Afghan people 'should not be silenced again' says founder of women's orchestra

OXFORD, England (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ahmad Naser Sarmast has braved death threats, intimidation and a Taliban suicide bomb attack to bring his Afghan women’s orchestra, currently performing in Britain, to the world.

Now the renowned musicologist worries that peace talks between the U.S. government and the Islamist group that controlled Afghanistan until 2001 could once again deprive his country of music.

“For me personally, in any peace talks, Zohra is a red line,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation this week as the Zohra orchestra - named after a Persian goddess of music - rehearsed for a concert in an Oxford church.

“The people of Afghanistan should not be deprived of their musical rights again, should not be silenced again.”

The Taliban banned music and prevented girls from going to school during their brutal five-year rule, which ended in 2001 when they were ousted by a U.S.-led military campaign.

Reports that more than 5,000 U.S. troops may be withdrawn from the country have triggered alarm among many Afghans with bitter memories of the Taliban’s ultra-hardline regime.

“In 2001 there was not a single girl enrolled in a school, but today over 30 percent of the school kids enrolled in schools of Afghanistan are girls,” said Sarmast.

“Back then, women were not allowed to leave their houses, but today, women of Afghanistan are represented in art, culture, social, political life, education, politics, everywhere.”

The orchestra’s conductor Negin Khpalwak, moved to Kabul aged 9 because there were no schools for girls in her native province of Kunar.

Now 23, she first heard the piano when she went to audition at the music school in Kabul that Sarmast runs, falling in love with the sound of the instrument.

“It was really like a bird is singing,” she said, smiling. “I thought that okay, after that, I want to be a musician.”

Zohra orchestra began in 2014 as part of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, which Sarmast founded in 2010.

In 2014 the 56-year-old survived a Taliban suicide bomb attack on a cultural center in Kabul, temporarily losing his hearing before surgeons removed shrapnel from his skull.

The school teaches a range of subjects, from mathematics and chemistry to English, alongside music and takes both boys and girls from a variety of backgrounds.

Some used to work on the streets of Kabul selling chewing gum to provide for their families.

Khpalwak, one of the first girls to enroll, recalled how the numbers quickly swelled.

“When we perform and give concerts to the people in Afghanistan, they change their mind about music ... and they then entrust their daughter and their sons to the music school. Now we are 75 girls,” she said.

The women in the orchestra, which performs Western as well as Afghan classical music, left Afghanistan for the first time in 2017 to perform at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

On Friday they will perform at the British Museum in London as part of Women’s History Month.

Khpalwak said all the women and girls in the Zohra orchestra had encountered resistance, mostly from conservative relatives. But she remained positive, describing Afghan women as “really brave”.

“They can break our instruments, they can do anything, but they cannot bring the music out of our heart and brain,” she said.

Reporting by Inna Lazareva, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit