Afghanistan refugee Ahmad Sarmast, a descendant of a well-known music composer, had left the country of his birth and found asylum in Australia in the 1990s but returned to the war-torn country to found a music school in 2010.
But now, the school that Sarmast so painstakingly built from the ground up is shuttered and no one knows when — or if — its halls will ever reverberate with the sound of music ever again.
The only such institution in the entire country, Dr. Sarmast’s school, called the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, was his brainchild and what some called their “happy place” while it existed. Now the future of the school is in doubt, its students scattered to the winds as they try to escape the Taliban.
An oasis of creativity and serenity in Afghanistan
Featuring a wide array of both traditional Afghan and Western instrumental instruction — and the world’s only all-female orchestra — the school was an oasis of creativity and serenity in the country for the past eleven years as Sarmast built up its reputation and its academic offerings.
After years of strict Taliban rule from 1996-2001, during which music itself was banned, the Australian refugee was determined to recreate joy in the country of his birth by fostering a love of music that nourishes the soul.
With many of his students orphans or street children, the school was a living experiment of how music can heal and help rehabilitate humanity after the soul-crushing years of Taliban rule.
Since last week, as the educator watched the Taliban retake the country from his home in Melbourne almost without resistance — except in the Panjshir Valley — his phone has been ringing nonstop with pleas for help from desperate students.
School founder “heartbroken”
They were not prepared for the day that the Taliban would retake the country and their beloved school would be closed. What comes next for the school and its vulnerable students — many of whom are female — is anybody’s guess.
“I’m heartbroken,” Sarmast admitted in an interview with The Associated Press. “It was so unexpected and so unpredictable that it was like an explosion, and everyone was caught by surprise,” he said of the Taliban’s lightning-fast retaking of Afghanistan.
Not having the slightest inkling that anything could change so quickly, Sarmast had only left Kabul on July 12 for his summer vacation. There was no way he could have known that just a couple weeks later, his brainchild, the fruit of everything he had accomplished in the past 11 years, would be at risk of survival.
No two mention the lives of his 350 students and 90 faculty members — many of whom have either escaped or slipped into hiding in fear of retaliation by the Taliban.
The ongoing reports of Taliban operatives going door-to-door looking for anyone who might have engaged in activities that they do not deem appropriate, have justifiably fueled their fears.
“Very, very fearful”
“We are all very, very fearful about the future of music, we are very fearful about our girls, about our faculty,” Sarmast lamented. The educator, who was interviewed by the AP via Zoom, asked that further details regarding his students and school not be published, in fear for what might happen to them.
Disturbingly, Afghan radio and television stations stopped broadcasting music last week, with the notable exception of Islamic songs. At this point it is not clear if Taliban fighters had enforced the new programming or the change had occurred in an effort to not make waves with the Islamist insurgents.
When the Taliban had first swept into power in 1996 after the defeat of the Russians, the ultra-religious fighters banned all music in Afghanistan, believing it to be sinful — with the sole exception being some religious vocal music.
Cassette tapes were destroyed and strung from trees in a show of disdain for music as a whole.
But Sarmast’s dreams of pursuing a musical career and establishing a music school in the country began to grow after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban in September of 2001. While in exile in Australia, he earned his doctorate in musicology.
He finally was able to return to Afghanistan and founded the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in 2010.
“Cannot believe this is happening”
The school rose to prominence from it inception and the donations poured in from all over the world as people wanted to do whatever they could to reestablish music and music education in the country.
Foreign governments and private sponsors joined the effort, with the World Bank giving a cash grant of two million U.S. dollars to the School. Incredibly, nearly five tons of musical instruments, including violins, pianos, guitars, oboes and all manner of other instruments, were delivered to the School as a gift from the German government and the German Society of Music Merchants.
But students also learned to play traditional Afghan music as well, not just Western music, as they were free to explore their rich musical heritage once again.
Instruments such as the rubab, sitar and sarod and the tabla, a drum played with the lads, were the favorite Afghan instruments of the students.
Elham Fanous, 24, was the first student to graduate from the Afghan Music Institute in 2014, after spending seven years at the school. “It was such an amazing school, everything was perfect,” he told the Associated Press. The first person from Afghanistan to be admitted to a US university music program, Fanous received his master’s in piano from the Manhattan School of Music.
“It changed my life and I really owe it to them,” he stated from his home in New York. He refers to the school as “Afghanistan’s LaGuardia,” the public New York City high school which specialized in music and the arts. A visitor to the Institute once famously termed it “Afghanistan’s happy place.”
“I cannot believe this is happening,” Fanous added despairingly.
The musicians who once studied at the institute represented their country by traveling all over the world, showing how much musical talent Afghanistan had been keeping under wraps for so long, during its many years of trials and deprivation.
Fanous alone performed at concerts in Poland, Italy and Germany.
School’s youth orchestra toured the world
In 2013, the institute’s youth orchestra toured the United States for the first time, appearing not only at the Kennedy Center but at New York’s Carnegie Hall as well, selling it out.
One of the members of the orchestra was a girl who had been selling chewing gum on the streets of Kabul.
In 2014, Sarmast was attending a concert at a French-run high school in Kabul when a huge bomb was detonated. The musician and school founder lost some of the hearing in one ear and had to undergo numerous operations to remove shrapnel from the back of his head.
The Taliban claimed responsibility in the suicide attack, accusing Sarmast of “corrupting Afghanistan’s youth.”
But the bombing had the opposite effect of chilling his enthusiasm, and in 2015, a landmark event occurred when an all-female orchestra called Zohra, named after a goddess of music in Persian literature, was created.
Today, Sarmast says that he is heartbroken whenever he recalls the melodies that once floated along his school’s corridors and reflects on the lives of the boys and girls who once created music there.
“We’re all shattered, because my kids, they’ve been dreaming. They had huge dreams to be on the biggest stage of the world,” Sarmast told interviewers. “All my students had been dreaming of a peaceful Afghanistan. But that peaceful Afghanistan is fading away.”
But, ever the dreamer, the musician who fulfilled his life’s ambition and helped others do so, believes in his heart of hearts that young Afghans will resist the strictures placed on them by the Taliban. In addition, he says he is depending on the international friends of these musicians to help fight for the country’s right to express themselves in music.
He states “I’m still hopeful that my kids will be allowed to go back to the school and continue and to enjoy from learning and playing music.”