A celebrated Afghan school fears the Taliban will stop the music

Students at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music are frightened now that the Taliban, which banned most forms of music when it previously ruled the country, is consolidating control again. A student in its all-female orchestra, Zohra, practised in 2019.Photo: Jawad Jalali/EPA, Shutterstock via The New York Times
For more than a decade, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music has stood as a symbol of the country’s changing identity. The school trained hundreds of young artists, many of them orphans and street hawkers, in artistic traditions that were once forbidden by the Taliban. It formed an all-female orchestra that performed widely in Afghanistan and abroad.

But in recent days, as the Taliban have been consolidating control over Afghanistan again, the school’s future has come into doubt.

In interviews, several students and teachers said they feared that the Taliban, who have a history of attacking the school’s leaders, would seek to punish people affiliated with the school as well as their families. Some said they worried that the school will be shut down and that they will not be allowed to play again. Several female students said they had been staying inside their homes since the capital was seized Sunday

“It’s a nightmare,” Ahmad Naser Sarmast, the head of the school, said in a telephone interview from Melbourne, Australia, where he arrived last month for medical treatment.

The Taliban banned most forms of music when they previously ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001. This time, they have promised a more tolerant approach, vowing not to carry out reprisals against their former enemies and saying that women will be allowed to work and study “within the bounds of Islamic law.”

But the Taliban’s history of violence toward artists and their general intolerance for music without religious meaning has sowed doubts among many performers.

“My concern is that the people of Afghanistan will be deprived of their music,” Sarmast said. “There will be an attempt to silence the nation.”

In 2010, Sarmast, an Afghan music scholar who was trained in Australia and plays trumpet and piano, opened the school, which has more than 400 students and staff members, with the support of the US-backed government. It was a rarity: a coeducational institution devoted to teaching music from both Afghanistan and the West.

The school’s musicians were invited to perform on many of the world’s most renowned stages, including Carnegie Hall. They played Western classical music as well as traditional Afghan music and instruments, like the rubab, which resembles the lute and is one of the national instruments of Afghanistan.

The school placed special emphasis on supporting young women, who make up one-third of the student body. The school’s all-female orchestra, Zohra, founded in 2015, earned wide acclaim. Many were the first women in their families to receive formal training. In a symbol of its modern ways, headscarves for girls at the school’s campus in Kabul were optional.

The school’s habit of challenging tradition made it a target. In 2014, Sarmast was injured by a Taliban suicide bomber who infiltrated a school play. The Taliban tried to attack the school again in the years that followed, but their attempts were thwarted, Sarmast said.

Now female students say they are concerned about a return to a repressive past when the Taliban eliminated schooling for girls and barred women from leaving home without male guardians.

Several female students — who were granted anonymity because they feared retaliation — said that it felt like their dreams to become professional musicians could disintegrate. They worried they might not be able to play music again in their lives, even as a hobby.

In recent weeks, as the Taliban swept through the country, the school’s network of overseas supporters tried to help by raising money to improve security on campus, including by installing an armed gate and walls.

But it’s now unclear if the school will even be permitted to operate under the Taliban. It is also increasingly difficult for citizens of Afghanistan to leave the country. Airport entrances have been chaotic and often impassable scenes for days, even for people with travel documentation. The Taliban control the streets, and although they say they are breaking up crowds at the airport to keep order, there are widespread reports that they are turning people away by force if they try to leave the country.

The State Department said in a statement that it was working to get US citizens as well as locally employed staff and vulnerable Afghans out of the country, although crowding at the airport had made it more difficult. The department said it was prioritizing Afghan women and girls, human rights defenders, and journalists, among others.

“This effort is of utmost importance to the US government,” the statement said.

In the 1990s, the Taliban permitted religious singing but banned other forms of music because they were seen as distractions to Islamic studies and could encourage impure behaviour. Taliban officials destroyed instruments and smashed cassette tapes.

William Maley, an emeritus professor at Australian National University who has studied Afghanistan, said he was troubled by reports that the Taliban had recently sought to limit the spread of popular music in some parts of the country.

“The Taliban in the 1990s were extremely hostile to any form of music other than religious chants, and people had to hide their instruments and play music secretively,” Maley said. “I would not be optimistic.”

Amid the chaos in Kabul, students, teachers and alumni of the school have exchanged frantic messages on chat groups. They have lamented the fact that they might need to hide their instruments or leave them in the care of others if they try to flee.

William Harvey, who taught violin and conducted the orchestra at the school from 2010 to 2014, said he felt despair thinking his former students might be in peril for pursuing their passion. Still, he said the school is an inspiration for artists and audiences around the world.

“It is to those students, then, that we owe a tremendous responsibility,” said Harvey, now the concertmaster of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional in Mexico. “They must live to lift their voices again another day.”

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