Doha, qatar – In a cramped room in an evacuee compound, a conductor without a stick teaches students to familiarize themselves with instruments that are not their own. The conductor demands the silence of the spectators who jump their heads in and out of the hall.
The group has not practiced together for nearly three months, not since the doors to their school in Kabul were closed when the Taliban took over the Afghan government. Although their home music career is in limbo, they have a chance to show their talents again and plan to put on a show.
About 96 members of the Afghan National Institute of Music, or ANIM, which includes teachers and musicians, have fled their homes in Afghanistan.
They landed in Doha and are expected to settle in Portugal in the coming weeks where they have been granted visas.
ANIM opened in 2010 with funding from the World Bank and several other NGOs. The school’s mantra is to secure the musical rights of all Afghans and promote equal learning.
Before its doors closed in August, ANIM had 300 students, 60% of whom were from economically disadvantaged families. The school doors have been closed since mid-August. The building is now under constant Taliban patrol.
Situation on the ground
Since the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, there has not been an outright ban on music, but rather restrictions, such that no loud music should be played in public.
For fear of potential consequences, several radio and television stations in Kabul have stopped broadcasting music or entertainment that they believe could go against the practices and governance of the Taliban, which continues to be shaped and reshaped.
Afghanistan has experienced an artistic brain drain since the Taliban takeover. Internationally recognized Afghan artists such as Aryana Sayeed and Sharafat Parwani left the country, expressing their concerns on social media for the ever-present artistic community.
Back in the rehearsal room, the students and teachers of ANIM are delighted to be performing in front of an audience again in just two days. The group has already toured the world playing in famous venues in New York and Davos.
Before leaving Afghanistan, the students were preparing for a tour of Colombia. Despite the gig on a smaller scale compared to what they have done in the past, the venue is full of smiley faces on occasion.
But students’ eyes often turn to the ground in a contemplative manner, thinking of family and friends at home.
âAll the doors of the house are closed now,â says Shogofa, speaking of his musical prospects under the Taliban. Shogofa is a percussionist specializing in dhol and marimba. She is part of the all-female ANIM orchestra named Zohra, meaning Venus.
She says when the music school closed, all of its music outlets were put on hold. “I couldn’t play music at home, a neighbor told my family that there were a lot of Taliban [patroling] in the region, âsays Shogofa.
His classmate, violinist Mohammad, says his mother prevented him from going to school the day the Taliban took Kabul. He says the whole moment made him miserable. âI am very unhappy for my future and my dreams that I had. Not only myself, but all my friends were sad, âMohammad says.
Qambar, teacher and conductor, projects a little more optimism in the room. ANIM’s education and practice system helped him better specialize in traditional Afghan music while infusing the European notation system, including harmony, composition and arrangement.
“It doesn’t matter whether the Taliban took control of Kabul or not, we continue our fight because we have learned to be strong for our nation, for our country,” says Qambar. “This nation is not just Taliban, there are many more important things beyond Taliban ideology.”
None of the students in the room were alive during the Taliban’s first reign between 1996 and 2001 and suffered an outright ban on music. It was such a severe ban that the country did not have a national anthem.
But one person in the room remembers those moments. Ahmed, the English program coordinator for ANIM, remembers this very well.
He remembers being arrested twice. Once for shaving off facial hair. The other time working as a tailor and making a drawing on a woman’s outfit deemed “against Islamic values”. He was detained for five days.
This is the second time that Ahmed has left Afghanistan. He fled for Iran the first time. Despite the uncertainty in Afghanistan, Ahmed, like the students and professors in the room, cannot see themselves without their homeland.
âAfghanistan will always be my home,â says Ahmed. “I’ll be back.”
Meeting with Ahmad Sarmast
Just a 15-minute drive from the evacuee compound, ANIM founder and director Ahmad Sarmast is sitting in his hotel room. Several of his phones are on display. He remains in constant contact with his family and members of the school in Afghanistan. Around 180 members of the ANIM family are still in Kabul. Efforts are underway to get them out.
Sarmast is akin to a traveling encyclopedia of knowledge and history of Afghan music, ranging from Dari to Farsi and Pashto music. His father was a legendary composer and musician in Afghanistan.
During the 1990s, Sarmast fled the civil war in Afghanistan to pursue his musical studies. In 2005, he became the first Afghan to earn a doctorate in music studies.
After creating ANIM in 2010, Sarmast has been targeted by the Taliban for its promotion of women seeking higher education. In 2014, during an ANIM concert, a suicide bombing attack killed two people and left Sarmast injured and temporarily deaf.
Sarmast is in direct contact with members of the Taliban regarding the ANIM campus. He says there was slight damage to a few instruments that occurred when the Taliban initially took control of Kabul and looting was widespread.
He says the image of his school with empty hallways depresses him.
âCurrently the Afghan National Institute of Music is as quiet as the whole nation, which is a shame. A society without music is a dead society, âsays Sarmast.
Sarmast says one of the ANIM campuses has been converted into a command center for members of the Haqqani Network, according to school night watchers who passed on information to him.
He says that for now the ANIM campus is still standing but he has not been given any assurances about its future.
“They (the Taliban) assured me that the school would be safe, but when asked about music education, they say it is a decision that must be made by the leadership of the Taliban,” said Sarmast.
As the ANIM students take the stage in the evacuee compound, the group is joined by members of the Qatar military band to perform a three-piece ensemble.
The song that evokes the strongest reaction of the night is called Da Zamong Zonal Watan, which means “Our beautiful and beautiful land” in Pashto. It is considered an unofficial national anthem in the country. Several members of the crowd have tears in their eyes during the performance.
As the set ends with thunderous applause, Sarmast promises to put on several great shows once the students recover in Portugal.
Sarmast’s desire to preserve Afghan musical heritage and promote its diversity has been his life mission. Despite the uncertainty surrounding ANIM, Sarmast says he and his students will continue the fight.
âThey (the students) had three months of silence,â Sarmast says, looking at the crowd and the organizers. “Thank you for giving their voice back.”
Everyone in the article provided full names but were only comfortable having their first names in block letters.