The day the music died: Afghanistan’s all-female orchestra goes silent
Negin Khpalwak was sitting at her home in Kabul when she learned that the Taliban had reached the outskirts of the capital.
The 24-year-old conductor, once the face of Afghanistan’s famous all-female orchestra, immediately began to panic.
The last time Islamist militants were in power, they banned music and women were not allowed to work. During the last months of their insurgency, they carried out targeted attacks against those they believed had betrayed their view of the Islamic regime.
Rushing into the room, Khpalwak grabbed a robe to cover his bare arms and hid a small set of decorative drums. Then she gathered photographs and newspaper clippings from her famous musical performances, piled them up and burned them.
“I felt so bad, I felt like everything in my life was reduced to ashes,” said Khpalwak, who fled to the United States – one of the tens of thousands who fled to the United States. fled abroad after the rapid conquest of Afghanistan by the Taliban.
The orchestra’s story in the days following the Taliban victory, which Reuters reconstructed through interviews with members of the Khpalwak music school, sums up the sense of shock felt by young Afghans like Khpalwak. , especially women.
The orchestra, called Zohra after the Persian goddess of music, was mostly made up of girls and women from a Kabul orphanage aged 13 to 20.
Formed in 2014, it has become a global symbol of the freedom many Afghans have begun to enjoy in the 20 years since the last Taliban rule, despite the hostility and threats they have continued to face from the share of some in this deeply conservative Muslim country.
Wearing bright red hijabs and playing a mix of traditional Afghan music and Western classics with local instruments like the guitar-like rabab, the group entertained audiences from the Sydney Opera House to the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Today, armed Taliban are keeping the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM) closed where the group once practiced, while in parts of the country the movement has ordered radio stations to stop broadcasting music.
“We did not expect Afghanistan to return to the Stone Age,” said Ahmad Sarmast, founder of ANIM, adding that the Zohra orchestra represented the freedom and empowerment of women in Afghanistan and that its members served as “cultural diplomats”.
Sarmast, who was speaking from Australia, said the Taliban had banned staff from entering the institute.
“The girls of the Zohra Orchestra and other orchestras and ensembles in the school are afraid for their lives and are in hiding,” he said.
A Taliban spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about the institute’s status.
Since returning to power as the last Western soldiers withdrew from the country, the Taliban have sought to reassure Afghans and the outside world of the rights they would allow.
The group said cultural activities as well as jobs and education for women would be allowed, within the limits of Sharia law and Islamic and cultural practices in Afghanistan.
Instruments left behind
As Khpalwak frantically burned his musical memories on August 15, the day the Taliban entered Kabul without a fight, some of his peers attended a practice at ANIM, preparing for a major international tour in October.
At 10 a.m., school security officers rushed into the rehearsal room to tell musicians that the Taliban were approaching. In their haste to escape, many left behind instruments that were too heavy and gaudy to be carried through the streets of the capital, according to Sarmast. .
Sarmast, who was in Australia at the time, said he received numerous messages from students concerned for their safety and asking for help. His staff told him not to return to the country because the Taliban were looking for him and his home had been raided several times.
The dangers facing artists in Afghanistan were starkly highlighted in 2014, when a suicide bomber blew himself up during a performance at a French school in Kabul, injuring Sarmast who was in the audience.
At the time, Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility for the attack and said the play, a condemnation of the suicide bombings, was an insult to “Islamic values.”
Even during 20 years of a Western-backed government in Kabul, which tolerated greater civil liberties than the Taliban, there was resistance to the idea of an all-female orchestra.
Members of the Zohra orchestra have spoken of having to hide their music from conservative families and of being verbally assaulted and threatened with beatings. There were even objections among young Afghans.
Khpalwak recalled an incident in Kabul where a group of boys watched one of their performances intently.
As she was packing, she heard them talking to each other.
“What a pity that these girls play music.”
“Why did their families allow them? “
“The girls should be home.
“Trembling with fear”
Life under the Taliban could be far worse than whispered taunts, said Nazira Wali, a 21-year-old former Zohra cellist.
Wali, who was studying in the United States when the Taliban took over Kabul, said she was in contact with members of the orchestra at their home who were so worried about being found that they smashed their instruments and deleted profiles. of social networks.
“My heart trembles with fear for them because now that the Taliban are here we cannot predict what will happen to them in the next moment,” she said.
“If things continue as they are, there will be no music in Afghanistan. “
Reuters contacted several members of the orchestra who remained in Kabul for this story. None responded.
Khpalwak managed to escape Kabul days after the Taliban arrived, boarding an evacuation flight alongside a group of Afghan women journalists.
Tens of thousands of people flocked to Kabul airport in an attempt to flee the country, storming the runway and, in some cases, clinging to the outside of departing planes. Several died in the chaos.
Khpalwak is too young to fully remember life under the former Taliban regime, but her arrival in the capital as a young girl to go to school remains etched in her memory.
“All I saw were ruins, destroyed houses, holes in walls riddled with bullets. This is what I remember. And that’s the image that comes to my mind now when I hear the name of the Taliban, ”she said.
In music school, she found solace and among her comrades in the Zohra orchestra “girls closer than family”.
“There wasn’t a single bad day there, because there was always music, it was full of color and beautiful voices. But now it’s silence. Nothing is happening there. “
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