Afghanistan’s only music school finishes leaving Kabul for fear of Taliban crackdown

The last two of more than 270 students, teachers and staff at Afghanistan’s only music school have left the country following the Taliban takeover, the institution’s founder said on Thursday.

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

More … than 100 students and teachers were able to escape to the Qatari capital in October, but Sarmast, 59, and others struggled to evacuate the remaining 200 students and staff who were undocumented.

Ahmad Sarmast kisses Zohra and Farida, both 13, upon their arrival in Doha, Qatar.Omar Nashat

“I am very relieved,” he told NBC News over the phone. “It’s good to see them happy, and also full of hope for the future.”

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

The luckiest students and teachers at Sarmast.

Thousands of Afghans have been trying to flee the country since the United States and its allies withdrew their forces in August, seeking to escape repression, violence and a crumbling economy. But musicians face a particularly difficult time under the austere fighters, whose interpretation of Islam has led them to ban music altogether in the past.

While departures may save lives for students and faculty themselves, they are a blow to a decades-long international effort to nurture the country’s best and brightest musicians.

Since the school’s inception in 2010, its students have performed around 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 has cast a veil of silence over much of the country.

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

Although music has not been formally banned, residents of the capital Kabul are cautious: cafes and restaurants only play music indoors, and even then, in silence. Less music is played on radio and television. Wedding venues have completely stopped playing live music, according to several wedding venue owners who spoke to NBC News.

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

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

“The musicians are terrified. They’re hiding. They buried and destroyed their instruments. They are silent themselves.

“It will be devastating for the Afghan people to try to silence voices and souls,” Massoumi said.

But Taliban commanders told NBC News that listening to music is against Islamic law. Although they have not issued a blanket ban on all music since their takeover in August, they have raised awareness of the “evils of music,” Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi said.

When they took power between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban outright banned all music. But this time around, trying to project a more moderate image, the group refrained from issuing a sweeping ban.

Despite promises of restraint, the Taliban have unleashed a brutal crackdown since their return to power as they attempt to consolidate control over the turbulent country and force Afghans to adhere to their strict interpretation of Islam.

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This has left many Afghan musicians paralyzed with fear – uncertain whether they will ever be able to play music again.

The United Nations special rapporteur on cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, said she received reports of attacks on musicians in Afghanistan, destruction of musical instruments, closure of institutions associated with music and musicians forced to flee, making her “gravely concerned” for the safety of Afghan musicians.

Pianist Arson Fahim, 21, left Kabul for the United States just 2 weeks before the Taliban took over the Afghan capital to study music in the United States Isabelle Balena

“Musicians are terrified,” said Katherine Butler Schofield, senior lecturer in South Asian music and history at King’s College London in the UK. ” They’re hiding. They buried and destroyed their instruments. They are silent themselves.

Many have tried to leave the country, especially during the chaotic evacuation of Western forces at the end of August. Until this week, students and staff from Afghanistan’s largest music school were among them.

Sarmast said his school’s activities were suspended as the Taliban took control of the country. He said his students and teachers had goals on their backs because they encouraged diversity, with boys and girls not only learning music, but touring together.

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

Sarmast said the Taliban had assured him the school premises would be safe – until further orders from their senior leaders. But no students or staff were allowed in, he added, and one of the school’s campuses was turned into a military barracks.

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

While now focusing on rebuilding the school in Portugal, Ahmad Sarmast, founder and director of the Afghan National Institute of Music, still hopes to one day return to Kabul to resume his work.Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images file

He said he considered himself extremely lucky, but was concerned about his former colleagues in Kabul and the school which he said changed his life.

“That was it for me. It was like home, ”said Fahim, 21, of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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

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

Sarmast said 13 years of hard work in his life, building and promoting his school, were torn away when the Taliban entered Kabul in August.

“Unexpectedly, it all disappeared,” he said.

While he is now focused on rebuilding the school in Portugal, he still hopes to someday return to Kabul to resume his job – as naive as that may sound, he admitted.

“If my safety is assured and I have the freedom to run a music school, I will go back to Afghanistan,” Sarmast said. “I have hope.”

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