The Taliban can destroy many things, but music is not one of them

When faced with suppression, Afghanistan's cultural memory only becomes stronger

Musicians who remain in Taliban-run Afghanistan are increasingly afraid to play in public. AP

No Afghan will ever forget the day after the Taliban took Kabul. It was the day they witnessed some of their countrymen – desperate men and boys clinging to the wheels of evacuation planes – fall from the sky.

So much of the country’s treasure and talent was on those planes – not only its university professors and their students, or business owners and their capital, or outspoken human rights defenders, but also many of its artists and musicians. Social media was packed with selfies of Afghan singers and instrumentalists in cargo planes and in refugee camps. Two hundred and seventy-three students and faculty members of the Afghan National Institute of Music, as well as their families, were evacuated to Portugal.

The wretched boys who fell back onto the tarmac – back into their country’s reality – seemed the ultimate symbol of Afghanistan’s terrible plight. They were a sampling of the millions who lacked the skills, the connections, the resources or the cunning to get a seat out, and who would be condemned to die in Afghanistan’s new vacuum.

A cascade of tragedies has befallen Afghanistan since, including a string of targeted killings (suspected to have been carried out by operatives of the ruling Taliban), as well as a shattered economy and an accompanying hunger crisis. Last month, a BBC camera in Kabul captured a video of a lonely beggar playing the flute. He was playing Sarzamine Man (My Homeland), an old song about the perennial struggle of Afghans forced to flee war. It has made a comeback since August. Throughout the past four months, it has been sung by Afghans on the runway at Kabul Airport during the evacuation, by Afghan refugees in camps in the Middle East and by diaspora Afghans protesting in old European city squares.

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A line from its lyrics speaks of a nation rendered without any tune or melody. It is especially poignant considering the way the Taliban government has sought to silence any musicians who have been unable to leave the country, and ban music and nonreligious art from public spaces.

As The National reported in November, Kharabat Street, the heart of Kabul’s musical quarter, has fallen silent. Zabiullah Mujahid, a senior Taliban spokesman, has said repeatedly that music is prohibited, and in some towns, Taliban police as well as their vigilante supporters have punished those caught playing. In Andarab province, north of Kabul, families speak in whispers of the local singers who have been disappeared – presumably murdered – by the Taliban.

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Kharabat Street, the heart of Kabul’s musical quarter, has fallen silent

Yesterday, Taliban authorities passed a directive banning the playing of any music in private vehicles.

The absence of music on the streets may seem a trivial affair in a country faced with mass starvation and continued violence. But as Sarzamine Man suggests, music can be nourishment for the soul when none for the body is forthcoming.

Even the Taliban’s foot soldiers are aware of this, when they are not busy threatening musicians. Some of them have learnt the fungibility of one kind of nourishment for the other. A visitor from Kabul to Abu Dhabi recently told me of a wedding he attended in the Afghan countryside in October. I asked if there was live music. To my surprise, he told me that there was, and that it was made possible by the groom’s father offering free food to the Taliban patrols who passed by in exchange for them looking the other way. The Taliban soldiers, he said, were severely malnourished, not having been paid salaries in months. And actually, he noted, times in Afghanistan are so sad that people feel willing to take huge risks just to hear a little music.

Another Afghan, an instrumental musician, has told me of his inability to compose anything in the days after the Taliban came to power. He was in too much shock. But then one day, he woke up and felt all of the bottled-up feelings overflow, and he has been writing more tunes than ever.

There is a fortunate irony in all of this for those who would mourn the destruction of Afghan cultural treasures under Taliban rule. It is the reason that so many popular Afghan songs speak of tragedy and hardship. Some of the best music is born of these things, and develops in response to them. Music is a unique property of culture in that the more it is suppressed, the more it proliferates. The lonely flautist on the street, wedding parties’ hunger for levity even at the cost of security and the new pages of musical composition being written every day by those who retain the country’s cultural memory all demonstrate that.

It remains the case that the vacuum created on the day of the Taliban’s takeover threatens and consumes huge swathes of Afghan life. If there is any optimism at all to be found in such circumstances, some of it lies in the fact that cultural memory is often strengthened, not lost, under duress. There are still many facets of Afghanistan’s cultural wealth the Taliban can destroy, and indeed has destroyed. But music is not one of them.

Published: December 28th 2021, 4:00 AM
Sulaiman Hakemy

Sulaiman Hakemy

Sulaiman Hakemy is opinion editor at The National