The First Song

This post is based on a news story about a sixteen year old girl in Afghanistan, who became the country's first female orchestral conductor, despite opposition from her mother, and the belief of many Afghans that music is evil. Rewritten December 2, 2015

Negin, excited to see her family after three months at the girls’ college in Kabul, slammed the door of the ancient truck and raced into her house.

“Mother! Mother!” She ran to her mother and hugged her.

Her mother returned the hug, then looked at her closely. “You look so happy, Negin. School must agree with you.”

“Oh Mother, it is a marvel! There is so much to learn that I never imagined!” She lifted the lid off a pot, simmering with the comforting smells of home. “Did you know there are countries where the Muslim women wear brightly colored clothes, and some where their heads are exposed?”

“I cannot believe it.” Mother frowned.

“It’s true, Mother! In Africa, where the people have black skin, they wear brilliant clothing, the men too! I have seen pictures of them.” She popped an almond into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “So many places in the world do not live as we live. The women are educated, and choose to wear the hijab or not. They are even leaders. And we must fight for what is normal life in other places.”

“Careful, Negin. Not all countries follow the teachings of the Prophet.”

“Mother, sometimes I think what we are taught doesn’t follow the teachings of the Prophet either.”

“How dare you say that! Is that what they teach in your school?”

“No, they are my own thoughts, but thoughts that I share with some other students. Does Afghanistan know more about truth, but less about everything else, than all the other countries in the world?”

“Some thoughts we should not share. Go wash your hands, then you can help me prepare the meal.”

Negin took her bag to her room, puzzled. That some truths she had been taught as a child ran counter to observable science, made her suspect that the teaching itself was at fault. She considered her uncles and her father. Her father wanted his daughter to get an education, but her uncles thought women should not be educated at all. She had another request and knew they would be outraged.

Her father arrived. She rushed to him and threw her arms around him.

“Father! I’m home!”

“So I see,” he said, a smile on his face. He held her at arms’ length and looked her over. “Have you changed? Let me see, the eyes are the same, the chin and mouth are the same – yes, it is my Negin.”

She laughed at his teasing and, hands entwined, they walked the few steps to the table, where Negin and mother would soon set out the evening meal.

“It is good to see you, Negin. We have missed you here so much. The children next door ask about you.”

Negin wiped away a tear. “I missed you and Mother too, Father. But school is wonderful.”

“Yes,” interrupted Mother with a frown, as she set a plate of hummus and pita before Father, then seated herself. “And her beliefs are changing. Tell him, Negin.”

Negin repeated her story of Muslim women with colorful clothing.

Father nodded. “I have long suspected that there are other ways to live than the way we live. The American soldiers showed us that much. But are other ways better? I don’t know.”

“But learning about other ways, can that be wrong? And I have discovered something that I wish to study and share with others.”

“What is that, Negin?”

Negin took a deep breath. “Music. I wish to be a musician.”

Mother dropped a cup she held, which clattered to the floor. “Music? Negin, music is sinful! How can you think of studying something from the devil?”

“Let us eat our meal first, then we can discuss this,” said Father. They ate the meal, speaking of Aunt Nazzi’s new baby, Cousin Pehar’s motorcycle, the comforting family gossip.

After they had all eaten and washed, Negin pled her case to him. He sipped his tea and gazed at her while she squirmed on her cushion and twisted the bangles on her wrists.

“Music.” He shook his head and turned to his wife. “You do not approve.”

“I do not.”

Father stroked his beard and poured more tea from the brass teapot. He scratched his head.

“How would you use this music, Negin? I have not heard any for years. Would you play a tanboor, or a tula? What would you do?”

“I am learning a western instrument called the violin, father, just from a-a friend who has one, she is teaching me. It is a little like the tanboor. And most of all, Father,” she took a huge breath, “most of all, I wish to conduct an orchestra!”

“What is this… orchestra?” Father gestured with his palms open.

“Oh, Father,” she said, leaning towards him, “If you could only hear, it is like the heavenly angels. Many different instruments play together such magnificent sounds you cannot even imagine.”

Mother humphed and looked away. Father noticed the light in Negin’s eyes.

“Can you make some of this music for us now?” he asked.

“I have no instrument but my voice, so with your permission, I will sing for you a song of Afghanistan, before the Taliban, before the Russians, when we ruled our own land in peace and joy.”

“Please, sing for us.”

Negin sang. She sang of mountains high and lonely and cold; of shepherds under the brilliant stars. Her voice soared, trilled, flowed. She sang of love and joy, of honor, of the beauty of her country and the agony of its people. And her parents listened to their own story, with tears flowing down their cheeks. Finally she sat, silent.

Her mother embraced her. Her father put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her forehead.

“Never have I heard such beauty. This cannot be evil. Negin, you shall study music.”

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