All-female Afghan orchestra among hundreds of musicians given asylum in Portugal

The Taliban have banned singing, dancing and educating girls beyond primary school

Hundreds of Afghan musicians have arrived in Portugal after fleeing the Taliban who have banned music in some parts of the country under their repressive regime.

Some 273 members of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), including students, staff and relatives, touched down in Lisbon on Monday after the Portuguese government granted them asylum.

It was the largest rescue operation of a self-contained Afghan community since the militants seized power of the country in August, the music institute said.

Under their strict interpretation of sharia law, the Taliban have banned singing, dancing and educating girls beyond primary school.

Conductor Shogufa Safi, 18, who was among those who escaped, said her dream is to return to her homeland one day and bring music back to her country.

"I haven't had peace in my life yet," an emotional but hopeful Ms Safi said after she arrived in Europe.

"My huge dream is to go back to Afghanistan...It's a huge dream," she said. "I believe that I'll go back...and teach the younger generation."

Lina, 13, plays the viola as she and fellow members of the Zohra all-female orchestra take part in a rehearsal in Kabul. Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

She is one of the musicians in Afghanistan's renowned all-female orchestra Zohra, part of ANIM. They have played at some of the world's major concert venues, from New York's Carnegie Hall to Oman's Royal Opera House.

When the Taliban were last in power, between 1996 and 2001, music was also banned. This time around, the hardline Islamists have yet to formally ban music but have ordered radio stations to stop playing music in parts of the landlocked nation.

As soon as Taliban insurgents took control, ANIM's director and founder, Ahmad Sarmast, knew he had to get his students out of the country. They escaped to Qatar with the help of various donors, before making their way to Portugal.

"I'm very happy to be in Portugal because I see all my friends smiling," said another young conductor, Marzia Anwari. "They are the future of Afghanistan."

Some of the young musicians stepped out of the commercial charter flight clutching new instruments, from drums to violins. Their old instruments stayed behind at ANIM's campus in Kabul, which is now a Taliban command centre.

The future for music may look bleak in their homeland, but Mr Sarmast is confident his students are safe and able to not only pursue their musical dreams but also keep Afghanistan's rich musical heritage alive.

ANIM will reopen in Lisbon next year and plan to perform live soon.

Updated: December 14th 2021, 10:54 AM