Afghanistan’s all-female orchestra falls silent

The Day the Music Died: Afghanistan’s All-Female Orchestra Falls Silent

  • All-female orchestra was a symbol of change in Afghanistan
  • Members fled or went into hiding after Taliban victory
  • Some broke up instruments, burned documents
  • Taliban have said women will have rights, no vendettas
  • But movement’s past actions mean people remain fearful

Today, armed Taliban guard the shuttered Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) where the group once practiced, while in some parts of the country the movement has ordered radio stations to stop playing music. “We never expected that Afghanistan will be returning to the stone age,” said ANIM’s founder Ahmad Sarmast, adding that the Zohra orchestra represented freedom and female empowerment in Afghanistan and its members served as “cultural diplomats”.

Negin Khpalwak was sitting at her home in Kabul when she got word that the Taliban had reached the outskirts of the capital. The 24-year old conductor, once the face of Afghanistan’s renowned all-female orchestra, immediately began to panic.

“I felt so awful, it felt like that whole memory of my life was turned into ashes,” said Khpalwak, who fled to the United States – one of tens of thousands who escaped abroad after the Taliban’s lightning conquest of Afghanistan. The story of the orchestra in the days following the Taliban’s victory, which Reuters has pieced together through interviews with members of Khpalwak’s music school, encapsulates the sense of shock felt by young Afghans like Khpalwak, particularly women.

“We never expected that Afghanistan will be returning to the stone age,” said ANIM’s founder Ahmad Sarmast, adding that the Zohra orchestra represented freedom and female empowerment in Afghanistan and its members served as “cultural diplomats”. Sarmast, who was speaking from Australia, told Reuters the Taliban had barred staff from entering the institute.

“The girls of Zohra orchestra, and other orchestras and ensembles of the school, are fearful about their life and they are in hiding,” he said. A Taliban spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about the status of the institute.

Khpalwak is too young to fully remember life under the Taliban’s previous rule, but arriving in the capital as a young girl to attend school sticks in her memory.

“All I saw was ruins, downed houses, holes in bullet-ridden walls. That’s what I remember. And that’s the image that comes to mind now when I hear the name of the Taliban,” she said.

In the music school she found solace, and among her Zohra orchestra bandmates “girls closer than family”.

“There wasn’t a single day that was a bad day there, because there was always music, it was full of colour and beautiful voices. But now there is silence. Nothing is happening there.”

Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.

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