Musicians flee Afghanistan fearing Taliban rule

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More than 100 young artists, teachers and their families who belonged to the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, a celebrated school targeted by the Taliban for its efforts to promote girls’ education, fled the country on Sunday, the school administration said called.

The musicians, many of whom have been trying to leave for more than a month, boarded a flight from Kabul’s main airport and arrived in the capital of Qatar in Doha, the capital of Qatar, around noon, according to Ahmad Naser Sarmast, the school’s director is currently in Australia. In the coming days they are planning to relocate to Portugal, where the government has agreed to give them visas.

“It is already a big step and a very, very big achievement on the way to saving Afghan musicians from the atrocities of the Taliban,” said Sarmast, who opened the school in 2010, in a statement. “You can’t imagine how happy I am.”

The musicians join a growing number of Afghans who have fled the country since August when the Taliban consolidated their control of the country following the withdrawal of American forces. Those in the arts and sports who fled include members of a football team who have settled in Portugal and Italy.

Yet hundreds of the school’s students, staff and alumni remain in Afghanistan and face an uncertain future as there are signs that the Taliban will curtail non-religious music, which they banned completely from 1996-2001 when they previously ran Afghanistan .

The school’s supporters, a worldwide network of artists, philanthropists, politicians and educators, want to continue working to get the remaining musicians out of Afghanistan. “The mission is still ongoing,” said Mr. Sarmast, an Afghan musicologist. “It just started.”

Yo-Yo Ma, the renowned cellist, helped to make politicians and other artists aware of the plight of the musicians. He said he was “shaking with excitement” at the news that some of them had escaped.

“It would be a terrible tragedy to lose this important group of people who are so motivated to have a living tradition as part of world tradition,” Ma said in a telephone interview.

About the musicians who are stuck in the country, he said: “I think of them every single hour of the day.”

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music was a rarity: a co-educational establishment devoted to teaching music from Afghanistan and the West, especially to students from poor backgrounds. The school became known for promoting the education of girls, who make up about a third of the student body. The school’s all-female orchestra, Zohra, toured the world with great acclaim and becoming a symbol of Afghanistan’s changing identity.

The school has faced threats from the Taliban for years, and in 2014 Mr. Sarmast was wounded by a Taliban suicide bomber.

Since the Taliban returned to power, the school has been put to the test again. Mr. Sarmast and the school’s supporters have worked for weeks to get students, alumni, employees and their families out of the country out of fear for their safety. The government of Qatar helped the musicians cross safely to Doha and played a key role in negotiations with the Taliban.

Several students and young artists associated with the music institute said in interviews with the Times in recent weeks that they stayed in their homes for fear of being attacked or punished by the Taliban. Many stopped making music, hid their instruments and tried to hide their school affiliation. They asked for anonymity to comment for fear of retaliation.

In the final days of the American war in Afghanistan, the school’s supporters made a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to evacuate nearly 300 students, teachers, and staff from the school and their families. The operation was supported by prominent politicians and security officials in the United States. At one point, the musicians sat in seven buses near an airport gate for 17 hours, hoping to get on a waiting plane. But the plan failed at the last minute when the musicians were unable to access the airport and fear of a possible terrorist attack escalated.

Since their return to power, the Taliban have sought to promote an image of tolerance and moderation by vowing not to retaliate against their former enemies and to allow women to work and study “within the framework of Islamic law“.

But they have sent signals that they will enforce tough policies, including on culture. A Taliban spokesman recently said that music is not allowed in public.

“Music is forbidden in Islam,” said spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in an interview with the Times in August. “But we hope that we can convince people not to do such things instead of putting pressure on them.”

John Baily, an ethnomusicologist at the University of London who has studied cultural life in Afghanistan, said it was difficult for the Taliban to completely eradicate music in the country after years of allowing the arts to flourish.

“There are literally thousands of young people who grew up with music,” he said, “and they don’t get turned off just like that.”


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