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Afghanistan's Music School Falls Silent, Its Future Is Uncertain Under The Taliban

Students practice the cello during class at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music on Sept. 26, 2010 in Kabul.
Students practice the cello during class at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music on Sept. 26, 2010 in Kabul.

The doors of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul are closed. The music school's young students, teachers and faculty are staying home — they have reason to fear. According to founder and director Ahmad Sarmast, "armed people entered school property" recently. He says they tried to steal cars the school uses for transportation and destroyed musical instruments. Under the Taliban in the 1990s, music was strictly forbidden. Performing, selling or even listening to music at home could get you in trouble.

Now ANIM's future is uncertain. With the disorder caused by the Taliban's takeover of the city, "The situation is very unpredictable," says Sarmast. "Things are changing very fast in Kabul nowadays."

Sarmast, who spoke to NPR from Australia where he's visiting family, is in constant contact with the school's faculty. He says some students did not bring their instruments home, "because of the fear that if Taliban will be searching door to door, if the instruments will be found in the house, it might cause them some trouble." When he reported the recent break-in, he says a policeman in the area, "blamed our security people for failure that they opened the gates of the school."

Eden MacAdam Somer of the New England Conservatory  performs at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul on Jan. 9, 2013.
Musadeq Sadeq / AP
Eden MacAdam Somer of the New England Conservatory performs at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul on Jan. 9, 2013.

It's Afghanistan's leading music school

With help from donors including the World Bank and the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), ANIM opened in Kabul in 2010. Boys and girls study music and academics in the same classrooms. Students learn to play instruments from both the Afghanistan and Western classical traditions.

The school has been held up as a great success story in the effort to renew cultural life and the arts in Afghanistan. Ensembles from the school, including the all-female Zohra orchestra, have performed around the world. From Carnegie Hall in New York to the World Economic Forum in Davos, these young musicians, many from impoverished communities, have shown audiences a side of Afghanistan that often gets lost in news accounts.

Making music can have deadly consequences

Making music has long been a risky endeavor in Afghanistan. Over the years, musicians have reportedly been threatened, kidnapped or killed. During one of ANIM's concerts in 2014, a suicide bomber sitting behind Sarmast exploded. Two people were killed and several others were injured. Sarmast lost his hearing for a time and had an operation to remove shrapnel from his head and body. "Luckily, no students have been injured or killed," he says, "But of course, the trauma that they received during this bombing probably would have stayed with them all their life."

Students play the xylophone and drums during class at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul on July 30, 2016.
Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images
Students play the xylophone and drums during class at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul on July 30, 2016.

While the Taliban have presented themselves to the media as less violent than they were in the 1990s, Sarmast is skeptical. "Today the Taliban are promising that they would be respecting human rights and they will be having respect for diversity," he says, "But ... the video footage emerging with the social media is not very encouraging."

Music entertains, strengthens and heals

Sarmast is concerned about the future of the school's students. He says 10 of its graduates have received scholarships to study music in the U.S., including pianist Elham Fanoos who attended Hunter College in New York and recently got his master's from the Manhattan School of Music. Speaking from his home in New York, Fanoos credits ANIM as, "the reason I am here." He, too, is worried for the safety of everyone involved with the school and hopes Afghans can continue making music.

"I think a culture makes the country and give the country the strength that it needs to have and to represent the country," says Fanoos. "Without ... cultural activities, a country is completely incomplete."

Young Afghan musicians perform in Kabul on Feb. 2, 2012.
Shah Marai / AFP via Getty Images
Young Afghan musicians perform in Kabul on Feb. 2, 2012.

Sarmast seems determined not to let the Taliban get in the way of the progress ANIM has made. The school had recently expanded to a larger building to accommodate more programs and ensembles. "Music is not just a type of entertainment. It's not just an art," he says. It's a "powerful force" to help Afghans heal "from the years of civil war."

Sarmast plans to reopen the Afghanistan National Institute of Music because, he says, "the nation needs it." He hopes the international community will "keep an eye" to make sure the Taliban keep its promises to respect human rights, "to make sure that the musical rights of the Afghan people [are] not toppled again."

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