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1,200 Miles From Kabul, a Celebrated Music School Reunites | tnewst.com Press "Enter" to skip to content

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.

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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