“Singing” #22

Sergeant B quickly turned into my right-hand woman when it came to nurturing our budding relationship with our students, and by the American holiday season she thought they were ready for some singing. Sergeant B thought sharing nursery rhymes and non-secular carols would strengthen our ties with the Afghan women. I thought she was nuts. These women would not sing Ring-Around-the-Rosie and recite Wee-Willie-Winkie with us. But she was passionate about her idea, and I wouldn’t stand in her way.

After consulting with our cultural advisor, Dr. J, we carefully chose nursery rhymes and carols that were not offensive to the Muslim religion practiced by the Afghans. While Dr J didn’t object to Sergeant B’s idea, our translator, Salar, thought we were crazy for suggesting it, not because it went against any religious laws, but because he didn’t think the women would ever sing in front of each other. “They are way too shy to do this,” he adamantly stated. “But you can certainly try it.” Although we didn’t need Salar’s permission, the mindset of the males in Afghanistan requires they give consent to an idea, even if you didn’t ask for it. I accepted this part of his personality, but I didn’t love it. He wouldn’t be in the room anyway, so no harm could come of trying to prove him wrong.

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Nazaneen (not her real name) and some of our other students.

Finding songs was pretty easy. It turned out that there were a lot of nursery rhymes and carols that didn’t cross any invisible lines of propriety, as long as we didn’t look too closely into the meaning. And since the women couldn’t really understand English all that well, what did we have to lose? We settled on “Jingle Bells,” “Where is Thumbkin,” and the “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Sergeant B and I walked into the tiny English “department” (consisting of a picnic table and two small bookshelves), armed with our songs, and excitedly greeted our students.

“Today we have a special treat for you. Today we are going to sing songs!”

I tried to sound upbeat and positive, even though I thought this would be an exercise in ridiculousness. Maybe Salar was right. These were women who kept their eyes averted and their heads covered in conversation. When men were around they melted into the scenery as if by some illusionist’s spell. It took weeks to get most of them to open their mouths to speak to us because they were embarrassed of their English speaking skills. But, they were proud, too. They wouldn’t do something they thought made them look foolish. How would we convince them that singing songs would help them with their English? We’d have to demonstrate, a part I hadn’t really thought about when my right-hand-woman was planning this lesson.

Sergeant B and I stood in front of the room of twenty Afghan women, their eyes trained on our every movement, their heads tilted curiously, their hands placed demurely in their laps. When the room had settled, we opened our mouths and began singing, high-pitched and slightly off key, “The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout; down came the rain and washed the spider out.” With each verse we touched the fingers of our hands together and, side-by-side in our military uniforms in front of a raptured audience, pretended our hands were spiders. They climbed up waterspouts, slid down waterspouts, became rays of sunshine drying up rain and restarted the entire process because the spider just refused to give up. “Out came the sun and dried up all the rain, so the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again.”

Sergeant B was highly animated. Maybe she was nuts. She was singing as if she had the house spotlight beaming down on her–center stage. As the mother of four, she was probably used to these impromptu performances; I certainly did them a time or two with my boys at home, but her excitement couldn’t be faked. She was digging it. Before I realized it, feeding off her enthusiasm, I was digging it, too. But more important than the apparent good time we were having standing in an indefensible school in the middle of a war torn nation, vulnerable in every way, singing these nursery rhymes was the joy on our students’ faces. They were like little children, unselfconscious about their happiness. We finished our performance, goofy grins on our faces. “Teach me! Teach me, Miss Naancy,” they asked in their elongated way, and they gave us a round of applause.

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