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Afghan Musicians Fear Being Silenced By The Taliban

In this photo from 2013, an Afghan girl practices playing the sitar in a class at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in Kabul.

Young musician Ahmad Khan says doomsday arrived for him when the hard-line Taliban movement overran the Afghan capital, Kabul -- the conclusion of a dramatic sweep across the war-torn country that saw Afghanistan's pro-Western government melt away.

Khan -- using a pseudonym for security reasons -- had eked out a living playing his “rubab,” a stringed instrument similar to the guitar. He was happy with his moderate income supplemented by generous tips when he performed at weddings and other celebrations.

But Khan has been in hiding since the Taliban took over Kabul on August 15 -- unable to make music or earn money.

“We are extremely anxious and terrified now because our art was also our livelihood,” he told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. “We have no other skills and won’t be able to pursue another job or career. Unlike others, we have no prospect of being allowed to escape to another country.”

Khan wants Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers to announce their policies on music, musicians, and artistic expression in general.

“We really don’t know what our fate will be,” he says. “We request that the Taliban tell us what we can and can’t do so that we can get on with our lives. Musicians are already being forced to sell their belongings to survive the current uncertainty.”

Shari'a Law

The Taliban has thus far strongly hinted it would reimpose a ban on music.

“Our future political system and laws will be based on the Islamic Shari’a law, so we will allow everything that Shari’a permits,” Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told journalists on July 24. “If something is not allowed by Shari’a, my hope will be that our compatriots chasing such professions will reconsider their choices. It is better for all of us that we spend our lives in accordance with the Islamic teachings.”

In an interview with The New York Times, Mujahid said music would not be allowed in public. “Music is forbidden in Islam,” he claimed, “but we’re hoping that we can persuade people not to do such things instead of pressuring them.”

The Afghan media has been confused over whether the Taliban will permit people to play music or wants to ban them from doing so.

One official who requested anonymity due to security fears says the incoming Taliban chief of the state Radio Television Afghanistan has told staff to stop playing music. But another employee, also requesting anonymity, says he was unaware of any such order.

Several private television and radio stations, however, continue to broadcast some music and continue to air local and dubbed soap operas. They too, however, are careful about what kind of music and shows they broadcast in this transition period under which the Taliban has promised to install an “inclusive Islamic government.”

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Other radio stations in Afghanistan have, however, stopped playing music entirely and no longer broadcast things such as game shows, sitcoms, and soap operas. They are instead broadcasting Koranic recitations and similar religious programming.

In the eastern province of Nangarhar, one musician told Radio Mashaal that the fate of some 470 registered musicians and singers hangs in the balance as they wait to hear from the new head of the province's office of culture and information.

“We were always opposed to vulgar dance videos and other such things done in bad taste,” he told Radio Mashaal, requesting anonymity due to security fears. “We do hope that the Taliban will not completely ban us from playing traditional Afghan music.”

'Hanging Instruments On Trees'

But many Afghan musicians are bracing for the worst.

“My concerns are based on the past policies of the Taliban against music, art, and culture,” Ahmad Sarmast, the head of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), told Radio Mashaal.

Sarmast went to Australia in July to meet family and seek medical treatment before the fast-paced events this month that saw the collapse of the government. He is worried that the Taliban’s previous attitude toward music will also be reflected in their future policies.

“We all clearly remember the past: the destruction of the musical instruments, hanging instruments on trees, and punishing people for playing, learning, or listening to music,” he says, recalling the extensive Taliban prohibition on music and other arts when they ruled from 1996-2001. “Based on how the foot soldiers of the Taliban are now behaving in Kabul, we have reason to worry about the future of music in Afghanistan.”

Opened in 2010, ANIM is a vibrant music school that has revived Afghanistan’s musical heritage. Its orchestra has performed around the world and the institution has trained a new generation of musicians, composers, and singers. But the school has been closed since the Taliban rolled into Kabul, and Sarmast says it won’t open unless there are security guarantees from the new authorities.

“I am worried about the safety and security of our students and the future of our school,” he says.

The ban on music is likely to become a hallmark of the Taliban’s second stint in power.

Jasmina Lazovic, program coordinator of global monitoring at Freemuse, a Denmark-based NGO working to preserve artistic expression, says the prevailing uncertainty about Afghanistan’s future government puts artists in a vulnerable position -- particularly women and those who have been known for work that tackles the issue of human rights or took part in state activities under the previous government.

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“The current situation in the country can be best described as a state of uncertainty, followed by a deeply rooted fear of reprisals against artists,” Lazovic told Gandhara, adding that Western governments should also help evacuate artists who are at risk. “The key further step would be to work with the future Afghan government and get guarantees that [it] will respect human rights in line with the best international practices and international human rights conventions to which Afghanistan has been party to for decades.”

The Taliban’s return is reverberating in neighboring countries, too.

Shakeela Naz, a popular singer in Pakistan, has a large fan base among Pashtuns in Afghanistan. She is urging the Taliban to look at the policies in other Muslim countries before imposing a blanket ban on music and other performing arts in Afghanistan.

“In [conservative] Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia [there is] music, dramas, poetry, film, and other arts,” she told Radio Mashaal. “Oppressing artists will not achieve anything as artists in Afghanistan have already faced a lot suffering because of the war there.”

Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, an Afghan writer, poet, and former official, says preserving and promoting Afghanistan’s arts and cultural heritage will be a key responsibility of its government.

“Artists and musicians are innocent members of society who have no role in shaping or influencing government policies. They need to be protected,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Immediate steps need to be taken to protect them.”

Although Sarmast sees little hope, he is appealing to the militant Islamist group.

“I call on the Taliban to keep this [musical] institution shining -- let this institution progress,” he says.