Afghan all-female orchestra keeps music alive in exile

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Afghan all-female orchestra keeps music alive in exile
Conductor of the Afghan national orchestra Mohammed Qambar Nawshad leads musicians of the Afghanistan National Institute of music (ANIM) which all-female Zohra orchestra is part of, during a concert in the Qatari capital Doha on October 18, 2021. AFP.

by Anne Levasseur

DOHA.- For the first time in months, members of Afghanistan's all-female Zohra orchestra have reassembled in Doha, their music once again filling the air as they face an uncertain future.

While grateful to be safe in Qatar, their escape from Taliban rule is bittersweet, as the girls leave behind friends from the orchestra and their "old companions" -- their instruments.

Last week marked the first time in three months that Marzia Anwari, along with other members of the Afghan music community who escaped to Qatar, played live for an audience.

"Most of the girls from the Zohra orchestra are here with me in Qatar, but some of them are still in Afghanistan," the 18-year-old violist told AFP.

"I hope that they can join us here as soon as possible and we can be together and rebuild our orchestra."

Zohra, Afghanistan's first all-female orchestra, was established in 2016.

The group of 35 young musicians aged 13-20, some orphans or from poor families, gave a culture-crossing performance at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos that overcame tradition and death threats in their homeland.

Now in exile, and with new instruments, the musicians are hoping to keep their cultural heritage alive after the Islamist hardliners seized power in August.

Everything is 'haram'

Music was banned when the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, and since their return, women's freedoms and education have again been abruptly curtailed.

"In Afghanistan, they consider everything 'haram' (religiously forbidden) for women, particularly music," Anwari said.

It was difficult to be a working musician even before the takeover, she said, with many conservative Afghans believing that girls belong in the home.

"When we'd go outside, people would call us... 'promiscuous' and other such things," said Anwari.

The Taliban have been trying to win backing and financial support for their Islamist regime, promising a more flexible rule than last time.

But since they overthrew Afghanistan's former US-backed government, high school girls have been blocked from returning to classes, while many women have been banned from returning to work.

Shogofa Safi, a percussionist and conductor of the Zohra orchestra, said she was happy to be out of Afghanistan.

The 18-year-old told AFP of her harrowing escape, with Taliban militants manning Kabul airport before her evacuation flight.

"The situation in Afghanistan was really dangerous and it was scary to leave," she said.

The Taliban "didn't know we were musicians", she said, adding that "if they had known", they would have killed them.

'Beyond the borders'

Qatar is hosting about 100 students and teachers from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), which includes the Zohra orchestra, until they leave for Portugal.

Among them is Mohammed Qambar Nawshad, conductor of the Afghan national orchestra, who said he was happy to be making music again.

"We haven't been able to play for at least three months since they took Kabul. So it was a wonderful opportunity, not just for me but for the entire community to perform again, to really make their dreams come true," he said.

Nawshad had to leave his wife and two children behind, but hopes to be reunited with them soon in Qatar or Portugal.

"I love Qatar and I love the people of Qatar... but I will never love it as much as I do Kabul," he said, fighting back tears.

While promising more moderation, the Taliban have made clear that they will run Afghanistan according to their interpretation of sharia law.

The movement's position on music is inconsistent and no clear order has yet been issued.

But after the Taliban's last brutal crackdown on culture in the 1990s, many musicians are now in hiding and some have abandoned their instruments. Music schools remain closed.

Anwari said she was delighted to be playing the viola again in Qatar, but "heartbroken" for the loss of her old instrument.

"Even when I slept, it was right above my head," she said.

Anwari, Safi and Nawshad all said they would continue to fight for their homeland with their music, which ranges from traditional Afghan tunes to Western classical music.

"We will keep it alive, the rich cultural heritage of Afghanistan -- and Afghanistan itself too, beyond the borders," Nawshad said.

© Agence France-Presse

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