On a balmy evening in late September, guests mingle in the garden of the Afghan Embassy in Washington's Kalorama neighborhood. On the tiled terrace, two musicians sit on a carpet of wine and saffron and play Afghan music on traditional instruments: a tabla (a drum pair with different pitches) and a harmonium (a small keyboard instrument in a honey) wooden box).
When the sun goes down, the moonlight illuminates the hands and faces of the musicians and the sequins on their clothes. Their mournful music blows over partygoers who have come to say goodbye to Afghan ambassador Hamdullah Mohib and his wife Lael. One of the musicians, Afghan Masood Omari, sings as he drums the tabla with the palm of his hand. It is a rare talent to be able to sing and play at the same time. This musical duo, however, is even rarer: The second musician is a woman – an unusual sight in Afghanistan where "women and girls traditionally do not play any instruments," says Lael Mohib. Even more remarkable, this woman has no Afghan background at all.
Abigail Adams Greenway (she will not reveal her age, "I'm over 30 and under 100," she quips) from Bethesda, Md., never been to Afghanistan As a visual artist who had achieved some degree of success in Washington's art circles, she arrived at the garden at that time, she says, through unexpected twists and turns in her life. In 2006, she had an indeterminate chronic illness that lasted for three years. When she finally recovered, she decided to go shopping in a popular boutique in Georgetown. On her way there she happened to pass through the Afghan business Zamani House of Heritage and talked to owner Temur Zamani, who stood in the door and invited her. And … "I fell in love," she says. "I was excited."
The store quickly became a second home. Greenway was on the road almost every day, remembers Zamani. She brought her colors and added decorative accents on walls and shelves. She grew up with Zamani and his family and "could not get enough of Afghani," she says. "I was carried away by the beauty of Afghan culture and people."
At the store she met Omari, a professional weaver and textile artist, who helped with the carpet repair. When she learned that he also had a teaching diploma in classical tabla, she asked for a lesson. "Over the years I've heard and was called to music from the East," she says. She studied tabla for a year and then added the harmonium. "It was all pretty magical," she says of the way her life has changed.
Finally, she and Omari founded Tabla for Two. For eight years they give concerts in regional embassies, museums, restaurants and private houses. "We play for peace and to preserve the music," says Greenway, who has passionately embraced all aspects of Afghan culture. She dresses in local clothing – hand-sewn, richly woven garments, which she buys in vintage stores and online or receives from Afghan friends as a gift. The lower level of her home where she and Omari practice daily ("I call it the Tablasphere," she says) is Afghan-style with colorful rugs, painted and deeply upholstered chairs, lush floor cushions, glittering wall hangings, and strings of colored lights , "I do not do anything halfway," she says, laughing. "They're either in or not."
As proof that one night she wears a green top, a violet cloth and an Afghan hat in the Afghan restaurant Lapis in Adams Morgan, which is decorated with a Mayan bird, a Turkish evil eye and a sapphire star. As she and Omari play, a young couple gets up to dance, their steps matching the rhythm of seven bars while others cheer and clap.
Greenway's immersion in everything Afghan can come at a time when some are asking about so-called cultural appropriation. She says, however, that she has never been accused or experienced a negative reaction from Afghans. "I feel like I've been accepted as a woman who plays the music of Afghanistan," she says.
The Afghans repeat their claim and praise their abilities. "She has brought with me my culture, clothes, pose, jewelry and music," says Eqlima Mashid, a participant in an Afghan meeting in Springfield. Va., where the duo plays one night "I think Abigail knows what the words of the song mean, how it moves, moves up and down and wavers."
In the Afghan embassy, co-host Jawaid Kotwal, a BBC Pashto associate, explains that "music makes them popular with our community, even the men." The ambassador and his wife agree. "Abigail's play alongside Masood is a wonderful example of how the Afghan and American cultures intersect," says Lael Mohib after her husband thanked them for their accomplishments. She looks at the terrace where Greenway puts all her energy into the harmonium. "It takes a passionate personality," she says, "to immerse herself in another culture."
Audrey Hoffer is a writer in Washington.