For more than a decade, Ahmad Sarmast has taken poor children from the streets of Afghanistan and filled their lives with music. One of them, an orphan girl who sold chewing gum in one of the most conservative areas of the country, became the conductor of Afghanistan’s first women’s orchestra. Now, as the Taliban assert their power, all of that is in jeopardy.
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“Right now, my greatest concern is the safety of my students and the future that awaits them. Considering the visibility of the school, we are very concerned about everyone’s safety,” Sarmast told The Guardian. “It seems unlikely that the Taliban will allow us to continue.”
Sarmast, founder and director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, left Kabul for Melbourne last month to spend the summer holidays with his family and receive medical treatment. “I could not foresee the total collapse of my country,” he laments. His return flight, scheduled for mid-September, is now unknown.
The last time the Taliban seized power, Afghanistan became “a country in silence.” “People weren’t allowed to listen to music, rehearse or play, they weren’t allowed to experience the beauty of music.” Sarmast hopes that now the country will not follow “the same path as in the 1990s.” “I hope the Taliban respect the cultural rights of the Afghan people.”
Sarmast founded the institute, which now has 350 students, in 2010. “In this center are disadvantaged boys and girls whose lives have been transformed by music. The school offers them an education regardless of social circumstances, ethnicity or gender. “, it states. In this sense, he underlines that “the school has always promoted and continues to promote gender equality. We started with a single girl and now a third of the students are women.”
Among its formations are the National Symphony Orchestra, the Afghan Youth Orchestra and Zohra, the Afghan Women’s Orchestra, which according to Sarmast has become a “symbol of the emancipation of women.”
In addition to supplying music to Afghanistan, these orchestras have built an international reputation, performing at the British Museum and London’s Royal Festival Hall, New York’s Carnegie Hall, and prestigious auditoriums in Europe.
“We have used the power of music to build bridges within Afghanistan and with other countries,” explains Sarmast. “I firmly believe in the power of music. It is not just entertainment, but a powerful force to transform communities and people’s lives. ”
Although the institute has generally had “the support of the Afghan people,” Sarmast acknowledges that such support has not been universal. “Many conservative sectors of the country think that music is forbidden in holy Islam.” Music performed by women and girls is especially taboo.
In 2014, the institute’s symphony orchestra performed at the French cultural center in Kabul when a bomb destroyed the premises. Sarmast was left unconscious, both of his eardrums ruptured, rendering him deaf, and he received severe shrapnel wounds. After months of treatment in Australia, he regained his hearing.
Following the attack, the Taliban issued a statement mentioning Sarmast and accusing him of corrupting the Afghan youth.
Sarmast, professor of musicology, claims to be “an optimistic person” and to be proud of the institute’s achievements. “When you see that a boy or a girl who worked on the street with no other prospects becomes a cultural ambassador for the country, it is a source of happiness.”
He points out that if the Taliban imposed the closure of the institute, “these students would lose their dreams. The impact would not only be for the students, but for the entire country.
“I cannot imagine a society without music, it would be a dead society, I don’t know how it could survive. Music cannot be removed from people’s hearts.”
Translated by Emma Reverter