The Deal >>
Since 2000, I have built a significant rep within the State Department's Cultural Affairs Division for conducting cultural and education programs abroad with students in middle school, high school, teachers colleges and universities. I've gone to places like Israel, the West Bank, Russia, Germany, England, Macao and, now, Afghanistan. I usually spend a fair amount of time helping instructors, teachers and professors with ideas for creatively teaching English, writing and literature classes as a second language. In addition to offering classes, workshops and consultations, I am always requested to read and perform my poetry.
I am usually hosted by the U.S. Embassy in the countries I visit. I am often one of only a few American poets or writers invited to many of these programs. For example, as far as I know, only one other poet — from Iowa — visited Afghanistan in recent months, or maybe years. Some of the places I go don't exactly top "must visit" lists for other writers I know. Many are leery of even visiting Israel or the West Bank, let alone Afghanistan.
Look, I am not brave; I am just a dedicated teacher-poet who keeps focused on the task I am assigned in any overseas assignment.
More, the U.S. State Department does not, in any way, censor my work, my performances, lectures or talks overseas when I work for them. Actually, their Cultural Affairs Division is quite liberal and art-and-artist friendly. I am also always aware of how far I can push the envelope in certain locations and with certain audiences. I think the State Department is very comfortable, after 12 years, with the fact I am always very respectful of a country's traditions, religions and customs. My assignments are not for every artist, but they fit my work and who I am as a person. —M.L. Liebler
I want to write, I want to write about
My dreams which never come true,
My power that has always been ignored,
My voice which is never heard by this deaf universe,
My rights which have never been counted,
My life decisions which are always made by others.
Oh my destiny, give me the answer, what am I for in this universe?
—From "Read My Poems on the Reddish Stream of My Blood" by Emaan
This is a poem by one of the brave young women I met upon my arrival in Kabul in early May. I was asked to go to Afghanistan for 10 days by the U.S. State Department's Cultural Programs Division. They called me two days before last Thanksgiving and told me that I had been requested in Afghanistan by a cultural affairs officer with whom I had worked successfully in the West Bank a couple of years ago.
The gentleman on the phone asked if I'd "take this mission?" I'd worked in dangerous places before for the State Department — such as the West Bank and Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War — so I said I'd do it. After a long trip, I started working early my second morning in Afghanistan.
For my first in-country assignment, I was driven to an undisclosed place in a quiet Kabul neighborhood. For the next three hours I visited with several strong, courageous young women involved in the Afghan Women's Writers' Project. The project was started by American writer and novelist Masha Hamilton in 2009 after she viewed a disturbing underground video of Zarmeena, a mother of seven who, 10 years earlier, was executed by the Taliban in Kabul's Ghazi Stadium for allegedly killing her husband. A videotape of the execution was smuggled out by RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan). Masha was determined to find out about this executed woman, so she could honor her memory. She started the AWWP for that purpose, and also to offer women of Afghanistan hope through their creative words, images and art.
I arrived early by way of an armored SUV with tracking devices and "jammers" turned on to keep anyone from activating roadside bombs through cell phones. (Jammers stop all cell phone usage within the range of the passing SUV.) I found the gathered women to be alive with creativity, with energy, and they were anxious to meet an American poet and talk poetry as a way to express their inner and cultural struggles. We sat on the pillows on the floor in traditional Afghan style. The host served cookies and plenty of traditional tea. The women were hungry to create new work, to read their new and older poems to me, and to share stories of their recent protests at local colleges on behalf of women's rights.
Some said their actions earned them coverage on BBC News and the cover of U.K. newspaper The Guardian. They told me they'd have to give their blood to make things better for the next generation of Afghan women. This sounded very brave and admirable, but these ladies were only in their 20s, and at times they spoke as though their lives were over for their cause to liberate women.
I was shocked to see students the age of my own students at Wayne State University talking this way, but Afghanistan is a different place with different problems, and I could tell that they felt they had to face their struggles using desperate methods. One of the poets told me that Afghanistan's women's rights movement was at the point where the American suffragist movement was in here in the early 1900s. They were determined to win, or die trying.
The poems they created were based on Native American poetry and music exercises that I gave them. They wrote beautifully using this music and short poems as their lyrical and musical inspiration, which was totally foreign to them. (To read the good work these women are creating in anonymity, go to awwproject.org/ and support them by purchasing the brand new anthology of their work entitled The Sky Is a Nest of Swallows: A Collection of Poems and Essays by Afghan Women Writers [Bellville Books Press 2012].)
After the AWWP meeting, we headed via our trusty bulletproof SUV to the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in another part of town near Kabul University. The sidewalks of were jammed with pedestrians, and the unlined main roads were bumper-to-bumper with small cars, each packed full of passengers driving through the dusty, hot hazy streets of the capital. People on bicycles and walking wore scarves or surgical masks over their mouths and noses to keep the car and dust pollution from their lungs. If you think the bus system in metro Detroit is bad, try jumping in a moving Toyota minivan with sliding doors wide-open and broken seats for bus service commute. I watched an older guy in a suit miss the jump to catch a quickly moving bus-van and literally get left in the dust.
When we arrived at ANIM (The Afghanistan National Institute of Music — a public arts-based high school in city-center Kabul) and entered the building, I guessed this school was some sort of Fame-style high school, or Kabul's version of Glee. The students were a combination of working-class and middleclass students. The boys and girls, ages 12-18, wore school uniforms. This school is famous for graduating some of Afghanistan's most acclaimed musicians. The kids were very serious about their studies and their music. My plan was to introduce them to performance poems by showing them one of my pieces with tape loops that I created in various studios around Detroit with area musicians. This is a technique I picked up on after seeing Postal Service play The Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles several years ago. The loops are created so musicians in other countries can play along. Sometimes, I plug my iPod into a sound system or amplifier for a fuller sound.
I performed a couple of my standards in a large ANIM High School classroom, including John Sinclair's "The Screamers," so they could see how I performed poems with music. Next, we discussed Langston Hughes' poetry, concrete and abstract language, and then I got them to write some poems using repetitious lines starting with "I Have a Dream."
I was now bringing a little M.L. King into the program. Next, I wanted the students to put the pieces to hip hop. We were doing everything from Langston's "Harlem" (with its famous question: "What happens to a Dream Deferred") to Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy" to M.L. King with the hip-hop thrown in for good measure. They were all totally unfamiliar with these American cultural signposts, but I could tell they were interested and ready to dig.
These were amazing kids who communicated at various levels of English, which these students were all learning as a required second language. In addition, the students are all music students. As they were writing their "Dream" poems, I got the idea to have them play their own live hip hop Afghan-style versus using a tape loop. I asked who had their instruments handy? Several hands went up. A very hip drummer kid had his doumbek (a sort of Middle East and Asian conga) handy; another kid grabbed his sitar; and I got a very shy, quiet, veiled girl to fetch her viola. I started the drummer with a cool, funky beat. Next, I had the girl bow repeating chords on her viola, and I told the sitar player to make like Jimi Hendrix and rip some lead. Many in the room seemed to know the name "Jimi Hendrix." I was surprised because they had never heard of Detroit, Eminem or hip hop, but "Jimi" they got. Breakthrough! I thought. Yes, we were making good progress in Kabul.
After they jammed a bit, I started bringing the poets of all ages up to rap their poems. Some were shy and more reserved, so they came up in small groups of two or three, but others jumped up and started reading their poems to the beats and sounds. It was beyond cool. A couple of dudes even free-formed after their written poems ran out.
The room was rockin'. They were on fire, and like true open mic poets, I couldn't get them to stop, so we jammed on for an hour or so. Their unique instruments jammed funky beats, and we were grooving, Detroit stylin', ancient Afghanistan. This class was seriously rocking out, and a lot of other students gathered outside the door to see "sup" with the goateed bald dude rockin' the ANIM poetry class. It ended a very cool and culturally rewarding first day in the 'Stan. This homey quickly realized that he wasn't in Kansas, or Motown, anymore, Dorothy.
The next day, I met with my first group of Access students in Kabul. Access is a U.S. government-sponsored English-language training program administered around the world to make the study of English more accessible to students and teachers. I have visited several of these programs not only here, but in Israel, the West Bank and Russia over the years. These students were very fluent in reading, writing and speaking English. I brought a little Paterson, N,J., with me to the class. I turned the students onto pediatrician and major American writer and poet William Carlos Williams, who often wrote short poems on the back of prescription pads. The students had all been to the doctor as children, so they knew what a prescription was and what it looked like. They seemed to find it amazing that a children's doctor wrote poems and stuffed his white doctor's coat with poems. I shared "The Locust Tree in Spring" and his very famous "The Red Wheelbarrow." The students were very familiar with wheelbarrows (which they called "carts") because it is quite common for Afghan men to push them down the sidewalks, down the middle of the busy streets and the side streets of Kabul. We even saw a guy pushing a red one down the road just after the class.
Anyway, I had them create short, imagistic poems with no more than two-to-three words a line, just like Williams. They did nice work, and then I hit the hip-hop loops for the background. The kids were geeked and excited to stand up "in the name of Allah" (as is their tradition) and recite to music. I got them moving and jumping to the beats, and I could see many of the students, both male and female, coming out of their usual reserved and quiet selves.
The teacher and I were both amazed at their uninhibited participation, and it felt like a worthy break from the much more traditional and ordered Afghan classroom. I'd meet up with some of these students later at a debate and they were excited to see me again.
The next day would be a major adventure that involved wearing body armor, Army helmet and flying in military-issued machine-gun manned helicopters to the city of Jalalabad just to the east of Kabul. For some reason — and with all of the fears of possibly getting mowed down by machine guns, or blown up by an IED (improvised explosive device) — I was at peace with all of this. I knew this was all part of an adventure that I would never, ever forget. I also know that God is good. Just for good measure, I got my prayer on by attending mass at the Italian Embassy down on Masood Road that Sunday night.
Tuesday morning we boarded a helicopter to travel out to orange blossom country in beautiful Jalalabad in Nangarhar Province. Jalalabad is a stone's throw from the famous Kyber Pass, which is the gateway to Pakistan. We helicoptered in from Kabul passing over the beautiful snowcapped peaks of the southern slopes of the Hindu Kush Mountains heading east to Nangarhar. We landed at a military base that was once a Soviet R&R spot and later (rumor has it) a Taliban retreat where Osama bin Laden and his posse once stayed. Nobody knows if this is 100 percent true, but it certainly looks like old-school Soviet housing to me, and I have stayed in my share of old Soviet-style hotels in my several visits to Mother Russia. We were, also, near the famous Tora Bora caves where bin was allegedly hiding when Dubya famously, and stupidly, said "I don't know where he is. Frankly, I don't spend a lot of time thinking 'bout him anymore." This wasn't long after 9/11.
My roommate, and host, at the old Soviet R&R spa was a Detroit native and Wayne State University urban studies and planning masters graduate and U.S. Agency for International Development worker from Plymouth, Michigan. His parents are still there, and he gets home every so often to catch a Tigers game and live the Detroit life. When he attended WSU, he lived in a loft down on the river. He actually told me that out of all his degrees (from University of Michigan, etc.), it was his WSU M.A. that has been the most valuable in his work in Afghanistan. Go Warriors!
Anyway, Mike D. (I have withheld his name for security purposes) showed me around the compound and pointed out the dusty, empty swimming pool where the "urban legend" (Hey now,— Jalalabad's a big ass city in these here parts!) is that the Taliban executed people there. It now has a basketball hoop with a hand-painted three-point line around it. I think the Taliban executed in the deep end — in more ways than one.
I was given three assignments in Jalalabad over two working days there. First, I did a workshop with 30 English Access micro-scholarship students from the area and their teachers. I turned the workshop into a lesson and poetry-writing session based, again, on William Carlos Williams' short poems.
The students were all Pashto school kids who were very reserved and very polite. I knew I had to quickly change that scene. Five minutes into our two-hour session, as can be typical in Afghanistan, the electric generator went out and left us with no A/C or lights. We were in what they call a container without windows, and it was over 90 degrees and sunny outside. Oy! Oy! Oy!
I had the kids write their poems on big white sheets of paper that we hung all around the room. I then had them get up and rap the poems to the instrumental music of Eminem's "Lose Yourself." I heard one of the soldiers in the back of the room yell his approval for my musical taste. These youngsters had never heard of hip-hop music — ever, but they loved it. The look in their eyes must have been similar to my own when I first heard the Beatles on AM radio in 1963. They were excited. I told them to jump around and "free form" words with the music. They did. They like! They like! This experience was one of the coolest overseas educational ones I have ever had. Young students enthusiastically reciting poetry to a beat while jumping and running in place. This was cross-cultural poetry heaven to me. This workshop is exactly why I do this in unusual places around this world.
The next day in Jalalabad, I was going to first meet with college students and professors from Nangarhar University. To get there, we had to suit up in full body armor and load into MRAPS, which are, essentially, Humvees on steroids and built to withstand roadside bombs, bullets, grenades, etc. It took four of these to get me to the location in downtown Jalalabad. Two led the way, I was in the third tank, and a fourth backed us up just in case any of those nasty insurgents lay in wait for a goateed Detroit poet passing by in a tank. Once we arrived, we had to exit and stand in the middle with our flak jackets while several heavily armed soldiers walked us to the lecture hall.
I 'll say right here that all of these men are extremely well-trained and are some of the most dedicated people I have ever met. Seeing them in action here makes me feel both proud and very safe. I know people say crap like that all the time, but I am telling you the truth. I have seen them work up close and personal, and they saved my life every minute of every day I was in Afghanistan.
Anyway, the students and professors wanted to talk contemporary American poetry, so I walked them through a little Dickinson, Whitman, Williams, Hughes and some Ginsberg. The discussion was full and meaningful. I perfected a couple of pieces for them, and they seemed to like the "M.L. music and poetry thing" quite a bit too. We had a super great session followed by a traditional Afghan lunch (they gots some great pita over there, people).
After lunch, I met with a good-sized group of young poets, and we talked, and some of them read their poems in English and others in their native Pashto. We had decent translators at various programs who offered solid translations — according to what some of the bilingual poets in the audiences told me. We talked about the importance of poetry in our lives, its importance in our respective communities in Jalalabad and Detroit.
On Thursday morning, we got back in our body armor and helicoptered back down to Kabul for a meeting with Kabul artists and writers at the Afghan Cultural House. Upon arrival at this very contemporary cultural center, I met some very hip writers, filmmakers, painters and musicians. I'd say this is Kabul's version of our own Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.
I performed a few poems to start for them, to which they said, "We like! We Like!" I did some "Blood in the Moon" (they seem very big on both "blood" and the "moon" over there). We talked Afghan poetry, fiction, artwork and music. I turned them on to some Whitman, Langston Hughes and Canada's Four Horsemen (long live bpNichol.
I encouraged all the artists there to think outside the box for collaborations between different types of artists. I told the established writers and artists in the audience that I sincerely believed there would be a market for their work in America where there is a conspicuous lack of literature and art from a country we have been so connected with for nearly 12 years. They seemed encouraged by my words. I gave them some of my CDs for themselves and the Cultural House's library.
As I was leaving for the armored SUV, a young Afghan woman artist stopped me to show me her paintings on slides on her iPhone. They were very impressive and intriguing and quickly grabbed my attention. The paintings were colorful, and each included pieces of human hair inserted into the acrylic. She asked me, through our interpreter, to collaborate with her by putting some of my new poems to her paintings. She said that she was ready to "how you say 'think outside the box'?" I enthusiastically agreed to the project. She told me that she created all of her work as a statement on behalf of women's rights to help empower all the women of Afghanistan. This is very brave for her to do where women are treated as second-class (or less) citizens. I told her I was eager to collaborate with such a fine artist for such an important cause, and I thought we could get the book published over here in the U.S. by some forward-thinking publisher.
Friday is their Sunday in Afghanistan. It was, also, my day off for a little R&R American style. The cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy (my crib when in-country), a very cool dude and major Rolling Stones fan, took me to the weekly Friday bazaar on the nearby NATO compound. I found some less than legit DVDs, bought several Pashto hats, cool Afghan scarves for my bride, and for my longtime band mate and poetry partner Faruq Z. Bey, I picked up some genuine amber prayer beads and a cool new Muslim lid, which I am sure he'll sport the next time you see him playing in Motown. I watched a little of the embassy softball team play in a field on the other compound (the Tigers were on the Armed Forces Network every morning there live from the West Coast — O Yea!), and I headed back to my hooch to relax because the next day we were heading to the wild, wild south in Kandahar.
We had to get up at 4 a.m. to allow time to drink my requisite pot of Starbucks before heading on the journey of a lifetime to the Taliban stronghold Kandahar. (I have long traveled exclusively with Starbucks. I have to brew it in some pretty unusual places, such as a sleeping car on the Trans-Siberian Express, a broken-down Soviet hotel room, a Hong Kong Nunnery Hotel, not to mention my embassy hooch in Kabul.)
The travel plan to this gig consisted of a State Department small jet, a Chinook helicopter ride with machine guns that were tested — en route — into the side of a mountain, and a four tank/MRAP convoy to an undisclosed location to meet the 30-plus primo poets of the Kandahar poetry scene. We had a wonderful two-hour session reading our poems to each other and discussing the importance of poetry in Afghan and American societies. I told them all about the hip scene we have in Detroit. One poet dude even looked just like Smokey Robinson. He had never heard of Motown or Smokey, so I sang a chorus of "Being With You" and "Tears of a Clown." They liked that.
I can tell you all that poetry is really important there. I performed my spiritual piece "Deliver Me" with Coltrane's "Love Supreme" riff as a loop, and they went bonkers because religion is huge there, and they thought it was very cool that an American poet was willing to display his faith in God/Allah in a public setting, which is way normal and acceptable in Afghanistan.
I taught them to click their fingers after poems were read aloud and to say "dig that!" There was much "clicking" and "digging" later during the rest of the workshop. As we were offering concluding comments (there's a tradition here at public gatherings for the guest to make a small speech), the head of the educational-cultural organization that hosted us stood up and said in Pashto: "Your visit here today as an American poet is more important than 500,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan." Needless to say, I was moved very deeply when I heard the translation. I told them that we, as poets and as Afghans and an American, were all meant to meet in this location on that Saturday in Kandahar long before we were all born, and that day was allowing us all to fulfill our destinies.
After the gig, we were hustled out to the tanks by a team of professional Army staffers, heavily armed and ready for anything that might happen. They circled us, walked us into the tanks, and we drove back to the base. At the base, we had pizza for lunch, discussed the very positive experience and event, and suited back up with our body armor and helmets to head back to Kabul by Chinook, by plane, and by armored SUV. All in a day's work on the Afghan beat. Does stuff like this really happen to a working-class kid from Motown?
It is still very hard for me to believe it happened.
Now, with the Kandahar, Jalalabad, Kabul and the other Afghanistan experiences behind me, and in hindsight — most of these visits had elements of serious danger for members of the audiences, for the military who assisted us at each location, and, dare I say, for me. But I was warmly welcomed in very loving ways by each of my hosts and my audiences and the high school and college students along the way. I found all of the Afghan people I met to be supportive and appreciative of Americans and American culture. I did not sense even a slight hint of hostility toward myself, the military escorts, the USAID staff members or Embassy staff members. According to recent speeches by their president and other politicians in Afghanistan, I do get a sense that it is close to the time we need to turn over all security to their military and withdraw most of our troops. Right now, Afghanistan appears to be a fairly secured place, but I think your average citizen on the street is fairly happy that we helped them get rid of the Russians and later the Taliban. Most Afghan people want to live in freedom and safety, and it is my sense that they respect us for helping them with that. The people here are strong, kind and creative. Hopefully, they will find their way home once again to an Afghanistan of peace. They have had it before in their long, long history, so it is not impossible. I hope I made at least a small cultural and humanitarian contribution to them and for my country.
Maybe the dude was right in Kandahar? Maybe 500,000 poets would've solved this problem quicker than war, fighting and death. I don't know — I am just a Detroit poet. However, I think America can and will continue to play a significant diplomatic role in Afghanistan as we do with our other embassies around the world. There will likely always be a need for cultural and educational exchanges between artists and educators, between America and Afghanistan. Frankly, I see my job as a working-class artist and educator in the way Allen Ginsberg once wrote:
Well, while I'm here, I'll do the work —
and what's the work?
To ease the pain of living.
As I headed back to the U.S.A. by way of Dubai and Amsterdam to my sweet, sweet Motor City, I knew I was leaving part of my heart and soul in Afghanistan with poets, students, and artists I met in my short time there. I promised them all that I would carry their poems, their many kind words and overwhelming love and goodwill back to America and to Detroit. No Americans (or foreigners) stay in Afghanistan forever. Most of us are "short-timers," but what a week it was over there.
Like my fellow Detroit poet Em' said, "Look, if you had one shot / or one opportunity / To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment / Would you capture it/or just let it slip?"
I'm here to say that I "captured" and embraced every moment I was given in Afghanistan, and I took a good, long ride on the Kabul beat. I think I brought something to the cultural and educational table that worked here and might just last for at least some time to come.
As that best-selling novel The Kite Runner states, "We have a chance to be good again." We do, America. We do Detroit! Keep the faith. One thing that I noticed there was that the people of Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad loved their cities just as much as many of us love Detroit. To the outside world, both places seem broken and unfixable, but it's the people who can and will make the difference. They can't destroy hope, love and faith. They got it there, and we have it here too. Let us all stand up for each other and continue to fight the good fight.
The Afghan people matter, and what happens to them is a symbol of what happens to all of us whether we understand it or not. After 12 long years, their lives are now forever intertwined with ours, and these lessons of war and struggle can teach us in Detroit how to "rise from the ashes" once again. Hey Detroit, we've got "one opportunity," and another chance "to be good again." I plan to capture it and not let it slip away!
As the plane took off from Kabul International Airport in a light rain, I put my earphones on, pushed my seat back and pressed play on my iPod. I closed my eyes, thanked God for this important time, and for returning me safely to Detroit. At just that serendipitous moment, my good pal Blair's voice sweetly washed through my ears and over my soul:
And every raindrop falling from the sky
Is like a tribute to the blue skies following behind
And every raindrop falling to the sea
Is like a testament to a new life that will come to be.
(from the song "Every Raindrop" by Blair from his CD The Line).
M. L. Liebler is a Detroit-area poet, Wayne State University faculty member and founding director of the National Writer's Voice Project in Detroit and the Metro Detroit Writers organization. His new CD with Moby Grape's Peter Lewis and Eddie Baranek is just out on The Detroit Radio Company label. His Made in Michigan Literary Walk at Wayne State University takes place Saturday, June 30, from noon-5 p.m., featuring Jim Daniels, Anne-Marie Oomen, Maria MazziottiGillan, Susan Whitall, Brett Callwood, Bill Harris, Philip Sterling, Melba Joyce Boyd, Dorene O'Brien, Francine Harris, Rev. Robert B. Jones and more. He is online at mlliebler.com. The Afghan Cultural House is at ach.af.