Kabul, 1976: Windows of joy open

ACORNER of a shattered window frame allowed me to peer inside the classroom. Some 20 young boys, led by their teacher, were chanting the Koran.

It was the spring of 1976, and our theater company, consisting of three actors, had been performing on an American State Department-sponsored tour of 11 nations of the Near and Far East. We were now at our last stop, Kabul, Afghanistan - three years before the disastrous Soviet invasion. Our medium was mime theater, and we had already witnessed the capacity of this art form to unite audiences of all national and linguistic differences on a similar tour the year before.

We had been presenting regularly scheduled performances for adults and children in Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Our audience would sometimes be comprised of uneasy neighbors, and even so-called enemies.

But once the performance began, Palestinians and Jews in Jerusalem, and Russians and Americans in cold- war Afghanistan, would suspend political foolishness. Sitting side by side, they would react with the total delight of children. Our days thus resounded with the sounds of healing laughter.

It was a crisp, sunny spring day. With a free afternoon, I followed a desire to stroll around Kabul. For about a half hour I ambled along a dirt road that wound upward and eventually led me to a wooded area. The city was now a good distance behind me.

Presently I became aware of young voices chanting in the distance. "The Koran," I thought. "At last I'll hear it."

Continuing, I discerned a wooden schoolhouse through the trees. The school consisted of one room, set on a porch. A single door frame had lost its door, evidently long ago, just as two window frames had lost their windows. Inside, a lightly bearded instructor in a white shirt and worn blue suit was conducting some 20 boys in a recitation. They looked to be about 14 or 15 years of age.

I approached carefully, to try to observe undetected through a small corner of the window. But all at once, the teacher turned his head toward my hiding place. Now we were staring at each other in mutual bewilderment.

A confessed eavesdropper, I waved sheepishly and stepped away. But the teacher seemed to welcome the serendipitous interruption, and by way of dispelling my apology, eagerly beckoned me to enter.

I made my way up two sagging front steps. Now in the doorway, I pressed my palms together under my chin, attempting a type of respectful bow that might have sought - but never did find - inclusion in one of those State Department manuals under the rubric of "What to do when you get it wrong in Kabul." The teacher smiled sympathetically at my attempt at eastern grace. We stood facing each other as the class looked on in rapt curiosity.

"You are English?" the instructor asked.

"No, American," I responded with a feeling of temerity. In those days there was already a considerable resentment toward the policies of the United States that supported the Shah in next-door Iran.

"Oh," he said, with astonishment. And again, "Oh."

There was an uneasy but not unfriendly pause. He then added in perfect English, "Excuse me. But we have never seen an American before."

The class looked on in wide-eyed fascination. "Where does he keep his six-gun?" I felt them wondering. "Or his horse?"

"Are you from Texas?" the teacher asked.

"No, no. Far from Texas."

"Chicago?"

"No. I come from New York," I said, dispelling one kind of mystery, but potentially inviting another. "I come from New York, and I work in the theater."

"Ahh!" he beamed. "You know Gary Cooper?"

"Not exactly," I replied. "America is very big."

"Ahh, yes," he said, with disappointment.

"We have a theater company and we are visiting your city of Kabul."

"Ah!" he repeated and added, "What do you do?"

"We are a mime theater," I explained.

Total incomprehension. With words failing, I threw myself into a demonstration. "You see, like this." And I mimed opening an imaginary door and entering a room.

The children chuckled. Children are always quick to suggest the next move. I continued by climbing an imaginary staircase. The young Afghanis burst into gleeful laughter and applauded.

There was a pause, and then, "Please, please do one more," implored the instructor.

FOR my "next number," I placed my hands under two imaginary handles and, with some resistance, slowly raised open an invisible window. Hunching down a bit and placing my hands on the bottom of the transom, I leaned forward through the opened window space.

Discovering the class on the other side, I waved enthusiastically. A young boy in the third row returned my greeting. And now the entire class was giggling and waving wildly at their new friend. The classroom bubbled with mirth and cries of "Hello!" "Hello, sir!"

"More! More!" two or three cried.

We all grasped magical balloon strings. Presently the skies over Kabul were filled with young Afghani children floating gently heavenward. We rose wondrously above the hilltops, where we all swooped and gyrated balletically among flocks of astonished hawks and crows. Then we slowly descended and came to rest gently in the midst of the city's ancient vegetable market.

"That's good! That's very good!" exclaimed the teacher as he brushed his eyes with his sleeve. (He had flown with us.) "Chakeran!" he said in Farsi. ("I am at your service!")

"Chakeran," I replied.

The excited murmuring of the class now subsiding, I mumbled some words to the teacher about not wishing to interrupt the lesson further. Waving to the boys, I called out using my limited vocabulary, "Chakeran!"

"Goodbye!" "Goodbye sir!" "You come back!" they called in return.

At the doorway, I paused to wave a final farewell to the class. But a boy in the third row interrupted my intention and rose from his chair. "Please!" he cried.

Without warning, the boy placed his hands on two invisible window handles, and, struggling with considerable effort, he lifted the window frame over his head. Leaning his body forward, he waved to me, calling, "Goodbye! Goodbye, sir!"

And now, one by one, all the children opened windows and waved their arms. "Goodbye!" "Goodbye, sir!" "Goodbye, friend!"

Now, years later, with so many windows of the world demolished by acts of violence and war, my mind often returns to my young friends. What has become of them and their kind teacher, I wonder. Is the little schoolhouse still there?

If many windows on the world seem recently to have been tragically shattered, we can always look to others that wait only to be opened.

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