Afghan artists from the Bay Area are advancing in response to the crisis facing artists in Afghanistan

Although artistic activity has flourished – relatively speaking – in Afghanistan over the last few decades, artists in Afghanistan have become an endangered species in recent months. Many have fled since the Taliban came to power in August, or have been forced to give up their jobs because of the harsh Islamic regime’s stance on most forms of self-expression.

Meanwhile, Afghan artists like Mahwash based here in the Bay Area – which has one of the largest Afghan immigrant populations in the United States – are stepping up to help in a variety of ways, from using government contacts to trying to get refugee amnesty in this country. , to use their art to raise awareness of, and funds to help, vulnerable artists at home.

“A nation remains alive when its culture remains alive,” said San Francisco-based Afghan cultural adviser, author and blogger Humaira Ghilzai, quoting a statement that can be found engraved at the entrance to the Afghan National Museum in Kabul. “That’s why it’s so important to save our artistic heritage.”

Anti-violence leads to escape

Under its previous regime in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the extremist Taliban government tortured and killed artists, banned music, and destroyed works of art.

The current Taliban leadership has said it will not resort to such draconian tactics. But the signs are not encouraging. Among other reports that have appeared in the media in recent months, Taliban militants killed popular comedian Nazar Mohammad “Khasha” in July and opened fire at a wedding in October after demanding the party stop playing music. Three people lost their lives.

Since the summer, artists from Afghanistan have been trying to leave the country in droves. But getting to the US has not been easy.

“There is no category under the Refugee Assistance Program for artists per se, though that category exposes you to a particular risk,” said Sanjay Sethi, an immigration lawyer and founder of the Artistic Freedom Initiative, a group that helps resettle persecuted artists.

Sethi said his office typically handles 70-90 cases a year from around the world. But since August, they have received more than 1,000 requests for help only from artists trying to escape Afghanistan.

“We were not ready to handle the crowd,” Sethi said.

Art sits in the back seat

Some Afghan artists from the Bay Area have decided to help get artists and others out of Afghanistan by giving up their art in favor of more direct immigration-focused activities.

Castro Valley-based visual artist Biz Rasam (also known as Biz Iqbal) spent about five years of his career working for the U.S. government in Afghanistan as a cultural adviser and interpreter. Rasam said he has used his military contacts to try to get 50 people out of the country.

A selection of works of art by Biz Rasam. (Courtesy of the artist)

“I don’t see any creative element in what I was doing,” Rasam said. “It was just like getting the help over there now, whether it’s money or contacts.”

For San Francisco-based multimedia artist Gazelle Samizay, working with refugee artists has been more than a full-time job in recent months.

“Working on this completely weakened my identity,” she said. “Like, I was just non-stop, 24/7 in a state of emergency.”

Samizay, who was born in Afghanistan but grew up in the United States, is a member of the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association (AAAWA). She said her group began hearing from endangered Afghan artists with whom they had collaborated in the past.

“It started as a little thing like ‘Oh, maybe we can just raise money for them so they can get out of the country,'” she said, “but it was just snowing.”

So far, AAAWA has raised more than $ 40,000 in relief for Afghan artists. Samizay said that even though she has only just begun to think about her art practice again, she is proud of how everyone in her network has pulled together to help.

“This is an unprecedented time for the Afghan diaspora to really come together and organize,” Samizay said. “And there’s a silver line to this mess.”

Art as a statement

Other members of Bay Area’s Afghan cultural scene see art as a more central role in their crisis relief efforts.

The rock band Kabul Dreams from the Bay Area, who moved from Kabul to Oakland in 2013 after many years of persecution at home, performed in early November in Golden Gate Park to raise awareness about the crisis in Afghanistan. The band has also shared links to online resources where people can donate to support nonprofits like Free Women Writers.

“I do not think we are still a political band,” said lead singer and guitarist Sulyman Qardash. “We are a band that has some experience that we would like to express.”

“Just going on stage and saying we’re a band from Afghanistan and we play music, that’s in itself our opinion,” said bassist and keyboardist Siddique Ahmed.

Dancer Samia Karimi teaches an Afghan dance class at Zoom to raise money for Afghan hip-hop artists trying to flee Afghanistan. (Zoom screen.)

But for dancer Samia Karimi, who grew up in Foster City and Albany after leaving her home country of Kabul when she was five years old, going on stage is no longer enough.

Karimi said she recently turned down concerts that she would have happily agreed to before the Taliban resurfaced.

“Is this the right time for me to put on my dress and be a pretty little girl in the background on a music video?” she said. “No. I played that role as a dance artist – it will not return.”

Instead, Karimi does things like appearing at political rallies, such as the recent One Billion Rising event in Los Angeles and serving on the board of ARTogether, an Oakland nonprofit organization that uses hands-on art workshops to help newly arrived refugees find community and connection. .

She also teaches Afghan dance classes at Zoom to students from around the world to raise money for hip-hop artists fleeing Afghanistan. One of the groups she is trying to help is AK13.

Karimi said some of AK13’s songs are critical of the Taliban, putting the group’s members at extreme risk.

“Their studio was destroyed in Afghanistan,” Karimi said.

Karimi said that the way she perceives herself as an artist has changed completely in the light of the humanitarian crisis in her home country. And she wants her artist colleagues to think about how they can use their creative practice to create change.

“I ask all Afghan artists, ‘How can you use your art form? How can you be a megaphone for these voices?'” She said. “If their stories are not heard, then the story will again be written by the oppressors.”

How to help

This Oakland-based nonprofit organization uses hands-on arts and crafts workshops to help newly arrived Bay Area immigrants find community and connection. It has held two workshops since the summer for recent Afghan refugees and hopes to be able to hold more.

Afghan American Writers and Artists Association (AAAWA)
This national group promotes the work of Afghan cultural figures in the United States. It has set up a special emergency fund to help Afghan artists and also maintains a list of other ways people can help.

Kabul dreams
The Afghan, Bay Area-based rock band has published a list of ways people can help with the crisis on its website.

Artistic Freedom Initiative
The national legal nonprofit is working to get amnesty for artists fleeing persecution and censorship worldwide. Much of its focus lately has been on Afghan artists.

Diaspora Arts Connection
The Bay Area organization behind events like “Let Her Sing,” which aims to uplift censored and oppressed female voices from around the world.

Humaira Ghilzai
The Bay Area-based blogger and creative advisor for film, TV and book projects has published a guide to contacting political representatives on the Afghanistan crisis, among other resources.

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