“It was extremely emotional,” the Afghanistan National Institute of Music’s founder and director Ahmad Sarmast said of students he greeted at the airport in Doha on Tuesday. “They just couldn’t stop crying and I was crying together with them.”
More than 100 students and faculty were able to escape to the Qatari capital in October, but Sarmast, 59, and others had been working to evacuate the remaining 200 students and staff who were missing some paperwork.
“I am very relieved,” he told NBC News over the the telephone. “It’s good to see them happy, and also hopeful about the future.”
The 272 evacuees, including the all-female Zohra orchestra, will continue on to Portugal next, where they were granted asylum, the school’s officials said in a statement. They plan to resume the school’s activities there.
Sarmast’s students and faculty are the lucky ones.
Thousands of Afghans have been trying to flee the country since the United States and its allies withdrew their forces in August, seeking to escape repression, violence and a crumbling economy. But musicians face an especially difficult time under the austere fighters, whose interpretation of Islam has led them to outlaw music altogether in the past.
While the departures could be lifesaving for the students and faculty themselves, they are a blow to a decadeslong international effort to foster the best and brightest of the country’s musicians.
Since the school was founded in 2010, its male and female students have performed around the world — a symbol of progress in modern Afghanistan.
After the invasion in 2001 and the previous Taliban government’s departure, music thrived in Kabul and other parts of the country.
But the Taliban’s return in August has thrown a blanket of silence over much of the country.
Although music has not been formally banned, people in capital Kabul are cautious: Cafés and restaurants only play music inside, and even then — quietly. Less music is played on radio and TV. Wedding halls have stopped playing live music altogether, according to several wedding hall owners who spoke to NBC News.
“When I speak with my friends and family in Kabul, they say that music is very rare,” said Arson Fahim, a pianist who escaped the Afghan capital shortly before the Taliban takeover. “They say that without music, the city almost feels dead.”
While Afghanistan has a rich, centurieslong music tradition, and the Quran does not explicitly prohibit music or make it “un-Islamic,” the Taliban are using their extremist interpretation of Islam to justify erasing history and identity, of which music is a mainstay, historian Mejgan Massoumi at Stanford University said.
“Musicians are terrified. They are in hiding. They have buried and destroyed their instruments. They have silenced themselves.”
“It will be devastating for the Afghan people to attempt to silence voices and souls,” Massoumi said.
But Taliban commanders have told NBC News that listening to music is against Islamic law. While they have not issued an overarching ban on all music since their takeover in August, they have raised awareness about the “evils of music,” Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi said.
When they were first in power between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban banned all music outright. But this time around, trying to project a more moderate image, the group has stayed away from issuing a sweeping ban.
Despite promises of moderation, the Taliban have unleashed a brutal crackdown since returning to power as they try to consolidate control over the fractious country and force Afghans to adhere to their strict interpretation of Islam.
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That has left many Afghan musicians paralyzed with fear — uncertain about whether they will ever be able to play music again.
The United Nations special rapporteur on cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, said she has received reports of attacks on musicians in Afghanistan, destruction of musical instruments, closure of institutions associated with music and musicians forced to flee, making her “gravely concerned” about the safety of Afghan musicians.
“Musicians are terrified,” said Katherine Butler Schofield, senior lecturer in South Asian music and history at U.K.’s King’s College London. “They are in hiding. They have buried and destroyed their instruments. They have silenced themselves.”
Many have tried to leave the country, including during the chaotic evacuation of Western forces at the end of August. Until this week, the students and staff of Afghanistan’s most prominent music school were among them.
Sarmast said that his school’s activities were suspended as the Taliban took over the country. He said his students and faculty had targets on their backs because they promoted coeducation, with boys and girls not only learning music, but touring together.
We were “on the forefront of promoting democratic values through music,” he said.
Sarmast said the Taliban have given him reassurances that the school premises will be safe — until further notice from their senior leadership. But no students or staff have been allowed to enter, he added, and one of the school campuses has been turned into a military barrack.
Fahim, a pianist who graduated from the school earlier this year, left for the U.S. just two weeks before Kabul fell to the Taliban to study at Massachusetts’ Longy School of Music of Bard College.
He said he considers himself enormously lucky, but he has been riddled with worry about his former colleagues in Kabul and the school that he said changed his life.
“It was everything to me. It was like home,” Fahim, 21, said from Cambridge, Massachusetts.
He said he never thought the school, along with hundreds of Afghan musicians, could be silenced.
“Can you imagine not being able to do what you love, having to hide and being in danger because of something as beautiful as music?” Fahim said.
Sarmast said 13 years of his life’s painstaking work, building and promoting his school, had been ripped away when the Taliban marched into Kabul in August.
“Unexpectedly, all that is gone,” he said.
While he is now concentrating on trying to rebuild the school in Portugal, he still hopes to return to Kabul one day to resume his work there — as naive as it may sound, he admitted.
“If my safety is assured and I get the freedom to run a music school, I am going back to Afghanistan,” Sarmast said. “I do have hope.”