Music making comeback in Afghanistan

Updated 27 January 2013

Music making comeback in Afghanistan

Music that Afghans were made to stay away from or risk being targeted by the Taleban militants are once again ringing loud. That trepidation no longer exists as strongly as it once was.
This privilege, which was very much at the core of Afghanistan’s heritage, remained shut out for years. Nobody dared to think of listening to music when it was banned by the Taleban regime in the 1990s.
Its strong comeback is a testament to Afghan people’s readiness to change the status quo of their country.
Credit for this turnaround, even when the scenario still seems incongruous and far from perfect, goes to the 50-year-old trained musicologist Ahmad Naser Sarmast — the only Afghan who came forward despite numerous challenges standing in his way to save Afghanistan’s crippling musical legacy. He let every Afghan experience it through the only one of its kind music center known as Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), a part of the Ministry of Education.
Sarmast already had a plan drawn up to help his countrymen. But the stakes involved were too big to let go as violence was still a major concern. Nevertheless, these incidents couldn’t shake up his steely determination.
He was fully convinced that the bloodstained soil of Afghanistan would one day be wrapped up in colors of a new musical era.
“I am an optimist,” Sarmast told Arab News. “I didn’t face any hurdles in the establishment of this school because I had full support of my people behind me.”
Like his late father Ustad Sarmast — a composer, conductor and musician — he carved out a career for himself in music.
“My home was full of music and moments. We often had musical gatherings organized, so I was surrounded by different types of music from an early age,” Sarmast said.
But the bloody civil war of 1992 forced him to flee the country, taking him to Russia from where he finished his MA in musicology and ethnomusicology. In 1994, he gained asylum in Australia. Then, he was admitted to Monash University, one of Australia’s best institutions from where he received his Ph.D. in music in 2005.
Living away from home for almost 15 years, he realized he should return to his country. And he did in 2008 so that Afghanistan’s future doesn’t go down the same battered path ever again.
“Each of us should come forward when it comes to contributing to social and humanitarian work. And I felt compelled to go back not only because it was my civil responsibility but also my vision and commitment to bring back the musical rights of Afghan children,” he said. “Its other purpose was to be playing a crucial role in bridging the gap between countries in the region as well as create a platform for inter-cultural dialogue through music.”
However, he flits between Kabul and Melbourne where his wife and two children still live. Two years later, he laid the stone of this first-ever music school amid the high expectation that it will open doors to a new world for Afghan children.
“I was heart-broken by what I saw through the faces of children. They were looking for ways to escape. I knew it was music that could heal their hearts and souls,” Ahmad said.
“No civil society can exist or for that matter imagine living without music even for a second,” he said. “I believe music can turn anything into positive because it has a tremendous healing power. Afghans have been through lots of terrible and mind-numbing circumstances.” It’s not just this. Today, the school is emerging as a role model for Afghanistan to make the most of in the best way possible and emulate it in its day-to-day affairs.
Afghan-born vocalist and flautist Mashal Arman, who teaches at the academy, is proud that her country is entering a new phase. “Their eyes say everything. Their thirst for music is highly insatiable keeping in mind what these little souls have had to go through,” she said. “It’s also a great role model to showcase Afghanistan’s changing face to the outside world.”
The massive funding from the World Bank, foreign ministries of Denmark and Finland, the US, India, Germany and Britain is allowing Sarmast to run this music school in an effective way. “We are getting a large assortment of musical instruments from manufacturers. They can’t be found anywhere else, “he says.
Shabeer, 22, is from Kabul and he plays oboe. “Music is part of our culture which died in the last wars. I want to show my country that music is not a bad thing and I want to show to the world that Afghans don’t want war. We want peace. I chose this instrument because I heard it played once and loved the sound. When I hear it, it touches my emotions and I love it,” he said.
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New Chicago mayor gives Arabs hope

Updated 52 min 7 sec ago

New Chicago mayor gives Arabs hope

  • The election of Lori Lightfoot as mayor gives Chicago’s Arabs an opportunity to reverse the damage that Rahm Emanuel has caused
  • Emanuel’s first acts as mayor included blocking the annual Arabesque Festival, which Jewish groups complained against

Plagued by ongoing controversies and criticism that he tried to hide a video of Chicago police killing a black teenager in October 2014, Rahm Emanuel decided he had had enough as the city’s mayor and decided to retire.

Elected in 2011 with a big boost from his former boss, US President Barack Obama — also a Chicago native — Emanuel served two full terms.

But his hopes of reversing the city’s tumbling finances, improving its poorly performing schools, and reversing record gun-related violence and killings, all failed.

However, Emanuel did have one success. He managed to gut the involvement of Chicago’s Arab-American minority in city-sponsored events, responding favorably to its influential Jewish-American community leadership, which complained about Palestinian activists who advocated for statehood and challenged Israeli oppression.

Emanuel’s first acts as mayor included blocking the annual Arabesque Festival, which Jewish groups complained included photographs of Palestinians protesting against Israel. The festival had only been launched four years earlier by his predecessor in 2007.

Emanuel also disbanded the Advisory Commission on Arab Affairs, and ended Arab American Heritage Month, which had been held every November since it was recognized by Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor.

Emanuel refused to discuss his reasons for these decisions with leaders of Chicago’s Arab community.

He declined repeated requests by me to interview him, despite my having interviewed seven Chicago mayors. He declined similar requests from other Arab journalists.

While he hosted iftars for Muslims, he never hosted an Arab heritage celebration during his eight years in office.

His father was a leader of the Irgun, which was denounced as a terrorist organization in the 1940s by the British military.

The Irgun murdered British soldiers and thousands of Palestinian civilians, and orchestrated the bloody Deir Yassin massacre on April 9, 1948.

Before becoming mayor, Emanuel volunteered at an Israeli military base repairing damaged vehicles. His pro-Israel stance was never challenged by the mainstream US news media.

But with the election in February of Lori Lightfoot as mayor, Chicago’s Arabs have an opportunity to reverse the damage that Emanuel caused.

Lightfoot was sworn into office on Monday and serves for four years. She has already reached out to Arabs, appointing at least two Palestinians to her 400-person transition team, whose members often remain and assume government positions with new administrations.

The two Palestinians in her transition team are Rush Darwish and Rami Nashashibi. Darwish has organized several successful marathons in Chicago and Bethlehem to raise funds for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. Nashashibi is involved with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN).

As an African American, Lightfoot knows what it is like to be the victim of racism, stereotypes and discrimination. That makes her more sensitive to the concerns of Chicago’s Arabs.