When Ahmad Sarmast, Founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), first returned from exile in Australia, he was told that setting up a school to teach music was low on the priorities of international donors and national funding committees. Sarmast learned music in Russian conservatories; it was there that he also learned that music in Afghanistan had been banned. What ensued he calls tantamount to cultural genocide. Music, and the figurative voice of the Afghan people, was silenced for 10 years.
Why? In this instance, the Taliban seem to have recognized something that national funding committees and international donors did not immediately fathom: Music has a power to bring people together and to cross cultural boundaries.
In Sarmast’s school, boys and girls study together. Sarmast targets the participation of disadvantaged students. As much as 50% of his students arrive from orphanages. Alongside a music curriculum, they gain a broader education and provide the wider community with an example of gender equality. In December 2014, the orchestra was performing a piece entitled “The Heartbeat after the Bombing” when a suicide bomber detonated himself in the hall. When Sarmast opened his eyes, everything around him was black and he could hear nothing. Being alive was an accident, a slight of chance. It took him a few months to almost fully regain his hearing. But he did not give up and neither did his orchestra. “We are not ready to give up. That would mean opening the way to the return of the Taliban … We are there to change Afghanistan,” emphasized Sarmast.
Music has therapeutic potential for a population still living with the trauma of war and ethnic conflict. The friendship of students Zarifa and Negin straddles the divide of the Hazara and Pashtun ethnic communities to which they belong. They explained that they became friends despite their ethnic differences largely due to their experiences of learning music in the orchestra. In an orchestra, the musician learns to listen. In fact, it is one of the most important things about an orchestra. Playing together creates solidarity between musicians; it builds intercultural dialogue and invariably, in the perception of the students, the orchestra comes to represent the harmony of Afghan society. Zarifa explains: “Before being Hazara we are Afghan, before being Afghan we are Muslim and before being Muslim we are human.”
While both director and his pupils exhibit exceptional bravery in the face of undoubtable risk, they are only as powerful as the community that has supported their vision for a better Afghanistan and a more gender-equal society. Negin’s father, as a Pashtun Afghan man, has braved the displeasure of his family and supported Negin’s drive to education. Negin’s cousins are not educated and, before the age of 20, they already have between 2 and 3 kids. But Negin’s parents sent her to an orphanage in Kabul so she could have a wider horizon and more opportunities. This is where she heard about and subsequently joined Sarmast’s school.
Give a girl an education and she will surprise you. Zarifa came knocking at the door of the school because she wanted to be a pop star. She was looking for a voice coach. Today, on the verge of 20, she dreams big. She is hoping to attend an Ivy League school to study law and music. One day, she dreams of reforming the Afghan system of managing the copyright of music – enabling fellow musicians to make a living out of their craft.
Cases like the Afghan Orchestra remind us that music – and perhaps, more broadly, the arts – in education cannot be a luxury. The arts and humanities have the power to heal and teach on a level beyond the rational. In today’s polarized times, this is what we need.