On a balmy evening in late September, guests mingle in the garden of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington’s Kalorama neighborhood. On the tiled patio, a pair of musicians sit on a wine- and saffron-colored carpet, playing Afghan music on traditional instruments: a tabla (a pair of drums tuned to different pitches) and a harmonium (a small keyboard instrument in a honey-colored wooden box).
As the sun fades, moonlight illuminates the musicians’ hands and faces and the sequins on their clothing. Their plaintive music wafts about the partygoers, who have come to bid farewell to outgoing Afghan Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib and his wife, Lael. One of the musicians, Afghan Masood Omari, sings as he drums the tabla with the heel of his palm. It’s a rare talent to be able to sing and play at once. But there’s something rarer still about this musical duo: The second musician is a woman — an unusual sight in Afghanistan, where “it’s not traditionally common for girls and women to play instruments,” Lael Mohib tells me. Even more notable: This woman has no Afghan background at all.
Abigail Adams Greenway (she won’t reveal her age; “I’m over 30 and under 100,” she quips) of Bethesda, Md., has never even been to Afghanistan. A visual artist who had achieved a measure of success in Washington art circles, she arrived at this moment in this garden, she says, through unexpected twists and turns in her life. In 2006, she came down with an indeterminate chronic ailment that lasted for three years. When she finally recovered, she decided to celebrate with a shopping trip to a favorite Georgetown boutique. On her way there, she happened to pass the Afghan shop Zamani House of Heritage and fell into conversation with the owner, Temur Zamani, who was standing in the doorway and invited her in. And ... “I fell in love,” she says. “I was entranced.”
The shop quickly became a second home. Greenway visited almost daily, Zamani recalls, bringing her paints and adding decorative touches to the walls and shelving. She grew close to Zamani and his family, and “couldn’t get enough of everything Afghan,” she says. “I was swept in by the beauty of the Afghan culture and people.”
It was at the shop that she met Omari, a professional weaver and textile artist who helped with rug repairs. When she learned that he also had a teaching diploma in classical tabla, she requested a lesson. “I had listened to music of the East over the years, and I was called to it,” she says. She studied tabla for a year, then added the harmonium. “It was all pretty magical,” she says of the way her life was altered.
Eventually, she and Omari formed Tabla for Two, and for the past eight years, they’ve been giving concerts in area embassies, museums, restaurants and private homes. “We play for peace and to preserve the music,” says Greenway, who has fervently embraced all aspects of Afghan culture. She dresses in native clothing — hand-stitched, richly woven garments that she buys in vintage shops and online or receives as gifts from Afghan friends. The lower level of her home, where she and Omari practice daily (“I call it the tablasphere,” she says), is decorated in Afghan style with colorful carpets, painted and deep-cushioned chairs, luxuriant floor pillows, glittering wall hangings and strings of colored lights. “I don’t do anything halfway,” she says, laughing. “You’re either in it or not.”
As if to prove her point, at the Afghan restaurant Lapis in Adams Morgan one evening, she wears a green top, a purple shawl and an Afghan beanie embellished with a Mayan bird, a Turkish evil eye and a sapphire star. As she and Omari play, a young couple rises to dance, matching their steps to the seven-beat rhythm as others cheer and clap.
Greenway’s immersion in all things Afghan could seem out of tune with an era when some look askance at so-called cultural appropriation. But she says she’s never been accused of it nor experienced a negative reaction from Afghans she meets. “I feel that I have been accepted as a female playing the music of Afghanistan,” she says.
Afghans echo her assertion and praise her skills. “She picked up my culture, the clothes, the pose, the jewelry, the music,” says Eqlima Mashid, an attendee at an Afghan gathering in Springfield, Va., where the duo perform one night. “I think Abigail knows the meaning of the song’s words, the way she moves, bobbing up and down and swaying.”
At the Afghan Embassy, co-host Jawaid Kotwal, a contributor to BBC Pashto, declares that “the music makes her beloved to our community, even to the men.” The ambassador and his wife concur. “Abigail’s playing alongside Masood is a wonderful example of the Afghan and American cultures intersecting,” says Lael Mohib after her husband thanks the two for their performance. She glances toward the patio, where Greenway is putting all her energy into the harmonium. “It takes a passionate personality,” she says, “to immerse oneself in another culture.”
Audrey Hoffer is a writer in Washington.