Fleeing Taliban, Afghanistan's only music school completes exit from country

The last two of more than 270 students, lecturers and employees of Afghanistan’s only music school left the country in the wake of the Taliban takeover, the institution’s founder said on Thursday.

“It was extremely emotional,” said the founder and director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, Ahmad Sarmast, of the students he greeted at the airport in Doha on Tuesday. “They just couldn’t stop crying and I cried with them.”

More than 100 students and lecturers managed to escape to the Qatari capital in October, but Sarmast, 59, and others had worked to evacuate the remaining 200 students and staff who lacked paperwork.

Ahmad Sarmast hugs Zohra and Farida, both 13 years old, upon arrival in Doha, Qatar.Omar Nashat

“I’m very relieved,” he told NBC News on the phone. “It is good to see you happy and also hopeful for the future.”

The 272 evacuees, including the all-female Zohra orchestra, will next travel to Portugal, where they have been granted asylum, school officials said in a statement. They plan to resume school operations there.

Sarmast’s students and faculty are the lucky ones.

Thousands of Afghans have been trying to flee the country since the US and its allies withdrew in August to escape repression, violence and a fragile economy. It is especially difficult for musicians among the strict fighters, whose interpretation of Islam has led them in the past to ban music altogether.

While the departures could be life-saving for the students and faculty themselves, they are a setback to a decade-long international effort to nurture the best and brightest musicians in the country.

Since the school was founded in 2010, its students have performed all over the world – a symbol of progress in modern Afghanistan.

After the 2001 invasion and the departure of the previous Taliban government, music flourished in Kabul and other parts of the country.

But the return of the Taliban in August silenced large parts of the country.

The school’s activities, including the all-female Zohra orchestra, contradict the strict and harsh rule of the Taliban.File: Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Although music is not officially banned, people in the capital Kabul are careful: cafes and restaurants only play music inside, and even then – quietly. Less music is played on radio and television. Wedding halls have stopped playing live music altogether, according to several wedding hall owners speaking to NBC News.

“When I talk to my friends and family in Kabul, they say that music is very rare,” said Arson Fahim, a pianist who fled the Afghan capital shortly before the Taliban took over. “They say the city feels almost dead without music.”

While Afghanistan has a rich, centuries-old musical tradition and the Qur’an does not specifically prohibit music or make it “un-Islamic,” the Taliban justify their extremist interpretation of Islam to justify the erasure of the history and identity of which music is a mainstay. said Stanford University historian Mejgan Massoumi.

“Musicians are afraid. They’re hiding. They buried and destroyed their instruments. You have silenced yourself. “

“Silencing voices and souls will be devastating for the Afghan people,” said Massoumi.

But Taliban commanders told NBC News that listening to music was against Islamic law. Although they have not imposed an overarching music ban since taking over in August, they have raised awareness of the “evils of music,” said Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi.

When they came to power between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban banned all music. But this time the group has stayed away from a blanket ban in an attempt to project a more moderate image.

Despite promises of moderation, since their return to power the Taliban have unleashed brutal action to consolidate control over the divided country and to force the Afghans to adhere to their strict interpretation of Islam.

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This has paralyzed many Afghan musicians with fear – unsure whether they will ever be able to make music again.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights Karima Bennoune said she had reports of attacks on musicians in Afghanistan, the destruction of musical instruments, the closure of music-related facilities and musicians forced to flee. get what they are “deeply concerned about” about the security of Afghan musicians.

The 21-year-old pianist Arson Fahim left Kabul just two weeks before the Taliban took over the Afghan capital for the United States to study music in the United States Isabela Balena

“Musicians are afraid,” says Katherine Butler Schofield, professor of South Asian music and history at King’s College London, UK. “They’re hiding. They buried and destroyed their instruments. You have silenced yourself. “

Many tried to leave the country, including during the chaotic evacuation of western troops in late August. Among them were the students and staff of Afghanistan’s most important music school until this week.

Sarmast said his school’s activities stopped when the Taliban took over the country. He said his students and faculty had goals behind them because they promoted co-education, where boys and girls not only learn music, but tour together.

We have been “at the forefront of promoting democratic values ​​through music,” he said.

Sarmast said the Taliban had assured him that the school premises would be safe – for the time being from their top management. But students and staff were not allowed in, he added, and one of the school campuses was converted into a military barracks.

Fahim, a pianist who graduated from the school this year, traveled to the United States just two weeks before Kabul fell to the Taliban to study at the Longy School of Music at Bard College in Massachusetts.

While he is now focused on rebuilding the school in Portugal, Ahmad Sarmast, founder and director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, hopes to return to Kabul one day to resume work.Deputy Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images on file

He says he is extremely fortunate, but he is plagued by concerns about his former colleagues in Kabul and the school he said had changed his life.

“It was all for me. It was like being at home, ”said Fahim, 21, of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He said he never thought the school could be silenced along with hundreds of Afghan musicians.

“Can you imagine not being able to do what you love, having to hide and being in danger because of something as beautiful as music?” Said Fahim.

Sarmast said 13 years of his arduous life’s work, building and promoting his school, were torn away when the Taliban invaded Kabul in August.

“Unexpectedly, everything is gone,” he said.

While he is now concentrating on rebuilding the school in Portugal, he still hopes to return to Kabul one day to resume work – as naive as it sounds, he admitted.

“When my safety is guaranteed and I get the freedom to run a music school, I’ll go back to Afghanistan,” said Sarmast. “I have hope.”

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