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One year since Afghanistan

It was one year ago today that I flew into Afghanistan. The following is a short piece I wrote that was published in The Utne Reader back in November. For those of you who haven’t read it, here it is. The first part is a brief summary about what we were doing over there. The next two sections are from one day in my journal. We were supposed to go back, but a lot has changed with The State Department over there in the last year so we didn’t make it. A lot has changed for me too. I’m married now, so jumping into a war torn country to try and spread good will through music might be a little more tricky these days. Anyway, enjoy.

Herat, Afghanistan. June 5, 2012
My name is Peyton Tochterman. I’m a musician from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I make my living writing, teaching and performing American Folk music – the music that tells stories in notes, chords and verse about who we are and what we Americans are all about. And I’m now in war-torn Afghanistan.
Today, I’m with two friends and fellow musicians, Gary Green and Radoslav Lorkovic, in the shadows of the Hindu Kush – in one of the most difficult, dangerous and inhospitable places on our planet. We didn’t come here to climb the mountains.
We left Charlottesville, Virginia on May 26th and headed off for Afghanistan – a 30 hour “travel adventure” on two commercial airlines and then military aircraft “in theatre.” When we boarded our first flight at Dulles International Airport, I had my two best hand-made Rockbridge guitars, a little more than $131 dollars in my bank account and a solemn promise (by e-mail, no less!!) that someone from the United States Government would meet us in Kabul. Talk about an act of faith!
The U.S. State Department invited us here as “cultural ambassadors.” What I didn’t know until we arrived was that I was THE Spokesman, representing The United States and showing how diplomacy can be shaped by the musical arts – even in war-ravaged Afghanistan. Given all I have read and heard about this place for more than a decade, I did not anticipate the magnificent reception awaiting us.
Since we have been here, news reports all across Afghanistan have complimented us for our “mini-concerts,” seminars and a “historic” performance at The Citadel (built by Alexander the Great) here in Herat. Critics in neighboring Iran were somewhat less gratifying. The Iranian press described our music as “dangerous” and “evil.”
Thankfully, the audiences and musicians we have met here in Afghanistan have been more appreciative. In little more than a week we have already met thousands of Afghans and found them to be kind, generous, hospitable, talented and honorable. They take great pride in their heritage and culture, but they also have a thirst for American Folk Music, for the stories we tell, our instruments and the way we play. The Afghan musicians with whom we played are some of the best in the world and were eager to share their masterful techniques and songs.
Some might ask “What difference can a folk singer from the Blue Ridge Mountains make in a tortured place like Afghanistan?” It’s a valid question – partly answered by one of the State Department officers who said our visit did “more for diplomacy between Afghanistan and the United States than any diplomat had done, more then any road that was built, or any power plant that was constructed in the last year.”
If nothing else, we are returning home reassured that music really is a universal language that can unite diverse peoples. We have proven to ourselves and others – U.S. and allied troops, elected officials, diplomats, students, children and people of every walk of life – there are no borders for good music. We are all connected through music and we must continue to celebrate this connection, this language that is so important not just to our own culture, but also to cultures around the world.

Herat, Afghanistan. June 3, 2012 0830hrs

Wahid picked us up today. He was irritated because someone had borrowed “his” embassy vehicle last night and wrecked it. He is by all accounts a calm man, but today he is really agitated. I asked him a few days back how he had come to drive for the Consulate.

“I made burkas during the rule of The Taliban,” he explained. “Now, I drive.”

Maybe it’s the fact that he is speaking a second language that makes Wahid get right to the point. I think it’s just Afghanistan.

Today, I’m with two friends and fellow musicians, Gary Green and Radoslav Lorkovic, in an armored Toyota Land Cruiser racing through the war-weary streets of Herat – once the headquarters for Alexander the Great’s invading army. The streets are jammed with cars, bikers, pedestrians, and Zerangs (makeshift motorcycles with a box on the back that can carry three or four people). But Wahid powers us through them at an alarmingly brisk clip. I ask him, “Have you ever gotten in an accident?”

“No.”

“What if you did? This armored SUV must weigh several tons.”

“Yes. And we stop for no one.”

Compared to Kabul, the streets of Herat are immaculate, thriving with commerce: fruit stands, fresh produce, clothes shops, bean and grain stores – much of it from nearby Iran.
The colors of this city are surprisingly vibrant given all the pictures I have seen over the last decade. Much of the media back in the states shows Afghanistan to be many shades of just one color- brown. The land has been scorched by heat and war for thousands of years. We are constantly reminded of this at every turn. Guns. You cannot walk five steps in Afghanistan without seeing someone with an automatic rifle.

Just last night as we exited a restaurant – full bellied on grilled beef, goat, chicken, lamb, rice, okra, zucchini, soft drinks – we were surrounded by children no older than five, swarming us and asking for money. A man dressed in green military fatigues came running over, shooing the children away with the barrel of his AMD65 (a very early Hungarian version of the AK47). The children scattered like flies and laughed while they ran. We were shocked. But that’s Afghanistan. For everyone here under the age of forty, all they know is war. War is everywhere here. It is part of the people, the culture. And so is the east. There is no break from it. There are no western comforts. There is little here to remind you of home. If you go to Rome, you can duck into a café for a coffee, or stop at a pub for a beer. Here, you are engulfed in the Middle East. It is suffocating. It is magnificent.

But today the colors are alive. After all, Herat is a beacon of hope for the rest of Afghanistan. The streets here are full of smiles. It has fertile land, growing businesses and a relatively low security threat. Yet, even here, there is no escaping reality. This is still a nation at war.

Two days ago a consulate motorcade left Herat carrying many of those that we are working with – all “westerners” travel in “convoys” of at least three vehicles – was enroute to the Iranian border when it ran over two IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). The bombs didn’t go off, but the event did get the full attention of our RSO (Regional Security Officer). And, it got ours.

Our protectors – Soldiers, Marines, “Security Contractors” and diplomats all remind us: “This is Afghanistan. No matter how comfortable, or how safe you feel – stay alert! You may have been here for almost two weeks, but don’t become complacent. Be aware of your surroundings. Always!”

It’s early morning. We are driving to The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) compound to set up for our first full-length concert of the trip. The AIHRC was created by the USAID (The United States Agency For International Development). By now it’s clear to us that everything the US government touches ends up as an acronym, and there are so many of them in Afghanistan I cannot figure out how they keep track. We’re told this is a favorite venue for conferences and presentations because of its stage, spacious auditorium, and of course, security perimeter.

Our mini-concerts and presentations have stirred up a lot of interest from the locals. Many are trying to get tickets for tonight because I have invited members of The Afghan Musicians Union (AMU) to open our show and join us on stage.

I confess to being anxious about what this day will bring. There is a remarkable amount to do. It looks like I will have to coordinate this entire production and all of the people who are involved – stage crew, sound crew, Asian TV crew (apparently here to film our concert for broadcast), the Herati musicians, and of course, my fellow American musicians. We are to meet the “concert producers” at 0900hrs and by noon we are to have everything set up and ready so that our security detail can come sweep the building for bombs – an interesting wrinkle in the fabric of producing a concert.

We’ve been told that when the bomb-sniffing-dogs get here, the building is to be cleared of all persons. No exceptions. We haven’t even seen the performance space yet. This will be an interesting day.

Herat, Afghanistan. June 3, 2012 2302hrs

I am humbled. I am honored. I am forever changed.

An hour before our show I climbed up on the roof to where one of the snipers on our security detail was stationed. I watched as people arrived all the while talking to my new friend about his take on Herat and other places he had been in Afghanistan.

He was from the west coast back home and had been in the Marines for four years before joining Academy (a private security firm). We kind of looked alike as he had a short haircut and a full beard. He was attired like all the others in our security team: good hiking boots, cargo pants, extra large short sleeved plaid shirt covering a Kevlar vest, black Oakley sunglasses, a handful of tattoos down his arms, and an M4 carbine and a backpack. And he truly looked like one of the baddest SOB’s you have ever met. We talked about baseball, cold beer, and music.

I watched our State Department hosts arrive at the front gate, pass through the security check and, like that they were inside the barbed wire-covered wall that surrounds the AIHRC compound. Some Afghan men arrived by foot and presented their invitation to the guards. And then off in the distance I saw a dust cloud and in the midst of it, dozens of blue burkas scuttling down the side of the road. Surely, Afghan women, covered from head to toe in their ancient attire couldn’t be coming to this concert. But they did.

One by one they went through security. Bomb scanners. Pat downs by female security personnel. Bomb-sniffing dogs. Afghan security officers and police. U.S security personnel. And one by one they walked up the crescent steps and entered the building. I leaned over the edge a bit to see the last of the blue burkas- faceless, nameless, anonymous- hustle into the auditorium. I turned and looked at my sniper friend. He simply shrugged and said, “It’s Afghanistan.”

When we came on-stage, I immediately searched for the blue burkas. They are frightening and beautiful all at the same time – much like Afghanistan itself. I was told by one of our security men that if a woman in a burka approaches you, look at her feet. “If she is wearing sandals, run! She’s not a woman and the person under the burka is most likely there to cause you harm.”

So I looked for them, but couldn’t find them. The concert began at 1630 so daylight was still filling the large auditorium and I could see everyone in the room. But the blue burkas were nowhere in the audience. Nowhere. How could that be? During our first song I’m thinking, How, in this building could 50 women in blue burkas have simply disappeared? All I could see were men. But then I noticed way in the back right corner, about 50 women in western dress, smiling and intently listening to our songs and watching us on stage. Where were the burkas?

And then it hit me. It was so obvious, yet so remarkably subtle. The women had taken off their blue burkas. They were at a Western concert, surrounded by accepting Afghan men who were there for the same reasons: They were curious – and they wanted to hear American Folk music.

Women have a very tough life in Afghanistan. Until the Americans and our coalition partners came to their country in 2001, most of them weren’t even allowed to go to school, to learn to read, or to get an education. But on this day, at this event, they had removed their traditional head-to-toe cover and were now garbed in western-style clothing, conservative by our standards, but far different than what they wore on the way to our performance. They were taking a chance, a risk, but they were here to listen to American music, eyes glowing, faces showing, like everyone else in the room: equal.

I then played my song Smile. With eyes closed, I played my guitar and blew on my harmonica. I sang as best I could, and as tenderly as I know how. And when I opened my eyes in the middle of the song my voice cracked just ever so slightly and I almost stopped dead in my tracks. The women were crying. All of them. Tears just flowing down their cheeks and dripping into their slightly open mouths. But I kept singing. Why were they crying? They don’t understand English. Why? I finished the song and we went into the next and continued doing what we were brought here to do: play American folk music.

We finished the concert to massive applause. Radaslov had played so masterfully and the Afghans completely related to the accordion, for they have a similar instrument, they call a harmonium. The audience cheered his ability and his virtuosity. Gary, as always, rose to the occasion of live performance and dazed the crowd with his World Championship caliber technique. Most importantly, we succeeded in relating to the audience and it was quite apparent that Afghans have a taste for American Folk music. It was American music – words and notes – that won the night and we were proud of our success. But why were they crying?

Afterwards there were media interviews and a seemingly endless photo session. Then, after everyone had left the building except for the band, our security detail, Wahid and Haled our Afghan handlers and interpreters and a few of our friends from the U.S. State Department, we packed up and headed to dinner.

Rad, Gary, and I were pretty jazzed up from the show as we always are after a concert. Normally, we’d be hitting a bar for a beer or two to celebrate, relax, and just unwind. But not tonight. Tonight there was no extravagant celebration. No post show party. We were just three folk musicians in an armored vehicle heading to the state department favorite Ahman restaurant for a quick meal before getting a few hours of rest. Jackie, the public affairs officer and our host, met us at the restaurant. We sat on a large rectangular platform and ate another king’s feast. Everyone talked about how great the concert was. Jackie congratulated us on a job well done and said that this first full length concert was a great success and she suspected that tomorrows show at The Citadel was going to make national news. It was a wonderful night. And then I asked. “Jackie, why were the women crying?”

“They were moved by your music.”

“OK. But they cannot understand anything I was singing.”

“Well no, Peyton. But you must understand. For many of them, that is the first time they had ever seen live music before.”

At that very moment I froze. I was unable to speak, to chew, to swallow. I couldn’t even raise my eyes to look at anyone. I was completely embarrassed.

I make my living writing and playing music. In America, people come from all over to celebrate music with me. That’s what we do as Americans. That’s our rite. We take for granted the right to gather with whom we wish, to speak freely, to sing about whatever we want. We do it all the time.

The Taliban used to destroy musical instrument, hang them from the trees, and kill those who weren’t performing “acceptable” music. But as Americans we celebrate the arts. We embrace individual liberty and free expression. Tonight in Herat, Afghainstan, at least 50 women cried in joy, perhaps in sorrow, maybe in reflection, when I performed a song I wrote on my back porch in Charlottesville, Virginia about the woman I love. Tonight was the first time they had ever seen live music.

How is this possible?

Am I that naïve?

Have I taken my country, our freedoms, for granted?

I am humbled. I am honored. I am forever changed.

Date →
May 28
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5 Comments

  • Aaron Gilmartin Says:

    Thank you Peyton. Thanks for going and playing and thanks for writing about it so passionately and clearly all at once.

  • vburd Says:

    So moving! You are so humble!

  • Jessica Says:

    An outstanding share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a co-worker who was conucting a little research on this.
    And he actually bought me breakfast simply because I found
    it forr him… lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thanks forr the meal!!
    But yeah, thnanks for spending the time to discuss this issue here onn your internet site.

  • R.J. Says:

    Peyton: Thank you for sharing and thank you for your wonderful music.

  • Brooke Says:

    Have you ever thoughtt about publishing an e-book oor guest authoring on other sites?

    I have a blog centered on the same subjects you disuss
    and would love to have yyou share some stories/information. I know my visitors would enjoy your work.
    If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an e-mail.

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