1,200 miles from Kabul, a famous music school reunited

The plane from Kabul landed in Qatar around 6pm on Tuesday. Two 13-year-old musicians – Zohra and Farida, a trumpeter and a violinist – left tables and ran towards their teacher. Then, witnesses said, they began to cry.

The girls were among the last students affiliated with the Afghanistan National Institute of Music – a famous school that has previously been a target for the Taliban, in part for its efforts to promote girls’ education – to be evacuated from Kabul since the Taliban regained power in August.

They joined 270 students, teachers and their relatives, who for fear that the Taliban might seek to punish them for their ties to music, have taken the journey from Kabul to Doha, the capital of Qatar, with the first group traveling in the beginning of October. Most arrived during the last week and boarded four special planes arranged by the Qatari government after months of delays. They are ultimately planning to resettle in Portugal, where they expect to be granted asylum.

“It’s such a great relief,” school principal Ahmad Naser Sarmast said in a telephone interview on his way back from greeting the girls at the airport on Tuesday. “They can dream again. They can hope.”

The musicians are among hundreds of artists – actors, writers, painters and photographers – who have fled Afghanistan in recent weeks. Many have gone because they worry about their safety and see no way to make money as the art comes under government control.

The Taliban are on guard against non-religious music, which they directly banned when they led Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. While the new government has not issued an official ban, radio stations have stopped playing some songs and musicians have begun to hide their instruments. Some have reported being attacked or threatened to act. A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in an interview with The New York Times in August that “music is forbidden in Islam” but that “we hope we can persuade people not to do such things instead of press them. “

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music had long been a target for the Taliban. The school embraced change, adopted a common educational model and spent resources on studying both traditional Afghan music and Western music. The Taliban issued frequent threats against the school; Sarmast was wounded by a Taliban suicide bomber in 2014.

The school became known for supporting the education of girls, who make up about a third of the student body. The school’s only female orchestra, Zohra, toured the world and was hailed as a symbol of a modern, more progressive Afghanistan.

When the Taliban consolidated control of the country this summer, the school was forced to close down quickly. Taliban officials began using the campus as a command center. Students and staff mostly stayed at home, worried they would be attacked for going outside. Some stopped playing music and began learning other skills, such as weaving.

In the last days of the American war in Afghanistan, the school’s supporters led a hectic attempt to evacuate students and staff. At one point, seven busloads of people trying to escape waited at Kabul airport for 17 hours but were unable to board their plane as the gate was closed for fear of a terrorist attack. Then the school began to evacuate people more slowly and in small groups. But the difficulty of obtaining passports caused some musicians to be stuck for several months in Afghanistan.

A number of star artists, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, offered support. The Qatari government provided shelter and helped negotiate with the Taliban to ensure safe passage.

“We hope that the situation in Afghanistan will one day encourage them to return home and take part in building the future of their country,” Lolwah Alkhater, Qatar’s Deputy Foreign Minister, said in a statement.

On Wednesday, a group of students will play a concert in Doha to celebrate the school’s reunion. Among the songs will be “Sarzamin-e Man”, which can be translated to “My Homeland”.

“When I see them, I’m just happy,” said Marzia, an 18-year-old violinist and conductor of the Zohra Orchestra, talking about her fellow students. “I see them all happy and they feel free.”

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