Teaching the students songs became more difficult than just breaking through their barriers of meekness. There were fundamental differences in how willing we were, as native English speakers, to simply read a word and not worry about understanding it. Non-native English learners were very concerned about understanding the words. Every single word. And they were not willing to let us off the hook in explaining them. We were asked to explain terms and phrases that we had never really questioned at all. After traversing through the complexities of “itsy bitsy” meaning “smaller than small,” we leapt headfirst into “Jingle Bells.” Even more difficult than the dreaded spider’s journey, “Jingle Bells” led to questions about horses with open sleighs, o’re fields (oh ree fields, as they pronounced it), and clarification on just what it meant to “dash” through something. When we finally navigated through their definition clarity requests, the ladies were ready to sing.
There is a scene in the holiday classic “A Christmas Story” where a typical American family (father, mother, and two young sons) has Christmas dinner at a local Chinese restaurant after their home-cooked meal suffered a terrible fate. To bring some of the holiday cheer to the unusual experience, some of the staff sang, “Deck the Halls” to the family, in heavily accented English. Without intending to, we re-created that scene at the crowded picnic table inside the Zarghona English Department, minus the crispy duck and MSG.
Our students joyfully sang with us, “Daahshing through the snoweh, in a one-harse open sly; oh ree the feelds we go-eh, laughing all thee way: hawh-har-hawh.” The moment was hypnagogic, dreamlike, in its details. We were surrounded by beautiful women, no longer self-effacing, who were giggling and tapping their feet while laughter crinkled the corners of their eyes. Some of their hijabs had slipped from the tops of their heads to rest in folds around their shoulders, leaving their hair bare and unapologetic, but they didn’t notice. Their eyes were directly meeting our own, not casting downward unwilling to hold our stare. And I sat singing children’s songs with arms draped over my shoulders, pressed on both sides between warm bodies. I felt valued and seen, just as I valued and saw the totality of them in that moment, a created sisterhood. Each one of us healed soul fractures in the woman next to her. Big Bertha, Nazaneen, Sergeant B, all of us were like new shoots breaking through the hard ground of past experiences. As Nazaneen stood up to perform a solo of “Where Is Thumbkin,” complete with dance steps, I felt safe and happy in Afghanistan.