Arts

1,200 Miles From Kabul, a Celebrated Music School Reunites

The plane from Kabul touched down in Qatar around 6 p.m. on Tuesday. Two 13-year-old musicians — Zohra and Farida, a trumpet player and a violinist — disembarked and ran toward their teacher. Then, witnesses said, they began to cry.

The girls were among the last students affiliated with the Afghanistan National Institute of Music — a renowned school that has been a target of the Taliban in the past in part for its efforts to promote the education of girls — to be evacuated from Kabul since the Taliban regained power in August.

They joined 270 students, teachers and their relatives who, fearing that the Taliban might seek to punish them for their ties to music, have made the journey from Kabul to Doha, the capital of Qatar, with the first group leaving in early October. Most arrived in the past week, boarding four special flights arranged by the government of Qatar, after months of delays. They eventually plan to resettle in Portugal, where they expect to be granted asylum.

“It’s such a huge relief,” Ahmad Naser Sarmast, the head of the school, said in a telephone interview on his way back from greeting the girls at the airport on Tuesday. “They can dream again. They can hope.”

The musicians are among hundreds of artists — actors, writers, painters and photographers — who have fled Afghanistan in recent weeks. Many have left because they worry about their safety and see no way of earning money as the arts come under government scrutiny.

The Taliban is wary of nonreligious music, which they prohibited outright when they led Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. While the new government has not issued an official ban, radio stations have stopped playing some songs, and musicians have taken to hiding their instruments. Some have reported being attacked or threatened for performing. A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in an interview with The New York Times in August that “music is forbidden in Islam” but that “we’re hoping that we can persuade people not to do such things, instead of pressuring them.”

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music had long been a target of the Taliban. The school embraced change, adopting a coeducational model and devoting resources to studying both traditional Afghan music and Western music. The Taliban issued frequent threats against the school; Sarmast was wounded by a Taliban suicide bomber in 2014.

The school became known for supporting the education of girls, who make up about a third of the student body. The school’s all-female orchestra, Zohra, toured the world and was hailed as a symbol of a modern, more progressive Afghanistan.

When the Taliban consolidated control over the country in the summer, the school was forced to shut down rapidly. Taliban officials began using the campus as a command center. Students and staff mostly stayed home, worried they would be attacked for going outside. Some stopped playing music and began learning other skills, such as weaving.

In the final days of the American war in Afghanistan, the school’s supporters led a frantic attempt to evacuate students and staff. At one point, seven busloads of people trying to flee waited at the airport in Kabul for 17 hours, but were unable to board their plane when the gate was closed amid fears of a terrorist attack. After that, the school began evacuating people more slowly and in small groups. But difficulties in obtaining passports left some musicians stuck for months in Afghanistan.

Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan


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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be. One spokesman told The Times that the group wanted to forget its past, but that there would be some restrictions.

How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.

What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.

What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there. On Aug. 26, deadly explosions outside Afghanistan’s main airport claimed by the Islamic State demonstrated that terrorists remain a threat.

How will this affect future U.S. policy in the region? Washington and the Taliban may spend years pulled between cooperation and conflict. Some of the key issues at hand include: how to cooperate against a mutual enemy, the Islamic State branch in the region, known as ISIS-K, and whether the U.S. should release $9.4 billion in Afghan government currency reserves that are frozen in the country.

A number of star artists, including the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, offered support. The government of Qatar provided shelter and helped negotiate with the Taliban to ensure safe passage.

“We hope that one day, the circumstances in Afghanistan will be encouraging for them to return home and take part in building their country’s future,” Lolwah Alkhater, an assistant foreign minister in Qatar, said in a statement.

On Wednesday, a group of students will play a concert in Doha to celebrate the school’s reunion. Among the songs will be “Sarzamin-e Man,” which translates to “My Homeland.”

“When I see them I’m just happy,” said Marzia, an 18-year-old violist and a conductor for the Zohra orchestra, speaking of her fellow students. “I see all of them happy and they feel free.”

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