Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas in Kabul

This year, my Christmas was so new and different and lovely. I've never spent a Christmas away from home before, and I wasn't really looking forward to it. But the community here made me feel welcome, my family did a lot to include even though I'm so far away, and so many Afghans wished me Merry Christmas and did their best to ease my homesickness. Thanks to their kindness, I enjoyed it far more than I expected, and I wanted to share some of it with you.

It began with snow! The first major snowfall was last week, and it's snowing again today. In between, there's been snow on the ground, and blue, sunny skies. I love it!

I was able to attend several church services. One was an early Christmas service complete with a choir and treats afterward. Another was a Christmas day service at the only Catholic church in Kabul, in the Italian Embassy. I heard about that church months ago, but it's rather far away and hard to get to. This week, I finally made it, and it was so wonderful. The priest was Italian, and there were readings in Italian, English, and French. At the end of the Mass, each nationality sang a Christmas song from their homeland, and it was really beautiful.

There was a Christmas tea a few weeks ago, and this was one of the decorations. They gave it to me to take home after, and one night at dinner with my host siblings, I used it as a sort-of Advent wreath. I sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to them and told them what Advent is.

I also introduced my host siblings to frosted Christmas cookies. Apparently, most Afghans don't bake much, because they don't have ovens and it's just as easy to buy items from the bakery. We don't have an oven either, so we baked them in our bukhori (wood stove.) It has a little compartment that I think is designed for drying wet wood, but it made delicious cookies!

Next up was a Christmas party at the office. I brought homemade fudge and sugar cookies (slightly burned, whoops...) and frosting. We had a lot of fun decorating our own cookies. I told them a little about why we celebrate Christmas, and we did a White Elephant Exchange. It got so competitive, but it was a blast!

The cook's kids helped me decorate the wall.

On Christmas Eve, I went to the home of a friend and her family. My family's Christmas Eve tradition, and Christmas traditions in general, are all about family and spending time with all the relatives. Since our extended families aren't over here with us, expats in Kabul find other ways to celebrate. On Christmas Eve, for example, I joined a group of about 15 at this friend's house. Adults and kids. Singing carols. Yummy treats (first time I've ever had peppermint ice cream, and it was delicious!) Reading the Christmas story and talking about how God has worked in our lives this year. Sharing stories and having a lovely conversation, interrupted by little ones who wanted to tell us about the Grinch or sing a Christmas song she'd written herself.

At one point, we got on the topic of body armor, because all of the people who are supported by USAID were recently issued vests and hats. I tried them on- so heavy! I took this picture because I thought it was an interesting contrast. It gave me so much more respect for those who are serving our country in the military. That life is not for me, but I respect those who do it. I know their Christmas was probably much different from mine, but I hope it was happy.

On Christmas morning, I went to another family's home. The mom is from England, her husband's from Scotland, and they have four kids. They made a full English breakfast- bacon (which I haven't eaten in months!), tomatoes and mushrooms, bread, granola, yogurt, pomegranate seeds, homemade orange juice. I'm staying at a friend's place for part of my vacation (She's been so wonderfully kind! It's been a lot of fun staying with her), and she made cinnamon rolls and an incredible spinach quiche for the breakfast. Talk about a food coma!

We stayed for a few hours to watch the kids open presents and play outside. One of the gifts was a window spray and stencils of Christmas scenes, and it made the windows look so festive.

That night, I went to a game night at the home of another family, a young married couple. Their house was beautifully decorated. She made her own nativity scene out of paper and cut out tiny, delicate snowflakes to hang in the entry way. Gorgeous!

One of the best parts of my Christmas, though, I don't have any pictures of. On Christmas morning, I was able to Skype with my family, to feel like I was there as they opened gifts, to hear the laughter and the teasing and the music that so often define my memories of Christmas morning. Then again the next day, when, despite a twelve and a half hour time difference, I got to Skype in and join the gift card exchange with all the relatives. I've been more homesick in the past week than ever before, but I'm so thankful for my incredible family, who work around the time difference and send e-cards and Facebook notes to remind me that they are missing me too.

A few weeks ago, I heard someone talk about how Christmas in Kabul can make us better appreciate the holiday, and I think it's kind of true. We don't have a lot of options for Christmas shopping, so gifts are thoughtfully chosen ahead of time or thoughtfully made by hand. Our power goes out constantly and we don't have central heating even when it's on, so we curl up by the fire with friends and make music with our own voices. We live in a society where most people don't know much about Christmas, and when we get chances to tell them about it, it makes us remember. We know what it's like to have armed soldiers on our streets, just like the Roman legionaries, and we wear headscarves and long skirts, just like Mary did. We have herds of sheep and shepherds walking up and down our streets, and we know that their life isn't as romantic as the Christmas story depicts; the angels' choice of these men to first see Jesus shows that He came for all people. We live in a society where a mother might give birth to fourteen children and have only half make it past their fifth birthday, so we know how incredible it is that Christ came to us as a helpless baby.

Christmas is about family and about giving and about good food, but at its root, it's about Jesus. When I made myself stop and look past the homesickness, the traditions I'm missing, the absent Christmas lights, I better remember the real reason we celebrate.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hosting a tournament in Afghanistan...priceless

Tournaments are synonymous with stressful. And frustration. But also with incredible. And no matter how stressed or frustrated I get, it's the incredible parts that I hold onto, that I will remember, and that make this program worth it.

The Kabul Open is a good example. It was supposed to take place on November 23, a date we agonized over. We had to choose a date that didn't conflict with student exams, or Thanksgiving, or the host university's schedule, and after a lot of thought, we finally settled on November 23. Just days before, we got texts from some of the students- the tournament is scheduled for the 9th day of Muharram. Muharram is a month in the Islamic calendar, the first ten days of which are a period of mourning in remembrance of Hussein ibn Ali, who was martyred in the 600's. During this time last year, there was a bombing that killed around fifty people, and the students were concerned about security. They wouldn't be able to come unless we changed the date. And so...

Date changed- 2 days before.

I've never had to change locations for a tournament before. This time, we had planned to hold the tournament at a public university, but when sectarian violence led to student deaths and the abrupt closure of all public universities a few days before the tournament, we had no choice.

Location changed- 3 days before.

On the morning of the tournament, we were rushing around trying to get everything ready and start on time. The judges training began on schedule, but half the judges showed up late; they'd been waiting in the wrong room. Some students showed up on time, but most schools had changes. One school changed all six of its teams around, ten minutes after the first round was supposed to begin! Another school dropped two competitors, another dropped one. Another dropped completely. To make things worse, the computer we were using for tabulation (deciding who debates against who, tracking which team wins, etc.) chose that moment to install automatic updates- rather like getting stuck in traffic when you are in a hurry. Murphy's Law, right?

Number of last minute changes to make by hand- 23.

The day progressed just as frantically. During the quarterfinal round, after most people had eaten lunch and a few of us were just thinking we might have a minute to do that, we discovered that one of the ballots (where the judges write who won and give each speaker an individual ranking) was missing its speaker scores. Which meant that we might have sent the wrong team to semifinals. As soon as the judge came back, we got her to write a new ballot and entered the scores, which turned out to be low enough that the rankings didn't change. Whew! (We discovered after the tournament that we made a mistake with a different team, a team that should have gone to quarterfinals but due to a tabulation error did not. We've been advised not to stress about it, since it happens to everyone, but that doesn't stop me from kicking myself!)

Crises averted- 2. So far.

That put us further behind schedule, which was of course when the printer broke. I wrote the semifinal breaks by hand. Ran down three flights of stairs to where the competitors were gathered, and realized that I'd forgotten the list of resolutions (topics for the round.) Ran back up, and down. Read the names- congrats! That's when the tournament director, Josh, leaned over to me- Are you sure that's correct? Neither of the teams from the round he judged were on the list. Back up the stairs I ran, to check the list. Sure enough, I'd copied wrong. Down again with correct list of breaks. I tried to read them off, but I could barely breathe. Josh noticed and sent me back upstairs to get my asthma inhaler.

Total number of puffs before I had use of my lungs again- 4.

Downstairs again, there was more trouble brewing. The students from one school were saying that someone had cheated, had changed the results to favor another team. One of their teams had qualified for semifinals, but the whole school was threatening to walk out. We tried to talk to them, showed them the ballots, explained how elimination rounds work. By then they understood, but I think they still weren't happy and felt too wound up to debate well. I was so baffled by their actions- mistakes happen. But I didn't grow up in a place where bribery and nepotism and corruption are so often a part of life. I grew up with a debate program I never had reason to distrust, and these students don't have that luxury. At last, our executive director, Aref, pulled them aside and spoke quietly in Dari. He was counting on them, he told them. They agreed to stay.

Crises averted- 3. So far.

We were way behind schedule by that point. Running late is a common feature of most tournaments, but here, we don't have that luxury. Students have to leave by 4:30, the girls especially. Many have long rides home, and transportation after dark isn't very safe. I thought they were being alarmists when I heard this back in September; just take a taxi, for goodness sake. Then I heard about friends who had been robbed at gunpoint by their taxi drivers, and I revised my opinion. Now, we try really hard to stick to our schedule. Which, in Afghanistan, is impossible.

Number of hours late that the final round started- approximately 3.

In the end, we had the awards ceremony before the final round, so students could leave if necessary. It was a fairly nice ceremony, but rife with mistakes. When I stood to announce the sweepstakes winners (recognizing schools instead of individual teams), the results were printed incorrectly, listing a school that hadn't competed as the 3rd place winners. It's a custom here to call up individual judges, guests, tab staff, etc to give out awards. We did that but neglected to thank a certain group of volunteers from a different debate organization. We felt bad when we realized; it seems like such a small thing to us, but here, it's a big deal. Will cultural differences never fail to cause issues?

Mistakes throughout the day- I lost count.

Stress, stress, stress. Frustration, frustration, frustration. When I got home that night, I curled up with a book and some cookie dough, to tune out the world for a while. It wasn't until I'd given myself some time to reflect that all of the incredible bits swam their way to my consciousness.

64 students- the largest tournament we've had. 8 schools- the most we've enrolled. The successful integration of students taught by different organizations, which has been a significant frustration all year. The sheer number of people who helped- judges, staff, students who couldn't debate but volunteered as guides.

The mother of a former debater (now judge/trainer) who came to watch and told me in broken English how much she likes what we do. The team that should have broken to quarterfinals but didn't, and seeing how gracefully they accepted our apology and assured us that they understood. The judges who raved about our students and how much they loved watching debates. The resolutions- women should not be allowed to travel alone, the US should mind its own business, Afghanistan will succeed.

One of the teams I trained, who won almost no rounds but told me with shining eyes that it was probably the best day of their lives. The final round, the only round I watched, where the debaters clearly just enjoyed themselves. The award ceremony, and the loud cheers and encouragement that the students displayed for their teammates success. The way one debate launched himself out of his chair to hug a teammate who qualified for elimination rounds.

The maturity showed in the students from the usually successful school that didn't have a single team break to quarterfinals- they were upset, but after we talked through it, one student nodded and said sagely, “There is no justice in the world.” I was surprised- how deep! He pointed at the white board behind me, where that resolution remained from the previous round. The feeling at the end of a very long day, looking at a stack of ballots and seeing the students' grins in my mind's eye.

Date changed. Location changed. Changes made. Crises averted. Inhaler used. Schedule delayed. Mistakes piled up.

Hosting a tournament in Afghanistan...priceless.