Afghanistan’s all-female orchestra plunges into silence Reuters

© Reuters. File photo: Members of the 35-women Zohra Orchestra practice during a conference at the Afghanistan National Conservatory of Music in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

Authors: Parniyan Zemaryalai and John Geddie

(Reuters)-Negin Khpalwak was sitting at her home in Kabul when it was learned that the Taliban had reached the outskirts of the capital.

The 24-year-old conductor, who was once the face of the famous all-female orchestra in Afghanistan, immediately began to panic.

The last time Islamic radicals came to power, they banned music and women were not allowed to work. In the final months of the rebellion, they carried out targeted attacks on those who they believed had betrayed their vision of Islamic rule.

Khpalwak ran around the room, grabbed a robe to cover her naked arms, and hid a small set of decorative drums. Then she collected photos and newspaper clippings of her famous musical performances, piled them up and burned them.

Khpalwak, who fled to the United States, said: “I feel so bad, it feels like the entire memory of my life has been turned into ashes. This is one of the tens of thousands who fled abroad after the Taliban’s lightning conquest of Afghanistan.”

Reuters put together the story of the orchestra a few days after the Taliban victory through interviews with members of the Khpalwak music school, summarizing the shock felt by young Afghans like Khpalwak, especially women.

The orchestra is named Zohra after the goddess of Persian music, and it consists mainly of girls and women aged 13 to 20 from the Kabul Orphanage.

Established in 2014, it has become a global symbol of the freedom that many Afghans have enjoyed in the 20 years since the last rule of the Taliban, although it continues to face hostility and threats from some people in this highly conservative Muslim country.

Wearing a bright red headscarf, playing a mixture of traditional Afghan music and Western classic music with local instruments such as a guitar-like rabab For entertainment.

Today, armed Taliban guard the closed Afghanistan National Academy of Music (ANIM), where the organization used to practice, and in some parts of the country, the movement has ordered radio stations to stop playing music /article/United States-Afghanistan-Conflict-Music-idCAKBN2FW0DV.

“We never thought that Afghanistan would return to the Stone Age,” said Ahmad Sarmast, the founder of ANIM, adding that the Zohra Orchestra represents freedom and women’s empowerment in Afghanistan. Its members serve as “cultural diplomats”.

Salmaster from Australia told Reuters that the Taliban had banned staff from entering the institute.

“The girls in the Zohra Orchestra and other orchestras and ensembles at the school are terrified of their lives and they hide,” he said.

A Taliban spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about the status of the institute.

Since the last group of Western soldiers evacuated the country and regained power, the Taliban have been trying to assure Afghans and the outside world the rights they will gain.

The organization stated that within the scope of Islamic Sharia law and Afghanistan’s Islamic and cultural customs, women will be allowed to engage in cultural activities, work and education.

Legacy instrument

On August 15, the day the Taliban marched into Kabul without fighting, Khpalwak frantically burned her musical memory, and some of her peers were taking part in practice at ANIM in preparation for the big international tour in October .

At 10 am, the school security rushed into the rehearsal room to tell the musicians that the Taliban was approaching. According to Samast, when they ran away in a hurry, many people left instruments that were too heavy and conspicuous to carry on the streets of the capital. .

Sarmast, who was in Australia at the time, said that he had received many messages from students who were concerned about their safety and seeking help. His staff told him not to return to the country because the Taliban were looking for him and his home had been raided many times.

The danger faced by Afghan performers was cruelly highlighted in 2014, when a suicide bomber blew himself up during a performance at a French school in Kabul, wounding Samast among the audience.

At that time, the Taliban insurgents claimed to have launched the attack and called the show a condemnation of suicide bombings and an insult to “Islamic values.”

Even during the 20 years of the Kabul government supported by the West, civil liberties were more tolerated than the Taliban, and some people resisted the idea of ​​an all-female orchestra.

Members of the Zohra Orchestra have previously said about having to hide their music from conservative families and being threatened with abuse and beatings. There are even young Afghan people opposed.

Khpalwak recalled an incident in Kabul, when a group of boys stood intently watching their performance.

When she was packing, she overheard the conversation between them. “It’s a shame that these girls are playing music”, “How could their family allow them?”, “Girls should be at home,” she recalled.

‘Trembling in fear’

The 21-year-old former Zohra cellist, Nazira Wali, said that life under Taliban rule may be worse than whispering ridicule.

Wali, who was studying in the United States when the Taliban regained Kabul, said she kept in touch with members of the orchestra in her hometown. They were so afraid of being discovered that they smashed the instrument and deleted social media profiles.

“My heart trembled for them, because now the Taliban are there, we can’t predict what will happen to them in the next moment,” she said.

“If things continue like this, there will be no music in Afghanistan.”

Reuters contacted several members of the orchestra remaining in Kabul on this matter. No one responded.

A few days after the arrival of the Taliban, Khpalwak managed to escape from Kabul and boarded the evacuation flight with a group of Afghan female reporters.

Tens of thousands of people flocked to Kabul airport, trying to escape the country, rushing into the runway, and in some cases clutching the plane about to take off. Several people were killed in the chaos.

Khpalwak is too young to fully remember the life under the Taliban’s previous rule, but as a young girl who came to school in the capital, she still remembers her.

“All I saw were ruins, collapsed houses, holes in bullet-filled walls. This is my memory. When I hear the name of the Taliban, this is the image I think of now,” she said.

At the music school, she found solace, in her Zohra orchestra members, “girls are closer than family.”

“No day there is a bad day, because there is always music, full of colors and beautiful sounds. But now it’s silent. Nothing happened there.”

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