Afghan singer Goodar Zazai says he wept as he saw a recent video of the Taliban humiliating two local musicians and burning their instruments.
Filmed near the border with Pakistan in the Zazai Aryub district of Paktia Province, the musicians’ heads had been crudely shaved by members of the Taliban's feared Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
It is a common punishment imposed by the Taliban against those suspected of minor crimes.
In this case, the men had violated the Taliban’s ban on music by playing Pashtun folks songs on a hand-pumped harmonium and a large wooden drum known as a dhol.
The musicians appear to have been beaten. The sleeves of their jackets are torn from the seams.
Surrounded by dozens of residents from Zazai’s own tribe, Taliban fighters can be heard insulting and berating the musicians.
The laughter of the gunmen is audible as they force the musicians to watch their precious instruments being consumed by flames.
As the dhol crumbles, one Taliban gunman flips the delicate harmonium over in the fire with his foot.
“I could not look at the scene,” Zazai tells RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal. “Tears were rolling down my eyes as I watched it. I felt like it was my own body crumbling as they destroyed their instruments.”
The footage has stirred outrage among Afghans and confirmed the worst fears of Afghan artists. Despite claims of being more moderate than its previous regime, the Taliban is treating musicians with the same disdain it had shown in the 1990s when it banned music deemed "un-Islamic."
Artists On The Run
Hundreds of musicians, fearing similar abuse, have fled Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power in August.
But Zazai, who does not reveal his current location for fear of Taliban retribution, has remained in Afghanistan.
He says the video from Paktia Province, in the country’s southeast, confirms how he will be treated if the Taliban discovers that he, too, is a musician.
“I believe this is happening because people are not paying close enough attention,” Zazai says. “Very little has been done for Afghan artists inside Afghanistan. There is a need for voices to be heard from abroad, voices from Afghanistan’s diaspora, speaking out for the rights of our artists.”
In fact, prominent figures from the Afghan diaspora have spoken out about heavy-handed Taliban policing and the militants' lack of respect for Afghan culture.
Ahmad Sarmast, the self-exiled founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, said in a tweet that the recent video from Zazai Aryub shows that the Taliban is continuing to “violate the musical rights of the Afghan people.”
“This video documents the barbaric attitude of [the] Taliban toward musicians and music in Afghanistan, where music is banned,” said Sarmast, who reestablished his Afghan music school in Lisbon last month with about 300 students and teachers who also fled their homeland.
Self-exiled Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary tweeted that the video is just one of many cases in which “Taliban soldiers across Afghanistan are taking the law in their own hands.”
Indeed, since regaining power, the Taliban has tried to project a more moderate image to convince the international community that it has changed. But the militant group has reimposed some of the same repressive laws and retrograde policies that defined its rule from 1996 to 2001.
Its position on music was inconsistent immediately after Taliban fighters stormed Kabul on August 15.
That is because there was not any clear order issued beyond a public statement from Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who declared music to be “un-Islamic.”
But the contempt that rank-and-file Taliban fighters have for musicians was apparent.
One of the first things Taliban fighters did last August when they seized Jalalabad, the provincial capital of the eastern province of Nangarhar, was to drag the instruments from a music studio into the street and set them ablaze.
In the weeks that followed, Taliban-installed police chiefs in other provinces declared they would not allow singing or musical instruments in their jurisdictions.
By October, the Taliban’s Information and Culture Ministry announced that music was “forbidden” according to its strict tribal interpretation of Islamic law under the Hanafi school of jurisprudence.
Now, reports show that Taliban soldiers across the country are treating musicians with the same disdain the Taliban regime had shown for them during the 1990s when it banned all forms of music.
Mir Khan, another Afghan singer who fled his homeland after the Taliban takeover, says the Taliban is wrong to label music “un-Islamic.”
“We are a nation that celebrated our war victories with drums and dancing in the past,” Khan tells RFE/RL. “The Taliban and religious scholars were also part of that.”
“Music, drums, and poetry are an important part of our culture,” Khan says. “Life is nothing without culture and music because that gives us happiness.”
Afrasiab Khattak, a politician and Pashtun rights activist from neighboring Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, agrees with Khan.
“Drums, flutes, and the tapa genre of folk poetry have been part of Pashtun culture for centuries,” Khattak told Radio Mashaal.
The Pashtuns are an ethnic group that straddles the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
“Musical instruments used to be kept in our community guest houses while the folk literature contains the experiences of our collective and individual lives,” says Khattak.
“Destroying those instruments is an attack on Pashtun culture,” Khattak concludes. “This is tantamount to killing off our songs, our music, and our identity.”