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.
n Exclusive to Arab News

Afghan delegates head online for crucial talks

Updated 01 June 2020

Afghan delegates head online for crucial talks

  • Peace hopes rest on virtual forum with Taliban amid virus threat

KABUL: Afghan government and Taliban delegates are expected to begin online talks in mid-June in a bid to end a decades-old conflict in the country, officials told Arab News on Sunday.

While past meetings have been held in person, the latest round of negotiations will take place online because of the threat of coronavirus in the war-ravaged country.

“We see no challenges, the atmosphere and preparations are all set for the talks,” Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah, newly appointed chief of the High Council for National Reconciliation, told Arab News.

Negotiations could begin in “the next 10 or 15 days,” he said.

“The announcement of a cease-fire, a reduction in violence and the exchange of prisoners were all requirements for the start of the talks, and we have had progress on them recently,” Khawzoon said.

On Wednesday the Afghan government released a list of 20 delegates due to hold peace talks with the Taliban.

The team will be led by Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a former spy chief who has held indirect negotiations with the militants in the past outside Afghanistan, he added.

In the lead-up to the talks, President Ashraf Ghani’s government will release 3,000 more Taliban prisoners, an official close to the Afghan leader told Arab News on condition of anonymity.

More than 2,000 Taliban inmates have already been freed as part of a historic peace deal in February.

In return, the Taliban released hundreds of government troops and, in a surprise move, announced a three-day cease-fire last week for Eid Al-Fitr.

The peace moves follow a buildup in fighting between the two sides despite the pandemic. Taliban attacks killed at least 146 people and injured 430 during Ramadan. 

Fears had been growing that the peace deal signed on Feb. 29 between the Taliban and the US would collapse.

The joint cease-fire followed talks in Qatar last week between the Taliban and Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative for Afghanistan.

Khalilzad later traveled to Kabul for meetings with Afghan political leaders over a reduction in violence and an exchange of prisoners. 

“We welcome the Taliban’s decision to observe a cease-fire during Eid, as well as the Afghan government reciprocating and announcing its own,” Khalilzad said last Sunday.

Increasing Taliban attacks on government troops, and political infighting between Ghani and Abdullah over who would assume office as president, have delayed the talks.

After Washington failed to reconcile Ghani and Abdullah, both leaders agreed two weeks ago to share power, with Ghani leading the country for another five years and Abdullah appointed as chief of the peace talks.

Khalilzad described the cease-fire agreement as a “momentous opportunity that should not be missed,” and pressed both sides to agree on a new date to start negotiations.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also urged the two sides to start peace talks, with the release of prisoners as a first step. 

Pompeo said that he expected the Taliban “to adhere to their commitment not to allow released prisoners to return to the battlefield.”

Ghani said the release of Taliban inmates would be “expedited” and that his government’s negotiating team was ready to begin talks “as soon as possible.”

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, could not be reached for comment on the Taliban’s stance.

In the past, the group has insisted it will take part in talks with Kabul only after all 5,000 Taliban prisoners are freed.

Experts hope the latest developments are a step in the right direction.

“The Taliban do not seem to have any reservations about the structure of the government team, so the hope is high that the talks will take place by June 15,” Wahidullah Ghazikhail, an analyst, told Arab News.

“Some of Taliban’s field commanders seem to be divided on the talks, hoping to capture power again after the departure of US forces (by next spring), while the political leaders are pushing for a political settlement,” he said.