Confronting the Taliban, one orchestral performance at a time – Foreign Policy

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When Dr Ahmad Naser Sarmast first returned to Afghanistan in 2005 after fifteen years of asylum, he heard a deafening silence.

Music, once a staple of Afghan culture, had been brutally eradicated under the Taliban. And the new government and the US-led coalition that ousted the Taliban from power did not bring it back. “It was my biggest surprise,” he told Foreign Policy in an interview at FP’s Culture Summit in Abu Dhabi. “After all these millions of people from the international community who flock to Afghanistan and its education, there was no plan to promote music.”

So he made a plan.

When Dr Ahmad Naser Sarmast first returned to Afghanistan in 2005 after fifteen years of asylum, he heard a deafening silence.

Music, once a staple of Afghan culture, had been brutally eradicated under the Taliban. And the new government and the US-led coalition that ousted the Taliban from power did not bring it back. “It was my biggest surprise,” he said Foreign police in an interview with FP Culture Summit in Abu Dhabi. “After all these millions of people from the international community who flock to Afghanistan and its education, there was no plan to promote music.”

So he made a plan.

This plan became the Afghan National Institute of Music. It is a music school open to all Afghan children, including orphans, disadvantaged children and perhaps the most controversial, girls. (It is still one of the only institutes in the country to teach boys and girls in the same classroom). During its seven years of existence, the Institute has become a national symbol of hope and achievement, an antidote to extremism and despair, and a powerful weapon against the Taliban.

His ensembles and orchestras have performed around the world, including at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC and the glitzy World Economic Forum in Switzerland. And his ambition has earned him the unofficial title of “the man who brought music back to Afghanistan.”

No one predicted the resounding success of the institute at the start. When Sarmast started pitching the idea to the Afghan government and its Western partners, he said no one saw music as a necessity. “The international community viewed music as a luxury for Afghanistan,” he said. “A senior diplomat said to me: ‘You have convinced me, Dr Sarmast, but I cannot convince my government.’ So he proceeded to prove to them that they were wrong.

Between 2005 and 2008, he stubbornly lobbied, quarreled over diplomats, and coaxed the Afghan government to buy into his idea. And often it was thousands of miles away.

Sarmast is Afghan, but has spent much of his adult life in Australia. The music teacher and composer fled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan on its rise; the ultra-hard Islamist group banned almost all music when it took power. He was granted asylum in Australia, where he stayed and built a life and a family for 20 years.

During the reign of the Taliban, he became a sort of archivist, desperately picking up every crumb of Afghan musical heritage from a distance as the Taliban wiped it out at home. “My job was to preserve the oral tradition and musical phenomenon of Afghanistan for the future,” he said. “If our music had been destroyed, there would be nothing to replace it. “

After a US-led coalition overthrew the Taliban regime, he made it his goal to return home and help rebuild his war-torn country, starting semi-regular visits in 2005 He finally got the green light from the Afghan authorities to start at the institute in 2008 and after two years of fundraising, opened the institute in 2010. It wasn’t much at first.

“I started with an empty building. But I was building everything from scratch, ”he said. With limited funds, he built a music library, a recording studio, and 20 soundproof rehearsal rooms to begin with. A German musical association donated three cases of instruments to get it started. With the help of funding from the World Bank and foreign embassies, he began recruiting professors from all over the world to come and teach Western and Afghan music to a new group of students, many of whom had never been to a school. classroom before.

Sarmast is a reserved man with a soft voice. But his eyes lit up when he spoke of his students. “Can you imagine a child selling plastic bags on the streets of Kabul and now she’s the concept master of a women’s orchestra? ” he said. At one point, he made a list of specific students and described in detail their first reactions when they picked up a flute or violin. “There is no word I can describe for when they first touch the instruments,” he said. “It’s just wonderful.”

It’s hard to think of a more trivial job than conducting a children’s orchestra. But in Afghanistan, Sarmast knew he was risking his life. Conservative currents in Afghan society were not happy that Sarmast taught Western music, let alone girls.

An adviser to the Afghan Minister of Education addressed veiled threats to him. “He told me that ‘some of his friends’ recommended that I stay away and go back to Australia before I hurt myself,” Sarmast said. He did not do it. And as the institute gained success and national prestige, it became an increasingly publicized target for extremists.

In December 2014, Sarmast watched his students perform at a cultural center in Kabul from the front row. As the children were playing, an explosion suddenly swept through the audience. He was a Taliban suicide bomber.

One spectator died and 15 were injured. Miraculously, all the children are unharmed. But Sarmast was seated a few rows away from the bomber. He took 11 shrapnel in the back of his head and lost most of his hearing. He flew to Australia for surgery and spent several months recovering. Sarmast eventually recovered most of his hearing.

By then, his institute had proven itself to the skeptical Afghan government and foreign diplomats. Underprivileged children became successful musicians, a civil society was forming around the success of the institute, and Sarmast stubbornly normalized gender equality and girls ‘education with its mixed classes and a girls’ orchestra.

“Clearly, every day we showed everyone what this meant,” he said. “We cannot bring peace and stability to Afghanistan without investing in music.”

Perhaps their most powerful show of force came from the teachers and students the day after the suicide bombing: they returned to school. “It was the most beautiful way to show our face to the Taliban,” he said. “We did not remain silent. We have taken a very clear stand vis-à-vis the Taliban. We issued a statement.

The declaration is not only about his country. “We are showing the world another side of Afghanistan. It’s not just about war and destruction, ”he said. “Hope is alive, optimism is alive and Afghanistan is breathing.”

Photo credit: WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP / Getty Images

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