The last two of more than 270 students, faculties and staff from Afghanistan’s only music school have left the country in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover, the institution’s founder said on Thursday.
“It was extremely emotional,” Afghanistan National Institute of Music founder and director Ahmad Sarmast said of students he greeted at Doha airport on Tuesday. “They just could not stop crying and I cried with them.”
More than 100 students and faculties were able to flee to Qatar’s capital in October, but Sarmast, 59, and others had worked to evacuate the remaining 200 students and staff who were missing some paperwork.
“I’m very relieved,” he told NBC News over the phone. “It’s good to see them happy and also hopeful about the future.”
The 272 evacuees, including the all-female Zohra orchestra, will continue to Portugal, where they were granted asylum, school officials said in a statement. They plan to resume school activities there.
Sarmast’s students and faculty are the lucky ones.
Thousands of Afghans have been trying to flee the country since the United States and its allies withdrew their forces in August, trying to escape repression, violence and a crumbling economy. But musicians are facing a particularly difficult time under the strict fighters, whose interpretation of Islam has led them to completely ban music in the past.
While the departures could be life-saving for the students and the faculty themselves, they are a blow to a decades-long international effort to promote the best and most talented of the country’s musicians.
Since the school was founded in 2010, its male and female students have performed around the world – a symbol of progress in modern Afghanistan.
Following the invasion in 2001 and the departure of the former Taliban government, music flourished in Kabul and other parts of the country.
But the return of the Taliban in August has cast a blanket of silence over large parts of the country.
Although music has not been formally banned, people in the capital Kabul are cautious: cafes and restaurants only play music inside, and even then – quietly. Less music is played on radio and television. Wedding halls have completely stopped playing live music, according to several wedding hall owners who spoke to NBC News.
“When I talk to my friends and family in Kabul, they say that music is very rare,” said Arson Fahim, a pianist who escaped the Afghan capital shortly before the Taliban took power. “They say that without music, the city feels almost dead.”
While Afghanistan has a rich, centuries-long musical tradition and the Koran does not explicitly ban music or make it “un-Islamic,” the Taliban use their extremist interpretation of Islam to justify erasing history and identity, of which music is a cornerstone, said historian Mejgan Massoumi at Stanford University.
»Musicians are scared. They are in hiding. They have buried and destroyed their instruments. They have kept quiet. ”
“It will be devastating for the Afghan people to try to silence voices and souls,” Massoumi said.
But Taliban commanders have told NBC News that listening to music is against Islamic law. Although they have not issued an overall ban on all music since their takeover in August, they have raised awareness of the “evil of music,” Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi said.
When they first came to power between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban outright banned all music. But this time, in an attempt to project a more moderate image, the group has stayed away from issuing a sweeping ban.
Despite promises of moderation, the Taliban have unleashed a brutal crackdown since returning to power as they try to consolidate control of the troubled country and force Afghans to abide by their strict interpretation of Islam.
Download NBC News app for breaking news and politics
It has left many Afghan musicians paralyzed by fear – unsure if they will ever be able to play music again.
UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, Karima Bennoune, said she had received reports of attacks on musicians in Afghanistan, destruction of musical instruments, closure of music-related institutions and forced musicians to flee, making her “deeply concerned” about security by Afghan musicians.
“Musicians are terrified,” said Katherine Butler Schofield, associate professor of South Asian music and history at Britain’s King’s College London. “They are hiding. They have buried and destroyed their instruments. They have silenced themselves.”
Many have tried to leave the country, including during the chaotic evacuation of Western forces in late August. Until this week, students and staff at Afghanistan’s most prominent music school were among them.
Sarmast said his school’s activities were suspended when the Taliban took over the country. He said his students and faculty had goals on their backs because they alienated co-education, where boys and girls not only learned music, but toured together.
We were “at the forefront of promoting democratic values through music,” he said.
Sarmast said the Taliban has given him assurances that the school’s premises will be safe – until further notice from their top management. But no students or staff have been allowed in, he added, and one of the school’s campuses has been converted into a military barracks.
Fahim, a pianist who graduated from the school earlier this year, traveled to the United States just two weeks before Kabul fell to the Taliban to study at Massachusetts’ Longy School of Music at Bard College.
He said he considers himself hugely lucky, but he has been filled with concerns about his former colleagues in Kabul and the school, which he said changed his life.
“It was all for me. It was like home,” said Fahim, 21, of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
He said he never thought the school, along with hundreds of Afghan musicians, could be silenced.
“Can you imagine not being able to do what you love, having to hide and be in danger because of something as beautiful as music?” said Fahim.
Sarmast said 13 years of the careful work of his life, building and promoting his school, had been torn away when the Taliban marched into Kabul in August.
“Unexpectedly, all that is gone,” he said.
While now concentrating on trying to rebuild the school in Portugal, he still hopes to return to Kabul one day to resume his work there – no matter how naive it sounds, he admitted.
“If my safety is guaranteed and I get the freedom to run a music school, I will return to Afghanistan,” Sarmast said. “I have hope.”