There are some things that you can’t really prepare for.
You can be briefed, and read more, and ponder, and pack, and think that you have some idea of what’s coming, but then you’re there — and there’s no way you could have imagined what it’s really like.
There was very little she could have learned during her 19 years as a flute teacher at the Thurnauer School of Music at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly (and as the founder of the JCC’s FluteStar summer camp, among many other things) that could have prepared Noelle Perrin of Fort Lee for her 18-day stint at a music school in Ka bul.
The school itself is a bit of a miracle, both the only music school and the only coed school in all Afghanistan, Ms. Perrin said. It is a new boarding schooling, open for about six years, created once the music-banning, art-destroying Taliban and its maleficent echoes left Kabul.
Ms. Perrin is an international Suzuki teacher trainer; it’s a high rank within the Suzuki music-education world, attainable only with a great deal of experience. She was invited to go to the school — the Afghan National Institute of Music — because the school had no flute teachers; she trained 12 in the time she was there.
The school is an unusual institution, she said. “It is an academic school, with a concentration in music”; it has counterparts that specialize in math or science. It draws children from across the country. “I don’t know how students get into the school,” she said. “It’s not on musical aptitude, because most of the kids don’t play any instruments until after they get there.” They do take aptitude tests, but it’s hard to score musical aptitude in a child who has had no musical training, she said.
What does distinguish these children — who range from fourth-graders to high school seniors — is that “most of them are from very dangerous places, and their parents needed to get them out. Many of them come from around Jalalabad,” and that is a very unsafe place to live, she said.
“Their parents are interested in any school,” Ms. Perrin said. “They are lucky to get them into any school.” The music institute is “fully supported by the Afghan government and by the American embassy,” she continued. “The American embassy contributed to my being flown over there and paid to teach.” The school has both a permanent staff and a large rota of people from around the world who teach elsewhere most of the time but dedicate some time to the institute’s students. Those teachers are funded by their own countries, through their embassies in Kabul, according to Ms. Perrin. “There are teachers from Hong Kong, from Europe, from Australia,” she added.
The school’s challenge, then, is to take children who grew up in real danger, separate them from their parents, put them in a place that is far safer than where they’d come from (but safety, as we will see, is a relative term), and then try to teach them the universal language that is music — a language whose vocabulary and grammar some of them might know, some might have heard, and some know nothing about.
There were challenges, as well, with the students’ varying cultural assumptions. They’re all Muslim, Ms. Perrin said, but they do not share all their traditions. For example, what to do about head coverings for women and girls? Often, they are not worn at school, because the school is single-sex, so the prohibition against men seeing women’s hair is irrelevant. There are no men. Here, there are women and men, girls and boys, the school is new, and cultural, tribal, and religious strictures are being redefined. “Many people wanted girls to wear the headscarf all the time, but there was a disagreement about that, and it hasn’t been resolved yet,” Ms. Perrin said. “Some of the girls wear them, and some don’t. Some of the teachers do — but at least half of them are not Afghan — and some of them don’t.”
Outside the school, there was no question of whether women should wear headscarves. The only possible answer is yes.
There are many words that apply to Noelle Perrin’s time in Afghanistan. Inspiring, challenging, thrilling, profoundly moving. And also, she said, terrifying. The world outside the school was terrifying.
“I had to be so closely protected that I didn’t see a lot,” she said. “I was basically shuttled from one locked gate to the next.
“Although I was completely covered, I still looked different. My skin is very light, and my hair is blonde. I had to cover my hair so that you couldn’t see any of it. And that was a problem in itself, because that’s not the style of headscarf that the Afghans wear.
“They tend to wear looser ones, where you can see a little of their hair. There are many variants of that, too, and some of them are just at the back of the head, more like a thought of a head covering.
“And then there are burqas” — the full-body covering. “Wearing that really was a possibility — but to be discovered impersonating a Muslim would really have been dangerous. That was not recommended.
“I did feel unsafe,” she continued. “It is a war zone. It is not like any other place I ever have been.
“It is scary — but I knew it was going to be scary.”
Most of the Afghans she met did not seem particularly well organized, Ms. Perrin said; she got the strong idea that the culture did not stress western-style planning. Her visit, though, was meticulously planned. “There were two people who handle the school’s international guests, and they started talking to me and conditioning me for what I needed to do and know before I came.
“After I got there, there was a phone that I could use to get in touch with them right away. I stayed in a guesthouse, and they changed the one I was staying at right at the last minute, so that no one would know. There was a lot of expertise at work there, and I felt very well taken care of.”
It was hard to describe exactly what the little she saw of Kabul looked like, she added, but the television show “Homeland” “is pretty accurate,” she said. “It’s visually very similar.
“The people are just so warm,” she added. “The population of the country is not militant Muslims. There are some, but that’s a very small group.”
Although she spent by far most of her time in the school, she did get to go shopping once — “I covered up completely,” she said — and just before her trip home, Ms. Perrin played at a surprise concert at the United States embassy.
“It was unbelievable how many checkpoints we had to get through,” she said. “They didn’t tell us about the concert until the night before, and we had to send the instruments over the night before. And Atthere still was a bomb scare while I was at the embassy.”
Because the country’s president and first lady were to be at the concert, security was particularly tight. The instruments that had been sent over the night before weren’t the performers’ own instruments but the school’s. And the school’s instruments, which its not-yet-well-trained students use, are not of the same caliber as the teachers’ instruments. The teachers, after all, are highly experienced professionals.
“I said ‘I need my flute,’ and they said ‘We put a flute there for you,’” Ms. Perrin said. “So I get there, and yes there’s a flute — but it’s not my flute. It’s the school’s flute. It’s not even solid silver. It doesn’t look like a flute that I could actually play anything on.” It is important to keep in mind that a musician’s instrument is her tool, her art, her inseparable companion. It’s not just a random clump of metal and holes and valves. It was one step above asking her to step onstage and play a plastic flute from a toddler’s toy chest.
“But I thought, ‘Okay.’ I went there to do things that were hard, and that just was okay. I will do it.”
But then, despite all the searches and checkpoints, there was the bomb scare. “We had to leave the stage, and the security dogs came in to make another search.
“The dogs came up and licked all the instruments.
“And I was like, okay. I am going to play this flute anyway.
“I didn’t even have an alcohol wipe, but I was like ‘Yes I can do this. Yes, I can.’ And yes I did.”
Later, she learned that dogs routinely search for explosives using two of their senses, smell and taste. “They sniff and lick for explosives,” she said.
Ms. Perrin and other teachers at the school made a recording, a new children’s anthem, funded by Save the Children. The video to the soundtrack that includes her flute “is beautiful,” she said. “They had a helicopter taking views from above; it was made at the Paghman Palace,” a recording studio that’s part of a concert venue in the lush, lovely Hindu Kush mountains near Kabul.
But as if the world wanted to make clear to her that the idea of safety is illusory, not only is Afghanistan an ongoing war zone, it is also prey to nature’s nasty little jokes. A big earthquake shook the Paghman Palace as they recorded there on October 26 — a magnitude 7.5 shake that had its epicenter in Afghanistan and is reported to have killed about 400 people, most of them in neighboring Pakistan. “That’s the only earthquake I’ve ever felt,” Ms. Perrin said.
Do the children feel safe at school? She hesitated. “It’s hard to tell,” she said. “It’s all they know.”
During her time at the school, Ms. Perrin decided to introduce her students back home at the JCC to her new charges in Kabul. “I arranged a Skype call,” she said. “Carey White” — the Thurnauer school’s director of violin groups — “arranged it on this end. She led it. We had some violin students, and a cellist, and my flute students.”
Although the connection was not all she had hoped for, it would be from Afghanistan, and a few times the video connection died. Still “it was a wonderful experience for everyone on both ends.”
Ms. White, who lives in Englewood, agreed. “I was very excited about connecting to a very foreign country through children and through music,” she said. She is an Orthodox Jew, belongs to Kehillat Kesher, “am very involved with Israel, have been there countless times, and spent a year there,” she said. That information is central to who she is as a person, but “I put every kind of politics aside when it comes to children and to music,” she said. That is “because every kind of human connection that can be forged is meaningful. It helps to break down barriers and preconceptions.”
The morning of the Skype call, 19 children and teenagers, accompanied by at least one parent, and three music teachers gathered at the JCC at 5:30. “We decided to wear rainbow colors, to bring color and brightness to our interaction,” Ms. White said. “We learned some words of Dari” — the most commonly spoken Afghan language — “and we said ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘good job.’ There was a lot of laughter that could be heard over cyberspace when we said them. And they said ‘berry gooood’ to us, and we said ‘thank you’ in our own accent, and everyone was smiling.”
Ms. White said that she told the older students “that we are very lucky, going home to our warm houses and clean clothes. These students are all away from home, and some of their parents were given stipends to send them to school. Otherwise, they’d be at work, out on the street, selling plastic bags.”
Her own 7-year-old daughter, Talia Miller, who plays violin, was among the participants, although she is not old enough to understand the dangers the children on the other side of the screen, on the other side of the world, face. “She thought it was cool,” her mother said.
Shelley Cekirge of Tenafly is the mother of two of those young musicians; Sienna, 5, plays the flute, and Eliza, 7, is a cellist; they are Jewish. Her daughters are not quite old enough to understand why the Skype conference was so unusual, “although they were interested in the fact that they were so far away,” Ms. Cekirge said. “For me, I wanted to see mostly what the women’s behavior and attire would be. And you wouldn’t have known that there was any difference between our situation here and theirs there.
“None of the girls were covered. None of them wore scarves. Everyone was together, women and men were teaching boys and girls. It was a very similar dynamic to what you would see in any other school.
“I wasn’t sure what we would see; my daughters couldn’t understand what I was talking about because they just looked like us. That’s what they said — ‘They look just like us.’”
Olivia Martin, 16, is an 11th-grader from Englewood who found that the Skype session made clear some ideas she’d already assumed to be true. “The video conference with Noelle and her students in Afghanistan was really eye opening,” she said. “It allowed me to see how progressive and eager to learn the students in Afghanistan were. Their progress was really incredible, and their sound quality was so consistent and clear. The conference allowed me to realize that although we are so different, communities so far apart can come together to celebrate such simple things as music.”
“The kids were amazing,” Ms. Perrin said. “So receptive. So eager to learn. So hungry for everything that I had to teach them. I worked with the recorder student a tiny little bit, and with the three flute students. They don’t have a teacher, so I taught them, and they learned everything. I couldn’t give out the information quickly enough.”
She also trained 12 music teachers while she was in Kabul. “That was the main reason I was there,” she said. “It is very important work. The society has been pretty devastated, because most of its citizens are just trying not to die every day. To rebuild there is very important work.”
When it was time for her to leave Afghanistan, Ms. Perrin had another adventure, which ended just fine but made obvious yet again how tricky life there is. No matter where she went, she had to go through checkpoints, usually more than one. Checkpoint searches were done in tents, strictly segregated by gender. She also always was accompanied by security guards and a driver, but they had to separate for the checkpoints.
“That was a problem, but usually there were other women,” Ms. Perrin said. “A woman is never supposed to be alone. In fact, a woman is supposed to stay home whenever possible.”
There were some unexpected checkpoints on the way to the airport, “and two different times I had to be separated from my guards and driver,” she said “The car went one place with my baggage, and I went the other way. Because there were so many men and so few women, they had to stand in line and I didn’t. I just had to stand there and wait and be exposed. That was unplanned, and it was scary.”
Despite such glitches, the trip was transformative for her. It had not been a spur-of-the-moment jaunt — not that a trip that requires as much training and preparation as hers possibly could be — but a mission she had desired for years to make. “I have been following the school since it started,” Ms. Perrin said. “I think that the road to peace is teaching a child to play a musical instrument. It’s more muscular than an arms treaty. I’m glad that we have people working on treaties, but this is more powerful.
“We talk about music being the universal language, but it is so much more powerful than that. Music is vibration. It is sound. It is more powerful than an earthquake. It is a vibration of expression and harmony and joy. To teach a child to create that kind of beauty enhances not only that child’s life but the whole community’s life.
“I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to do that very important work.