Ad Code

Responsive Advertisement

Failed refugees, musicians left to starve in Afghanistan

Now living in London, an Afghan musician expresses his relief as he observes the ongoing welcome and the new processing protocols for Ukrainian refugees in the UK and elsewhere. As in many countries across Europe, refugees from bombarded areas of Ukraine are being offered safe housing, often in ordinary people’s homes, in British towns and cities. But the response, officially on the part of government and unofficially in the wider population, has not been manifested in equal facilitation for refugees from other parts of the world who came knocking on the former empire’s doors.

When the US and the UK announced the withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan last summer, the speed of their disentanglement took the world by surprise. In a matter of a few weeks, thousands of Afghans found themselves in the unenviable position of their country reverting to a military type of rule in which they had no guarantees of safety or work, or even life.

We have heard in the news about security personnel, translators and other local contractors who are yet to secure safe passage out of a country whose borders have been all but sealed. We have also heard about the airlifting of thousands of people, and hundreds of dogs. Despite major successes in an evacuation mission that was working against time, criticism was directed to the UK prime minister’s office for allegedly intervening in certain humanitarian rescue efforts.

But what we have not heard about are the many more hundreds of vulnerable people whose exit was not secured despite concerted efforts by some organizations and many individuals in the UK and Europe who were trying to help. One such group that has been largely ignored by the media are Afghan artists, especially musicians. Seemingly peripheral to the general social problems typically given media focus, musicians are not a negligible minority in the population. Afghanistan is home to several ethnic groups whose diverse cultures make for a proliferation of musical styles and repertoires, and a correspondingly large number of people who practice these musical cultures and preserve them.

Intolerance for all instrumental music and melodic song for nonreligious purposes remains the group’s modus operandi

Tala Jarjour

In Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, music is not tolerated in any shape or form that allows it to take on the name “music.” Readers may remember photos from the 1990s of knotted heaps of magnetic tape pulled out of cassettes and hung on rows of trees along Afghan roads. Such displays, which came to symbolize the Taliban’s antagonistic stance toward music, included broken instruments. Intolerance for all instrumental music and melodic song for nonreligious purposes remains the modus operandi in the Taliban’s view of a righteous society. Musicians caught practicing their profession have been reporting intimidation, violence and, in some cases, brutal beatings. But their biggest concern is the loss of their livelihood.

Since the Taliban reassumed power, hundreds, even thousands, of musicians and music teachers are no longer able to work. This is resulting in similarly high numbers of families being left without income or the ability to earn a living. The current Afghan economy is not such that it might allow for the absorption of former musicians into the workforce, especially given their set of skills and the general lack of work opportunities. The reality of the situation is producing states of extreme poverty and suffering for the former musicians and their dependents. Many, especially young children, have been suffering from starvation and the adverse health effects of cold weather.

Two decades of relative cultural freedom in the country revived a generation of tradition-bearers and young professionals who had hopes of a future in all kinds of music in Afghanistan. These included popular music, song and different varieties of instrumental and orchestral ensembles. The early 2000s had brought the opening of new music schools and the reemergence of professional musical training after decades of stagnation.

Being able to practice music publicly opened up possibilities and gave Afghan musicians hope of a future where growth, opportunity and creative productivity seemed conceivable. Suddenly, however, doing their job has become too dangerous in times when the most meager of incomes is necessary to survive. Like many in the vulnerable strata of a beleaguered society, Afghan musicians and their families are, quite literally, left out in the cold.

• Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo.” She is visiting research fellow at King’s College London and associate fellow at Yale College. 

Post a Comment


Close Menu