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The Day Afghan Music Didn't Die

Dr. Ahmad Sarmast heads Afghanistan's National Institute of Music.
Dr. Ahmad Sarmast heads Afghanistan's National Institute of Music.

KABUL -- The blast knocked Ahmad Sarmast unconscious and left him fighting for his life, but it could not kill his determination to bring music to Afghans' ears.

It was this dedication to Kabul's embattled arts scene that led Sarmast, who heads the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, to take his place in December among a packed crowd for a theater performance at the French Cultural Center. Little did he know that he was sitting just meters away from a suicide bomber intent on undermining all that Sarmast has worked for.

About 20 minutes into Heartbeat: The Silence After The Explosion, actors began reenacting the scene of a suicide attack. That's when the blast rocked the theater and everything went dark.

After emergency surgery in Kabul, Sarmast was flown to Australia, where surgeons painstakingly removed bits of shrapnel that had pierced his head, back, and legs.

It took months of rehabilitation, but Sarmast recovered to the point that he could return to Afghanistan. And the musicology professor says the near-death experience has only strengthened his determination to develop music in the war-torn country.

"Today, I'm much more resolved than when I first came to Afghanistan in 2008," says Sarmast, whose family lives in Australia.

"The attack clearly demonstrated to me and the community that the only way forward is through ensuring the cultural, educational, and musical rights of Afghan kids and enlightening the Afghan people," Sarmast says.

Sarmast has picked up where he left off, his office once again a busy junction of students and teachers streaming in and out.

He sits at his desk, fielding telephone calls, knowing his decision to return is fraught with risk. The 53-year-old Sarmast admits that his role as an educator has made him a marked man for the "enemies of Afghanistan."

In a statement after the attack on the French Cultural Center, the Taliban named Sarmast specifically, accusing him of corrupting Afghan youth. The militant group banned music during their rule from 1996 to 2001.

Ahmad Sarmast with some of his students in 2013.
Ahmad Sarmast with some of his students in 2013.

But despite the considerable dangers, Sarmast says he never contemplated staying in Australia.

"I knew my absence would demoralize my team and students," says Sarmast as he strolls through the busy school courtyard during lunch break.

And besides, he says, coming back to Afghanistan has helped him overcome his own physical and emotional traumas.

"Since my return back [to Kabul] I feel much more relaxed and comfortable," he says. "Yes, I'm not the same person I was six months ago. Mentally and physically I'm getting very tired because I still need time to fully recover. But the environment itself has played a significant role in my recovery."

The attack, which killed two people and wounded dozens, has done little to deter his motivation. But it has taken a considerable physical and mental toll.

"I had two perforated ear drums, and in one I still don't feel any improvement," says Sarmast, who is partially deaf in one ear. "I still have the sound [of the blast] in my ear drum."

Sarmast also suffers from post-traumatic stress and says he still has nightmares about "suicide bombers and terrorists."

The flashes he remembers seeing still haunt him.

"I remember a very loud sound," says Sarmast, who adds that he initially thought the explosion was part of that night's performance. "When I returned to normality, I felt like I was dying. I felt a very warm liquid on the back of my head, and when I checked my hands it was full of blood."

Sarmast fled his native Afghanistan during the civil war of the 1990s. After receiving his master's degree in musicology from Moscow University in 1993, he applied for asylum in Australia. He completed a PhD at Monash University in 2005.

Sarmast, the son of a renowned conductor, returned to Afghanistan in 2008 and soon opened the music institute, which is dedicated to reviving Afghanistan's unique musical traditions.

Teaching Music From Scratch

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music instructs some 210 students from their first note through their graduation as seasoned musicians. Former street children, orphans, and girls make up half of the student body.

With widespread backing, the institute has been able to hire Western music teachers and provide state-of-the-art facilities, including soundproof classrooms and a modern library. Last year, the institute's orchestra even performed a series of concerts in the United States.

Sarmast says he will not rest on his laurels. He is building a new concert venue that will be completed later this year as well as dormitories and rehearsal buildings for students.

The students, many traumatized by the attack, say they have keenly felt Sarmast's absence.

"The school felt empty without him," says Negin Khalpak, a young composer at the institute. "He's like a father to us. Even from the hospital, he was running the school. This school wouldn't be here without him."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.