Sitar practice at the Afghan National Institute of Music in 2013. Photograph: Musadeq Sadeq/AP

Amid upheaval across the country, it remains unclear whether a new government will forbid music as it did 25 years ago

Photo: Sitar practice at the Afghan National Institute of Music in 2013. Photograph: Musadeq Sadeq/AP

05 September 2021 | Emma Graham-Harrison  | The Guardian

The shutters have been down all along Kharabat Street, the storied heart of Afghan musical life, since the Taliban swept into Kabul in mid-August.

Musicians have taken their instruments home, or crammed them into store rooms, waiting to see if the group will do the unthinkable again, and ban music as they did 25 years ago.

With no work, and no official dictats from the Taliban, they still gather on the street that for generations has been birthplace, home and informal conservatoire for the country’s musical stars.

Here they discuss pictures shared by the famous singer Aryan Khan, of a damaged piano and shattered drums in his Kabul office, and the murder of folk musician Fawad Andarabi in his rural home. And they wonder if they will be next.

“We have seen photos online. We are going to have the same problem, if not today then tomorrow,” said Zabir, who plays the rubab, an Afghan stringed instrument.

“The Taliban haven’t finished their work of putting together a new government, but after that I know they will target music.” He spent three days at the airport gates last month, desperately trying to get on a flight out of Afghanistan to anywhere at all. “Music feeds your soul. I don’t want to live here any more without it.”

Twenty-five years ago, when the street had already been reduced to ruins by civil war, the Taliban scattered its singers, drummers and instrumentalists into exile. But after the group were toppled in 2001 the musicians slowly returned.

For the past 20 years, Kabul residents who wanted musicians to bring joy to a wedding, or liven up a party, had again made the pilgrimage here to haggle for a band, discuss instruments and musical styles.

Now the question hanging over musicians here and nationwide is whether the shutters must stay down permanently. The Taliban have not yet put together a government, and the messages their commanders are sending out are mixed.

Across town from Kharabat Street, the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM) would have been an early and obvious target for the instrument-smashing Taliban of 1996, who were determined not just to stop music being played, but to destroy the possibility of playing music.

Today it is guarded by a strict cadre of Taliban, with a sign on a pillbox near the door – painted with guitars, notes and other musical symbols – reminding the movement’s fighters that nothing must be damaged or destroyed.

A woman plays a traditional Afghan music instrument. Photograph: Xinhua/Alamy

“I’m concerned about the safety of my young musicians and faculty, worried about music education and music in Afghanistan, but at the same time I am relieved that nothing major happened against the school and its community until now,” the institute’s director, Ahmad Sarmast, told the Observer. “I hope we are not going back 25 years.”

He is in communication with the Taliban official currently in charge of technical and vocational education and training.

“They assured me that ANIM infrastructure, facilities and resources are protected and will remain under protection until there is a decision on the future of music in Afghanistan,” he said. “We are waiting to hear when the decision is taken, about whether music is allowed or not.”

The destruction, and the killing of musicians have been devastating, but not systemic. Bans on music have been reported in southern Zabul and Kandahar province, Taliban heartlands, but these may be the decision of local commanders.

The central leadership has been more ambiguous, in public statements and in comments about the country’s leading music school.

Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the New York Times that music in public is forbidden by Islam, but suggested the group might shy away from heavy-handed bans like those of the past. “We’re hoping that we can persuade people not to do such things, instead of pressuring them.”

A doctor-turned-fighter from Khost province, an area known for its musical tradition, shows visitors with pride that everything has been kept intact, from department computers and pictures of students (boys and girls) to rows of cellos and violins in a repair workshop and a historic piano.

And a religious scholar who travels with the unit, Maulavi Ahmadi, sums up the apparent ambivalence of some in the Taliban when asked about whether he enjoys music. “If Islam will allow some music, then we will listen. It is our culture.”

Additional reporting by Akhtar Mohammad Makoii

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