Refugee Afghan orchestra: “We will not tolerate what the Taliban are doing”

For the music institute Anim, the Taliban’s seizure of power was the reason for their flight. The musicians in his Zora orchestra are also threatened.

The Zohra Orchestra with Huma Rahimi (taking a selfie) and Ahmad Sarmast in Lisbon

The Zohra Orchestra with Huma Rahimi (takes selfie) and Ahmad Sarmast in Lisbon Photo: Jessica Lustig/Courtesy Anim

Huma Rahimi is far away from Kabul today, safe. The Afghan musician, 24, with loose, dark brown hair, is currently living in a refugee center on the outskirts of Lisbon. She took her sitar with her to Portugal and plays two hours a day on the instrument, which originally came from northern India.

Rahimi was one of the first women in Afghanistan to play the sitar professionally, and she is part of the Zohra Orchestra, an all-female ensemble formed in 2015 and based in Kabul – until the summer of 2021 when the Taliban again forcibly seized the fought back power.

In August of that year, Rahimi and the orchestra as a whole were on the verge of collapse. “I remember my mother coming home from work and saying that the Taliban are taking the capital. I started crying,” she says in a video chat with the taz.

Stabbed conga heads, murdered singer

She had seen how hostile the radical Islamists were towards musicians in old TV reports from the 1990s: “We knew that they kill musicians and burn instruments,” she says. The images that circulated worldwide on social networks shortly after the Taliban took power again were hardly surprising: a smashed piano, punctured conga drum skins, a burning harmonium could be seen. The folk singer Fawad Andarabi was shot dead by the Taliban in August 2021.

While many cultural workers and former local staff of Western NGOs are still in Afghanistan today or have since died, the Zohra Orchestra has been evacuated together with the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (Anim). The zohra, named after a Persian goddess of music, is part of the anim. The Afghan National Music Institute was founded in 2010 by the Afghan-Australian ethnomusicologist Ahmad Sarmast, who still directs it today.

Sarmast organized the escape, almost all Anim members could be taken out of the country. They first managed to travel to Doha, Qatar, before coming to Portugal in mid-December 2021. A total of 273 musicians and teachers have been rescued, around 170 of them still live in Portugal today, most in the city of Braga.

Music stood for cultural opening

Sarmast had asked the USA, England and Germany, among others, for asylum for his musicians and teachers. Portugal was the first country to agree to accept them. The anim has always stood for the cultural opening of Afghanistan, it is the life’s work of the 60-year-old. Sarmast is also on the Zoom call, speaking from Australia where he earned his PhD in the early noughties and is still a regular.

“I returned to Afghanistan in 2008. By founding Anim, I realized how much music gives to the younger generation in Afghanistan, how much it can contribute to the transformation of society.” Right from the start, giving children and women free access to music was at the top of his agenda. “For me, the smiles and the happiness of the children while making music have always been the greatest motivation for leading this institute.”

Since the Taliban view music as “un-Islamic” in their radical fantasy, the institute was a thorn in their side from the start. At the end of 2014, during a performance in Kabul, they carried out a terrorist attack on the musical ensemble and on Sarmast – he survived but temporarily lost his hearing. After taking power again in 2021, the radical Islamists again banned the making of music and the possession of instruments.

Music as a substitute home

For young women like Huma Rahimi, the anim once offered the opportunity to work professionally with music in their home country. Rahimi comes from Tachar, in northern Afghanistan. She came first in touch with musicafter being placed in an orphanage in Kabul as a child. At the age of ten she was able to take a trip to Italy through that orphanage, where she “fell in love with music”, as she puts it.

In Kabul, as a teenager, she learned of the existence of the anim. There she completed her basic musical education. After that, Rahimi studied in India. After returning to Kabul, she ended up working as a music teacher herself, giving lessons to girls. Your favorite piece of Afghan music? “This is the song ‘Anar Anar’. It sounds so great on the sitar, it’s fun to play.”

Sarmast and Rahimi are now aiming for a new start in Portugal, for both of them the reconstruction in exile is their small personal triumph over the Taliban. “I’m now working even harder on my music to prove to the Taliban and the people of Afghanistan that it won’t succeed in ousting women from culture and keeping them from education,” says Rahimi. This struggle is also taking place within Afghanistan.

The Taliban deny women access to universities there, and brave people demonstrated against it in Kabul in December. “The situation in Afghanistan is getting worse every day,” says Sarmast. “Women are deprived of all freedom. Afghanistan is once again becoming a prison for our sisters, mothers, wives and daughters.”

Cultural Genocide

Sarmast calls the Taliban dictatorship – very consciously – a “cultural genocide”, he talks about how the Islamists deal with ethnic minorities such as the Hazara, Tajik:innen, Turkmen:innen and Uzbeks:innen, from whom the land was taken away. The musicologist clearly criticizes the international humanitarian aid amounting to 37 million euros, which, according to the Taliban, went directly to the central bank they controlled. “One has to assume that the Taliban are using this money to oppress people in Afghanistan and to cement their tyrannical regime,” he says. The money does not serve its intended purpose.

The diverse musical culture of Afghanistan, whether it is classical music, folk and pop, must now be preserved in the diaspora: “We understand music as a fundamental human right,” says Sarmast. “Every human being, no matter what country, should have the right to express themselves through music and have access to the languages ​​of music. That’s what we stand for.”

The classical Afghan music is based on the Hindustani music of North India. As in Indian music, the melodic structure of raga and tarana chants can also be found in Afghan music. Ghazal chants, which have their origins in Persian love poetry, can also be found in traditional Afghan songs. There is also the popular, urban music that is played and sung in the larger cities, as well as regional, ethnic music.

Flowering before the Soviet invasion of 1979

Afghan music culture experienced a heyday before the Soviet invasion in the 1960s and 1970s. Famous singers of this era were Farida Mahwash and Ahmad Zahir. The anim always moves between Afghan and western music cultures, says Sarmast. The Zohra Orchestra also plays classics from their homeland such as “Watan Jan” as well as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.

In the meantime, the anim in Portugal has sorted itself out and reformed, a first major concert took place in October 2022 at the Gulbenkian Institute in Lisbon, and musicians from the orchestra have recently toured France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. The Zohra Orchestra has yet to find itself again, but the women’s ensemble will soon be giving international performances again. “We’re currently reforming Zohra,” says Sarmast. “A Portuguese conductor has taken the lead. We hope that Zohra will be able to perform publicly again in about six months.”

The orchestra also wants to set an example: “Zohra has become a symbol of freedom, a symbol of empowerment, of girls’ abilities. And for the development potential Afghanistan has.”

Anyone who thinks that Sarmast has lost all hope given the current situation in his home country is wrong. “No one can live without hope. For me personally, it is very painful to see that girls in Afghanistan cannot go to school. But the people of the country will not tolerate what is happening to women in Afghanistan forever.”

Huma Rahimi hopes to return, someday. Her message is as simple as it is clear: “As a teacher, I want to encourage girls to learn instruments too. Girls and boys should have equal rights. And they should be able to learn what they want to learn.”

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