ethnic Indian roots as they were brought over from the Moghul courts and settled in Afghanistan. So for the rest of the week, whether shopping for fur coats or at a restaurant, Suphala was excitedly approached by countless Afghans, some of which even wanted her autograph!
The next day, Robert had already scheduled a jamming and get-to-know session between Suphala and all the Kabuli musicians. It was my last week in town and I was frantically busy with the workshop, but couldn’t miss this first encounter between a group of Afghan men and a female musician. Just to provide a bit of background info, women in Afghanistan do NOT play any instruments – instrument playing is considered the men’s domain. Playing instruments is likened to woman welding, or God forbid, riding a bicycle. You can scale the entire country and be hard pressed to find a single female able to do either. And to add a more radical twist to the tale, Suphala was not exactly a harpist – the girl bangs on drums! What more masculine instrument is there in this world? Surprisingly, and probably because these were musicians with a naturally more open-minded disposition, they handled it quite nicely, being friendly as the jam session unfolded. But the other issue was that many of them were serious masters of their instruments, whereas Suphala, however talented, was a student. This brought on a different sort of tension – one more concerned over making sure that their mastery was well-recognized. The Afghan tabla player, Ostad something or other, was extraordinary and he made sure everybody knew – he banged with relentless ferocity on his tablas and between his displays and those of the others, it was a reminder to Suphala that she was indeed treading on new territory and very testosterone-riddled one at that. I think the master musicians in particular were also a bit slighted by the fact that a “kid” like Suphala could show up in town and because she was foreign and/or female, could create this kind of publicity and noise so effortlessly, whereas they, who were superior musicians, could never attain this level attention from so many sources. Nonetheless, the scene of the jam session was like a 1960’s visit of the Beatles to India – while the musicians intensively engaged with each other, all kinds of interesting characters, both foreign and Afghan, slipped in and out of the room, with a New York Times writer taking notes and the NYT photographer snapping pictures.
I was regretfully absent for one of the more interesting experiences Suphala had during her visit. On a blisteringly cold day, I stayed in the office freaking out about miscellaneous last minute issues before my departure, while she was hosted for lunch in the Khanabad district of Kabul, a part of the “old town” that a typical foreigner like me has virtually no reason to visit. She described it as an extraordinary day, saying how the musicians, though quite poor, went to the nines in classic Afghan hospitality with their food preparation and efforts, probably bankrupting themselves in the process. And it was on this trip that she discovered that they are all a little bit Indian! All of them can trace their ancestry to Indians who came over from the Mughal courts to teach music to Afghans and over time, became absorbed into society here. So very interesting, and it certainly explained their darker complexions and their in-depth knowledge of with the classical instruments of South Asia.
On other days, we made visits to Tolo and Arman, the radio arm of that TV station and just about the most ubiquitous bit of media in the whole country. There is not a single guardroom or house in the country from which does not emanate the familiar jingle of Arman radio. And on this week in late January, Suphala and Harper went on to play a little music and be interviewed. I tagged along for some tea and sweets while I listened quietly from the other side of the glass barricade. Wow. Such fun. Everyone was excited and could feel the energy of having visitors of this nature. Suphala was definitely a product of a very different world, though one connected to Asia. She was a certified member of the New York music scene and Harper was the spawn of rock nobility. Melissa North and her husband were founders the famous Groucho Club of London. Yet here they all were, gracing our camp-like frontier lifestyles with a bit of glamour.
The night of the concert, copious amounts of snow was falling on the ground, making it hard to distinguish earth from sky. But the concert hall had such a fantastic turnout that if concert goers showed up a few minutes late, they could not be admitted due to the mobs. The mixture was evenly Afghan and foreign, something not often seen in this town. I, as I had been all week, continued to run around like a tour manager, barking out demands and trying to service the needs of the “band”. For the first half, Suphala played with the masters and each one had their turn going solo. It was truly a beautiful concert with some of the very best musicians Afghanistan had to offer there on the stage. For the second half, Suphala played with Harper and then later, totally solo but with her electronic accompaniment. The foreigners in the audience were thrilled to hear such hip and lovely Eastern/Western fusion-style music in concert in the middle of Kabul. But the same could not be said for Afghan portion of the audience, many of whom did not like the electronic accompaniment and who were still rather disturbed by the appearance of a female percussionist. At some point, I had migrated into the audience and was listening next to my business partner, Nasrullah. A heckler behind me was making far too much noise and before I realized what I was about to do, I had turned around and swiped his arm quite hard. He was in shock and a group of about fifteen Afghan men were speechless as to how a foreign woman in the audience spoke such fast Farsi and had the nerve to make physical, hostile contact. I didn’t know either…but how dare a heckler turn up to such a special event and give himself permission to be so disruptive?
But the foreigners were still ecstatic and everybody in town came up afterwards to introduce themselves to Suphala and Harper and express their delight. It was a one-of-a-kind evening for everybody. The next morning, the skies parted, the sun shined, and Suphala and the gang left Kabul without further ado. The New York Times did a great story on it, and Tolo did a one hour special that every soul in Afghanistan seemed to have watched.