FARYAB, Afghanistan -- Hekmatullah Altaf is something of a heartthrob in the remote northern province of Faryab, which is predominantly home to ethnic Uzbeks. But the singer, who mastered his songs in Uzbekistan, can no longer perform at concerts and weddings amid Taliban control and opposition from local conservative clerics.
“I have been warned against performing at weddings and parties,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan about being banned from gigs. “Before, we weren’t allowed to play at women’s events, but now we have even been banned from performing in front of men.”
He says he is too afraid to name his tormentors. “Some religious people are not allowing music to prosper here,” he said. “They project art as a bad influence.”
Attempts to reach the Taliban for comment were not successful. But Mawlawi Ghulam Nabi, deputy head of the Ulema council in Faryab, outlined their opposition to music at celebrations. He told Radio Free Afghanistan that Islamic law allows only for the playing of daf, a frame drum, at weddings.
“The kind of music that is performed now at Afghan weddings is not permissible,” he said. “I long for a day when all this singing vanishes from Afghanistan.” Clerics such as Nabi are among the handful of people who can freely move between Taliban-controlled territories and those controlled by the government.
Faryab is the latest of Afghan provinces where residents face increasing restrictions from an assertive Taliban that is embracing the type of moral policing imposed by the hard-line Islamist regime a quarter-century ago. In August, the Taliban imposed similar restrictions in the southeastern Afghan province of Ghazni.
After defeating its rival Islamic State militants, the Taliban now controls some of Faryab’s 14 districts and contests the rest with the Afghan government. A ban on music, particularly live music performed publicly, is at the top of the Taliban’s restrictions, which also include a ban on shaving beards and regulations for haircuts and fashion. In parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban is already restricting education, employment, and mobility for women and girls. Such issues are expected to figure prominently in the ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in the Qatari capital, Doha.
Faryab residents say the situation in regions administered by the Afghan government is markedly different. Residents of Qaramol, Queghan, and Andkhoy districts, which were recently recaptured by Afghan forces, told Radio Free Afghanistan they can once again play musical instruments at private gatherings.
But the overall situation is deteriorating. A few years ago, concerts were common across Faryab, but they have now mostly disappeared as the Taliban and hard-line clerics oppose and ban music performances in public.
“We are Muslims, too. But we want our celebrations to be joyous,” Altaf said, alluding to the necessity of music.
Altaf says local government officials have failed to provide protection or support for singers and musicians in Faryab. “I am worried about my life because the security forces have so far offered me no protection,” he said. Altaf lives in Maimana, a town that serves as Faryab’s capital.
Shahbuddin Rababnawaz, another singer-songwriter, lives in a part of Faryab controlled by the Taliban and says he was forced to give up music because of pressure from the Taliban. He says he has not touched his favorite musical instrument, the rabab, in three years.
"You either quit art or you quit life,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Survival is more important than art. Instead of being appreciated for our contribution, we face threats and intimidation.”
Ghulam Sakhi Bayan, provincial head of the Afghan Information and Culture Ministry in Faryab, says a number of local clerics have joined the insurgents in imposing restrictions on singers and musicians. “Clerics are not allowing them to perform,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. These artists in Faryab have always contributed to local culture and offered entertainment, but now they cannot make ends meet. Some have had to leave the country.”
Bayan says the authorities have been of little help. "So far we have not been able to help them because we simply don’t have the money,” he said.
As Afghan government representatives and the Taliban embark on complicated peace talks this month, musicians in Faryab hope the peace process will protect their lives and artistic freedom.
Looking hopefully toward a future peace agreement, Altaf says he hopes Faryab’s residents can one day celebrate with an open-air concert.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Ikram Karam’s reporting from Faryab, Afghanistan.