Music tries to show itself stronger than weapons in Afghanistan

The song defies the Taliban’s more conservative beliefs and threats at the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM), an oasis that has changed the lives of needy boys and girls and is restoring traditional Afghan music after decades of suffocation.

Naria was very small when she fell in love with music. His grandfather Wanj, a traditional harper, opened the door and lit the spark of his musical passion.

In 2011 her parents decided to take her out of her small town in the eastern province of Nuristan and send her to Kabul to join ANIM, a unique institute of its kind in Afghanistan’s history.

His admission to ANIM was not only a source of pride in his city, but it also provoked the rejection of many people who consider music a sin.

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“The villagers told us that learning music was a sin forbidden by religion and asked me to leave it,” he told Efe Nazira, now 18, who has not since returned to a village where only music is heard and played in the darkness of the night, out of reach of extremists.

The threats of the fundamentalists made their family finally move to Kabul the following year, but what they could not prevent was the young woman growing up as a talented cellist.

Nazira was selected as the first cellist of the institute’s Zohra Orchestra, established in 2016 and the first in the country’s history composed solely of women.

So far, she has performed in 30 countries, including such important venues as New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center in Washington.

She and her companions are not the first in their families to learn to play an instrument, but the first in 30 years.

Music has been part of Afghanistan’s cultural wealth for centuries, and in the 1980s dozens of orchestras populated the country, but with the civil war in the 1990s and the Taliban’s coming to power in 1996, it was prescribed.

Taliban extremists were particularly harsh during his five-year rule in the country, punishing anyone who listened to music and even breaking the hands of musicians when they were “caught” playing.

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“No one had the right to play, listen to or learn music with the Taliban,” Ahmad Sarmast, now director of ANIM and one of the first to return to the country when the fall of the fundamentalists in 2001 with the invasion of the United States, told Efe.

While the Taliban mentality is strong in the more conservative parts of society, music has brought positive changes to society, and now more families allow their daughters to learn music, even in remote and underdeveloped provinces.

“This is a change for the better,” said Sarmast.

The institute went from having only one girl in 2010 to 75 in 2017, out of a total of 250 students, half of them street children, children of poor families and orphans who before being part of ANIM had a “hard life”, according to Sarmast.

His work was even recognized with the Polar Prize of Music, considered the Nobel of the music, along with the American band Metallica.

“We try to change their lives with music,” said Sarmast, noting that talented students like Nazira will follow the task as teachers.

The Taliban, for their part, do not condone this affront.

In 2014 this insurgent group attacked a theatrical spectacle in which the youth of the orchestra made the music of a play in which a suicide attack was represented in Kabul.

An explosion caused 14 of those present to die and Sarmast himself was seriously injured.

“The explosion made the play a real play,” he said.

But in spite of the attack, not a single family removed its children from the institute.

“That was his response to extremism,” concluded a proud Sarmast.

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