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After escaping the Taliban, Afghan music students and teachers begin their new lives


Afghanistan's first and only music academy taught Afghan and Western music. It gained international fame. After the Taliban took over, students and faculty of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music feared for their lives. Many were airlifted to Doha, Qatar.

NPR's Hannah Bloch went to see them days before they travel to Portugal, where they have been promised asylum.

HANNAH BLOCH, BYLINE: On the outskirts of Doha, there's a brand-new residential compound built to house dignitaries at next year's Soccer World Cup. But since August, it's been a temporary home to thousands of people evacuated from Afghanistan after their country fell to the Taliban.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Non-English language spoken).

BLOCH: And beyond the compound's guards and tall metal gates, there's the sound of music.





UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, how are you?


BLOCH: Inside one of the town homes, there's a bright classroom with drums, a lute, a keyboard and a mic stand.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And we have Sevinch here.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She's a member of orchestra.

BLOCH: Eighteen-year-old Sevinch greets us with a big smile. We're not using anybody's full names because they still have family in Afghanistan. Sevinch is wearing jeans. And on her feet are pink slides with the message, the world is yours; stay positive. She's a violinist.

SEVINCH: Yes, I love music because when I was a child, always I dreamed - like, I want to play music. I want to see their instruments.

BLOCH: Tell us what you love about the violin.

SEVINCH: I love the sound of violin because it's so beautiful. It's soft.

BLOCH: She's also a concertmaster - a conductor of the Zohra Orchestra, the institute's celebrated all-female ensemble. They've played all over the world - and not just Afghan music - Beethoven, too.

SEVINCH: Yeah - and we play - the group was ABBA - the Swedish group - and the waltz - imperial waltz (ph). Yeah.

BLOCH: You play ABBA.


BLOCH: (Laughter).

SEVINCH: I love ABBA (laughter).

BLOCH: Do you have a favorite ABBA song?

SEVINCH: Yeah - "I Have A Dream."

BLOCH: And her dream right now is to keep playing music. After five separate airlifts, 273 students, faculty and family members of the music school made it here to Doha by mid-November. When she landed here, Sevinch says she was relieved, but...

SEVINCH: I was so sad because I love my country, my people.

BLOCH: And sad that she might not be able to play the music she loves ever again in Afghanistan.


FAYAZ: (Through interpreter) Music is the food for soul. It helps my soul relax. Taliban kills, but music does not kill.

BLOCH: That's 19-year-old Fayaz, speaking in Dari.

FAYAZ: (Through interpreter) Before the Taliban. I didn't have any concern about being a musician performing. But when the Taliban came, everything changed.

BLOCH: Fayaz plays the rubab, an instrument like a lute. His is inlaid with mother-of-pearl. On August 15, the day Kabul fell to the Taliban, he was at the music institute.

FAYAZ: (Through interpreter) I received a call from my family. And they told me that the Taliban entered Kabul. Please come home. My hands and my legs were shivering. And I thought that I would never be able to listen, to play music or to perform such beautiful music of Afghanistan again.

BLOCH: His fear had to do with the way the Taliban treated musicians the last time they were in power in the 1990s. Back then, they banned music.

BASIR: (Through interpreter) We were able to play music and listen to music until the Taliban came. When the Taliban came, it stopped.

BLOCH: Basir, an ustad, meaning a master musician, remembers that time all too well - when the Taliban broke instruments and punished musicians.

BASIR: (Through interpreter) Then not only for me, for every other musician, it was impossible to stay in Afghanistan and live.

BLOCH: Ustad Basir fled to Tajikistan. He returned to Kabul after the Taliban fell in 2001 and later began teaching at the music school. When he fled to Doha this fall, he had to leave everything behind, including all his musical instruments, which he hid inside a water tank at his house. For now, he plays a tanboor he's borrowed. But he thinks about his own instruments every day.


BLOCH: Those fleeing could bring very few belongings with them.

Fayaz is one of the lucky ones who managed to keep his own rubab as he escaped.

Should we have him play something?


WALI: Time for play.


BLOCH: He plays a Pashto song called "Lovely Homeland."


BLOCH: After Fayaz plays, there's silence as everyone takes it in.

Here's Wali, the program manager for the school.

WALI: When we were in Afghanistan, it did not feel like that. But here it feels different.

BLOCH: There's a Portuguese word that sums up how this song makes them feel now - saudade - an intense longing, a sense of melancholy.

WALI: Sometimes we feel happy; we are safe. And at the same time, leaving everything behind - leaving your world behind - your homeland, whatever you have - is extremely tough. But we will never lose hope that one day we could return back to Afghanistan.

BLOCH: Of course.

For now, though, they're moving forward to new lives in Portugal, where they landed earlier this week.

Ahmad Sarmast, the music school's founder and director, was waiting to welcome them.

AHMAD SARMAST: Students eventually, after many, many months of stressful (ph) and fear and hopelessness, eventually got to freedom and once again get an opportunity to dream and to chase their dreams.

BLOCH: His goal now is to make sure Afghan music continues to be heard throughout the world.

Hannah Bloch, NPR News, Doha.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUBAB MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Bloch
Hannah Bloch is lead digital editor on NPR's international desk, overseeing the work of NPR correspondents and freelance journalists around the world.
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