I traveled out to Orange Blossom country in beautiful Jalalabad in Nangarhar Province. Jalalabad is a stone’s through from the famous Kyber Pass which is the gateway to Pakistan. We helicoptered in from Kabul passing over the beautiful snow capped 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% true, but it certainly looks old school Soviet housing to me, as I have stayed in my share of old Soviet style hotels in Mother Russia. We were near the famous Tora Bora Mountain caves where Bin was allegedly hiding and where he was when Dubya famously and stupidly said “I don’t know where he is. Frankly, I don’t spend a lot 0f time thinking bout him anymore.” This was months after 9/11.
My roommate and host was a Detroit native and Wayne State University Urban Studies and Planning Masters graduate and USAID State Dept. worker from Plymouth, Michigan. His parents are still there, and he gets home every so often. When he attended WSU, he lived in a loft down on the river. He actually told me that out of all his degrees from UM, etc.-the WSU M.A. has been the most valuable in his work in Afghanistan. Go Warriors!!!!
Anyway, he 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 3 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. First,I did a workshop with 30 English Access Micro-scholarship students from the area and their teachers. Access is a U.S. government-sponsored English-language training program administered around the world is 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 and the West Bank over the years. I turned the workshop into a lesson and poetry writing session based upon William Carlos Williams short poems. The students were all Pasthtu school kids who were very reserved and very polite. I knew I had to quickly change the scene. Five minutes into our two hour session, as is typical, 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! After I had the kids write their poems on big white sheets of paper that we hung all around the room, I had them get up and rap the poems to the instrumental music of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and B.I.G.’s “Juicy.” They had never heard of hip-hop music-ever, but they liked it immensely. The look in their eyes must have been similar to my own when I first heard The Beatles. They were excited. I told them to jump around and “free form” words with the music. They did. They like! They like! It was one of the coolest overseas educational experiences I have ever had.
The next day 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-essentially Humvees on steroids built to withstand roadside bombs, bullets, grenades, etc. It took four of these things 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. Once we arrived, we had to exit and stand in the middle with flak jackets of several heavily armed soldiers as they walked us to the lecture hall. I want to say to all these men are extremely talented, well trained and 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 Dickinson, Whitman, Williams, Hughes and some Ginsberg. The discussion was full and meaningful. I perfed a couple of pieces for them, and they seemed to like the ML music-po thing quite a bit too. Who knew? We had a super great session followed by a traditional Afghan lunch (they gots some pita over here). After lunch, I met with a wide variety of Pashtu poets, and we talked and they read their poems. We talked about the importance of poetry in our lives, the community and the world.
On Thursday, we coptered back down to Kabul for a meeting at The Afghan Cultural House. More on that cool meeting in the next Blog.