The Holidays, the Babies, and the Arts in the House of Flowers

It is Thursday morning, and today I have brought my shawl out onto the grass to use as a blanket as I sit in the intense Afghan sun surrounded by a cool light breeze. I am eating an a very crisp red apple; it is locally grown, as opposed to the oranges from Lebanon or the bananas from Iran or the persimmons from Pakistan that I encountered in the fruit market yesterday. This apple is so sweet and sharp that it satisfies my craving for apples that always comes in October.

Afghan apples

Today is “arafat” day, the day before the Eid holiday begins. I don’t know anything about the holiday today, but I assume it has something to do with Mount Arafat. Anyway, what it means is that it’s the start of the holiday, so there’s no work, no office, and also that makes transportation very challenging, so I won’t be going to the House of Flowers today.

The approach of the Eid holiday felt just like holidays anywhere in the world: busy crowds of people buying cakes and cookies and fruit for celebrations with their families. People making arrangements for transportation to distant provinces to visit relatives. Stores are stocked with boxes and boxes of holiday cookies. I wanted to buy some to take back to my room, but they only came in 3 kg boxes and I just didn’t need 7 pounds of cookies. The teacher Qudsieh took Razia, Nadia, Shukria and Maryam shopping yesterday, and bought them and the littler girls bracelets, rings, hairclips and henna to make themselves all fancy for the holiday. They were so excited, and the little girls ran around the House jingling their new bangle bracelets.

The other sign of Eid has been the sudden appearance of small herds of sheep in the streets of Kabul. They are big sheep, with dark and scruffy wool and a big fat tail, and they often have red colored powder on their backs, I don’t know why. These small herds are here to be sold for the Eid sacrifice. This morning I saw two sheep being transported in the back of a station wagon, and right now I hear bleating somewhere nearby. Many families will buy a sheep and have it butchered for the holiday. It sounds a bit harsh, but really it’s not any different than everyone suddenly buying a turkey at Thanksgiving. The only difference is that we don’t see the turkey alive, in the back of a stationwagon, on its way to the butcher.

Eid can be very expensive for families, as a result, and someone told me the other day that if anyone has any money saved up, they spend it all at Eid! Offices and work projects grind to a protracted halt during this time as well, and this proves very irritating to Western project managers who see it as a lost week of productivity. But personally and secretly, I admire a society that places such a high priority on celebration and commemoration and time with family, and doesn’t let itself get so caught up in efficiency and production that they lose their sense of celebration. And also, to be honest, anytime that Afghans can celebrate, be joyful, and take a break is a time to honor, in my opinion.

The last few days at the House have been extremely busy. On Sunday and Monday we held Part 2 of the Montessori training for the Alluaddin Orphanage staff. The topic was the essential Montessori principles, such as freedom, responsibility, grace and courtesy, etc. The head of the orphanage came on the first day, which at first seemed great, but it turned out she was really not very receptive and instead preferred to list all the problems at Alluaddin. So we learned that she is not the one to turn our attention to. Instead, we focused on the teachers, and they were very engaged. Lots of lightbulbs went off during the training, as they seemed to begin to understand why, for example, if a child is concentrating we don’t interrupt him/her, and why it’s so important to give some freedom to allow for the strengthening of the child’s will, and why unnecessary help can be so detrimental. They observed Fatima’s and Qudsieh’s classes and the children were doing such nice work and the atmosphere was so pleasant that the adults actually didn’t even want to leave the class to come back to the office to finish the training! In the post-observation discussion we also watched videos again from The Montessori School, which gave them another view of the environment and the children at work. The participants were very eager and curious about how to do it, and I began to get a bit worried that they would go back and try to instantly change everything for their students, so I really had to emphasize that  students who are not used to freedom cannot just instantly be ‘set free’. I knew that if these teachers made sudden and overnight changes, it would be a disaster and they would assume it was a failure. So we talked a lot about the need to take it slowly and awarefully, and the HoF teachers will help them with that process in future weeks.

Besides the training, much was happening in the House itself as well. A few children had gotten sick – an ear infection, a headache, getting hit on the head by a rock while walking to school, a sprained foot – so Fahim and the staff were busy taking kids to various doctors. The staff is very proficient at this, b/c with over 30 children there’s always something. At the same time, they are quite skilled themselves, having received a lot of first aid training from Mostafa in years past. So they take really good care of the children, and have a number of good connections with various doctors at various clinics in the city.

I also wanted to share more with you about  the new nursery at the House. I think I’ve mentioned Ehsan. He is the baby who was there when I arrived and was 2 weeks old at the time, so he’s now almost a month old. He was underweight, his little face gaunt, his dark eyes too big for his head, and his legs and arms too skinny, but

Ehsan while visiting the classroom. Age: about 1 month

he is slowly gaining some weight and strength. He’s more lively, and the children really love him. He had no name when he came, so the children of the House named him Ehsan, which means ‘honesty’ or ‘integrity.’ It’s an important choice, considering that his parentage is not intact and he is considered ‘illegitimate’.So another big event this week was the intake of another infant. This baby girl, named Hagar, (for the wife of Abraham and mother of either Ishmael or Isaac, I can’t remember)  came to the House on Tuesday. She had just been born on Friday. Her mother hid the pregnancy and still cannot decide whether to keep the baby or not, so she hasn’t yet approved adoption. That’s why Hagar was brought to the House of Flowers by the agency that was taking care of the mother, because there is literally nowhere for abandoned babies to go. The good news is that the agency had really watched the mother’s prenatal care and fed her well, so the baby is incredibly

Hagar on her first day at the House of Flowers. Age: 5 days

healthy and is big and chubby, with shiny pink cheeks and thick dark hair. She is peaceful and sweet and is already looking around, much more alert than Ehsan was. It makes it so glaringly obvious how important pre-natal healthcare is.

Having two babies in the House requires adjustments with schedules and staffing, and the babies’ presence in the classroom has to be carefully worked out so as not to disturb the children when they are studying or work, since they are immediately and irresistibly drawn to the tiny infants. But at the same time, there is so much love to go around that the family-ness of the House has become even stronger.  I did think it was funny the other day when little Ehsan was getting a bath and 15 year old Waheed came into the room – Ehsan’s caregiver got very flustered and covered Ehsan up, trying to shoo Waheed out of the room, apparently out of modesty!

Yesterday, the day before the holiday began, there was no school and everything was relaxed at the House. When I arrived, the older children were sitting on the floor doing miniatures. This is a classic art style here and in Iran, and the children learned it years ago from an artist named Gul Rahman whom Mostafa had arranged to come

Razia and Nadia collaborating on a miniature that was hand-drawn by Razia.

to the House to give art lessons in miniatures, drawing, and calligraphy. So yesterday, when I saw the skill that the children had attained in making hand-drawn miniatures, and as I sat with them (they taught me too) and felt the peacefulness that came with the designing and coloring, I realized that the art component has been a hugely integral piece of the picture of the House of Flowers.

Maryam finishing up her miniature.

Students no longer learn these things in school, so all the art that the children have ever done has only been within the House of Flowers. From a small age they have always been drawing pictures; many of them are extremely skilled at drawing, and they transfer their skill to drawing things like bones of the body, or types of flowers, etc. So, I am very grateful for that time they had with Gul Rahman. I would like to find out if he is still in the area to see if he might be available to come back and continue some advanced art lessons with the older ones, and give beginner lessons to the younger ones. I had not truly realized what an important role the arts have played in the children’s development, but now that I see it, I feel a deep obligation to make sure it continues and is strengthened.

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