Over 100 musicians flee Afghanistan, fearing Taliban crackdown

Published October 5, 2021
Taliban forces patrol a street in Herat, Afghanistan on August 14, 2021.  — Reuters/File
Taliban forces patrol a street in Herat, Afghanistan on August 14, 2021. — Reuters/File

More than 100 music students and teachers have fled Afghanistan in a nail-biting flight from Kabul following the Taliban's takeover of the country, their institute's founder and principal told AFP.

Fearing a crackdown on music by the country's new leaders, a total 101 members of Afghanistan's top musical institute landed in Doha on Monday evening, Ahmad Sarmast said.

The group, about half of them women and girls, plan to fly to Portugal with the support of the government there, said Sarmast, founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, who now lives in Melbourne.

But the success of the operation was in doubt until the last moment, he said.

With help from the Qatari embassy in Kabul, the musicians had been ferried in small groups to the city's airport, Sarmast said.

In a first hurdle, Taliban forces manning Kabul airport questioned their visas. But Qatari embassy officials managed to resolve the problem.

Ahmad Sarmast, founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, poses during an interview with AFP in Melbourne on Oct 5, 2021. — AFP
Ahmad Sarmast, founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, poses during an interview with AFP in Melbourne on Oct 5, 2021. — AFP

Then the girls and women were told that they could not leave the country with their temporary “service passports”, which are usually issued to officials.

'Time of many tears'

“My understanding is that it was not so much of the type of the passports but that the girls were fleeing the country,” Sarmast said.

Once again, Qatari officials managed to negotiate their passage.

When the flight finally took off hours later with the musicians, including many from the all-female Zohra orchestra, Sarmast said he was overcome with emotion.

“It was a time of many tears. I was crying endlessly. My family were crying together with me. That was the happiest moment in my entire life,” he said.

The institute's founder said he had lived many memorable moments with his students, who won standing ovations on international concert tours.

“But the feeling and the happiness when I heard that their plane took off the ground is very hard to describe.” The flight was the result of long planning since the Taliban takeover, Sarmast said.

“From the moment the Taliban took power in Kabul the discrimination against music and musicians began. The people of Afghanistan have silenced once again,” he said.

The Taliban, who banned music outright during their oppressive rule from 1996 to 2001, swept back into power on August 15.

Read more: The day the music died: Afghanistan's all-female orchestra falls silent

They have promised a more moderate brand of rule this time — though they have made clear that they will run Afghanistan within the restrictive limits of their interpretation of sharia law.

The movement's position on music is inconsistent and no clear order has yet been issued.

At a Taliban rally outside Kabul this weekend, for example, religious music was played ahead of speeches by ministers and senior Taliban figures.

Told to stay at home

According to Sarmast, the Taliban have told the musical institute's members to stay at home until further notice. Nearly two months later, they have not been given any further information.

The escape from Kabul was just the first phase, Sarmast said, vowing to work until all 184 remaining faculty and students, past and present, were evacuated and “reunited with the rest of the school”.

During a visit by AFP to the college in Kabul last month, there was no sound of music.

Instead, Taliban soldiers chatted and armed guards cradled Kalashnikovs in the courtyard, shaded by trees with swirling treble clefs spray-painted on to their trunks.

Opinion

Editorial

Spirit of ’74
26 Feb, 2024

Spirit of ’74

FOR three days in 1974, starting Feb 22, Lahore witnessed an epochal meeting of 38 Muslim nations as it hosted the...
Silence strategy
Updated 26 Feb, 2024

Silence strategy

Attempts at internet censorship only serve to tarnish Pakistan’s image globally and betray the democratic principles the country purports to uphold.
Nepra’s reluctance
26 Feb, 2024

Nepra’s reluctance

WHAT is the point in having a regulator that does not punish the entities it oversees for misconduct and...
Pipeline progress
25 Feb, 2024

Pipeline progress

THE outgoing caretaker government has decided to move forward with the much-delayed Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline...
Engaging the Taliban
25 Feb, 2024

Engaging the Taliban

DEALING with the Taliban — Afghanistan’s de facto rulers — continues to present a diplomatic dilemma for the...
Burden or opportunity?
Updated 25 Feb, 2024

Burden or opportunity?

Maryam Nawaz is embarking on a journey of challenges and opportunities.