Musicians flee Afghanistan fearing Taliban regime

More than 100 young artists, teachers and their relatives affiliated with the Afghan National Institute of Music, a famous school that has become a target of the Taliban in part for its efforts to promote girls’ education, fled the country on Sunday, the school leaders mentioned.

The musicians, many of whom have been trying to leave for more than a month, boarded a flight from Kabul’s main airport and arrived in Qatar’s capital Doha around noon eastern time, according to Ahmad Naser Sarmast. , School’s director. , which is currently in Australia. In the coming days, they plan to relocate to Portugal, where the government has agreed to grant them visas.

“This is already a big step and a very, very big achievement on the road to saving Afghan musicians from Taliban cruelty,” Sarmast, who opened the school in 2010, said in a statement. “You can’t imagine how happy I am.”

The musicians join a growing number of Afghans who have fled the country since August, when the Taliban consolidated their control of the country amid withdrawal of US forces. Among the figures from the arts and sports world who have escaped are members of a women’s football team which has relocated to Portugal and Italy.

Yet hundreds of the school’s students, staff and alumni remain in Afghanistan and face an uncertain future amid signs that the Taliban will work to restrict non-religious music, which they outright banned when they previously ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001.

Supporters of the school, a global network of artists, philanthropists, politicians and educators, plan to continue working to bring the remaining musicians out of Afghanistan. “The mission is not over,” said Mr. Sarmast, an Afghan music scholar. “It just started.”

Famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma has helped educate politicians and other artists about the plight of musicians. He said he was “shaking with excitement” when he heard that some of them had escaped.

“It would be a terrible tragedy to lose this essential group of people who are so deeply motivated to make a living tradition part of the world tradition,” Ma said in a telephone interview.

Among the musicians who remain stuck in the country, he said: “I think of them every hour of the day.”

The Afghan National Institute of Music was a rarity: a mixed institution devoted to teaching Afghan and Western music, mainly to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The school has become known for supporting the education of girls, who make up about a third of the student body. The school’s all-female orchestra, Zohra, has toured the world and been widely acclaimed, and has become a symbol of Afghanistan’s changing identity.

The school has faced threats from the Taliban for years, and in 2014 Mr. Sarmast was injured by a Taliban suicide bomber.

Since the Taliban’s return to power, the school has come under renewed scrutiny. Mr Sarmast and the school’s supporters worked for weeks to help students, alumni, staff and loved ones leave the country, fearing for their safety. The government of Qatar helped organize a safe passage for musicians in Doha and played a key role in negotiations with the Taliban.

Several students and young artists affiliated with the music institute have said in interviews with The Times in recent weeks that they have stayed at home for fear of being assaulted or punished by the Taliban. Many have stopped playing music, hid their instruments, and tried to cover up their school affiliation. They requested anonymity to comment for fear of reprisal.

In the closing days of the American war in Afghanistan, supporters of the school carried out a frantic and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to evacuate nearly 300 students, teachers and staff affiliated with the school, as well as their relatives. The operation was supported by prominent politicians and security officials in the United States. At one point, the musicians sat on seven buses near an airport gate for 17 hours, hoping to board a waiting plane. But the plan collapsed at the last minute when musicians were unable to access the airport and fears of a possible terrorist attack escalated.

The Taliban have tried to promote an image of tolerance and moderation since their return to power, vowing not to retaliate against their former enemies and claiming that women would be allowed to work and study “within the limits of Islamic law. “.

But they have sent signals that they will impose tough policies, including on culture. A Taliban spokesperson recently said music would not be allowed in public.

“Music is prohibited in Islam,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an interview with The Times in August. “But we hope we can persuade people not to do such things, instead of pressuring them.”

John Baily, an ethnomusicologist at the University of London who has studied cultural life in Afghanistan, said it would be difficult for the Taliban to completely eradicate music in the country after years in which the arts were allowed to thrive.

“You have literally thousands of kids who have grown up with music,” he said, “and they’re not just going to be turned off like that. “

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