Award winning Swiss-based Afghan poet and author Bashir Sakhawarz describes how football and a grand piano changed his family’s life.
Our children were very young when we first arrived in Geneva, not as refugees but because of our careers. They were exposed to the French language in kindergarten and then in the local Swiss primary school chosen by my wife. She was adamant that our children should not attend international school because she wanted them to learn French and also get accustomed to the Swiss way of life. What we did not expect was that our children would become involved in activities atypical for an Afghan family.
Our daughter showed great passion for sport. She excelled in school sports and became a member of the Versoix Athletics Club, participating in challenging competitions with some success. But that was not enough for her. One day she came home from school and said, “I want to join the Versoix Football Club.” “What? A football club?” I remembered my own struggle in Kabul to find a football to kick as a child. Owning a football was almost impossible in those days. My father refused to buy a football. I suppose he thought that even if I had had a football there was no system in place to become a footballer—Kabul possessed neither a football ground, nor any coaching for enthusiasts. As challenging as it was for a boy to become a footballer in Afghanistan, nobody in their wildest imagination would have expected an Afghan girl to kick a football back in the 70s.
My daughter’s interest surprised me but I was not going to make the same mistake as my father. I refused to ignore the healthy interest of my child. Encouraged by my wife, who always puts one hundred percent energy into developing our children’s minds and bodies, decided to enrol her at the Versoix junior football club. A few months later we were watching our daughter in action, wearing the club’s blue shirt, chasing the football, pushing others, being pushed by others, falling on the ground, bleeding, getting up and scoring goals. She became the captain of her school football team, leading them to third place in the regional competition. I saw my own childhood reflected through her. My dream was not lost, the only difference being that it was not me kicking the ball but my own daughter.
Knowing his own mind and not one to follow in his sister’s footsteps, our son also surprised us with his innovative idea. “I want to learn the piano.” he announced. “Piano?” I was taken aback. Music is generally regarded as taboo in my Afghan side of the family, an activity not encouraged by religion. My father was a very religious man, and would not have tolerated what he considered frivolous behaviour. I had always loved singing and well remember frequently climbing the pear tree in our courtyard as a child, and singing loudly from its top branch:
I wish I was a bird, flying over your house
watching you from the sky above
when you look at the garden, through the window.
Despite my father’s perspective, once a year our school organised a concert in which the pupils participated. A stage was built for the annual concert on which students sang popular songs of the time. I wanted to participate, but I was very shy because of the lack of encouragement at home. So I became a tree singer; my stage was the top branch of our pear tree.
While I was happy for our son to learn the piano, I found it impractical. Lessons were not cheap and we did not possess a piano. But my wife was not going to say no to our son’s dream. She decided to cut our expenditure to pay for our son’s piano lessons. As for not having a piano at home, she solved that problem by buying a cheap electronic keyboard. But the teacher rejected this idea outright, because the keyboard had no pedals. This forced my wife to consider renting a piano, despite the lack of space in our compact home. Soon a rented grand piano arrived on the shoulders of three strong men, who carried it upstairs to the small bedroom shared by our two children. My wife ignored all my protests.
At first the banging hurt my sensitive ears, but within a year our son was playing the soundtrack to Pirates of the Caribbean to perfection, performing at little concerts organised by his music school. I could not believe our quiet son had such a talent for music. Now I saw myself in our son. Isn’t it true that we try to achieve what we could not through our children? In our case, we did not have to try. The truth is that this was only possible because we happened to live in Geneva. Had we stayed in Afghanistan, the notion of our daughter kicking a football and our son sitting behind a grand piano would have been distant dreams.
By Bashir Sakhawarz
Bashir Sakhawarz is an award-winning Afghan poet, a novel and short story writer living in Geneva.