29 January 2009

Sufi music, poetry sizzles, but 'Red Hot' doesn't

A performance of Sufi music and poetry by Ahmad Sham and a six-person ensemble at The American Institute of Afghanistan Studies Thursday evening in Kabul was a powerful reminder how music can be a transcendental experience that creates altered and ecstatic states. Sufism, a mystical expression of Islam, is practiced around the Muslim world, is very popular in India, but is typically condemned by Muslim fundamentalists. “In Afghanistan, the music is always accompanied by Persian Sufi poetry, mostly from Rumi, Hafez, Sadi, Khayam, Sanayee and Jami,” according to an AIAS press release.

After the performance, having failed to locate an Afghan restaurant that was recommended to one of our group, we joined larger collection of AUAF faculty and staff members who had gone to the "Red, Hot & Sizzling" restaurant to celebrate a birthday. With a name like that, I wasn't sure whether we were going to an eatery or a strip joint. I understand why people seek familiar foods and other comforts when they are in a foreign land, but why anyone would want to go this place—or any of the 10 million steakhouses and "gourmet hamburger" joints in the United States it is patterned on—is beyond my comprehension

Getting there involved go through a gated and guarded entrance and then zig-zagging through a series of concrete barriers that prevent any vehicle from going more than a few miles an hour. When we got there, the parking lot was empty—apparently others in the restaurant also got there by hired transport—and the place was surrounded by what appeared to be abandoned industrial buildings. Barely lit and wet with rain, the site looked like a set from the filming of Reservoir Dogs or Apocalypse Now.

I haven't been in Kabul or with AUAF long enough to formulate any kind of lasting impressions, and will try to resist that temptation for a while, but I enjoy the newness of the experience and the sheer spectacle of everyday street life, which teems with pedestrians, vehicles of every size and description, some painted more colorfully than the wildest tie-dye job; donkey-drawn carts, goats herds in the middle of the city, women in chadors—the full body covering with netting to allow visibility, typically pale blue in color—teenagers in Western-style clothing countless shops packed with fresh produce, bread baked on site, and animal carcasses hanging in front; huge mansions next door to muddy hovels, and police and army members casually brandishing automatic weapons. At this point, I suspect all of the new international faculty members, me included, are on their best behavior and trying to create good first impressions. It will take a few weeks before those facades fall. I have been impressed with how friendly and warm the Afghan locals, and not just AUAF staff members, have been to me. By comparison, I found Kyrgyz people, or more accurately, residents of Bishkek, to be more reserved and stand-offish.

Later today, I will go to the new campus—the site was donated but AUAF has no firm commitments to develop it yet—where I can run, with shorts no less, which are taboo in public in Afghanistan, even in relatively cosmopolitan Kabul.