They are the first generation of Afghan women allowed to go to school and study music. In the summer of 2021, with the Taliban back in action, they were forced to leave their tools behind and flee. Portugal welcomed them and is now the home of the Zahra Women’s Orchestra and Afghanistan’s National Conservatory of Music in exile.
Marzia is 15 years old but still young when her father sent her from the village where they lived in Takhar Province in northeastern Afghanistan to an orphanage in Kabul to study. A common fact in a country where boys and girls attend separate schools and there are no girls’ schools in all provinces. In the orphanage, he was told about the music school, the only one in the country. At the age of nine, Marzia joined the National Institute of Music of Afghanistan (INMA).
“Before I went to the National Conservatory of Music in Afghanistan, I hated music because people in my village always said bad things about music. I was told that Muslims don’t play music. What is bad music for us?”, Marzia recalls, in an interview with C.E. It is Portugal. At INMA’s request, we use only your first name.
When Marzia told her father that she was studying music, he refused. One of the sisters even told her she was no longer part of the family. But Marzia did not give up, and at the age of eleven she became a member of the only Afghan women’s orchestra, the Zahra Orchestra.
Made up of 30 Afghan girls between the ages of 13 and 20, from different parts of Afghanistan, the Flower Orchestra has played on the world’s most prestigious theaters such as Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, and at events such as the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2017. A year later, they played in Portugal, at the Festival of Young Musicians, organized by Antena 2 in cooperation with the Gulbenkian Foundation.
Young women who play here dream of becoming percussionists, violinists and conductors. Zahra, named after this orchestra, is the goddess of Persian music and a symbol of change.
Sabira is 18 years old, and unlike Marzia, shyness gets in the way of talking. But when it comes to the flower orchestra, it doesn’t taint the words: “This means we can play music, we can be the voice of the women of Afghanistan.”
The scientist believes that women in Afghanistan only stay at home, do not study, and do nothing. But the flower orchestra shows a different Afghanistan. It shows that Afghan women are not what the world thinks. She can play music, she can change her country, ” Marzia adds. “I feel free with the flower orchestra”.
The return of the Taliban
Freedom disappeared with US forces in the summer of last year. “The other day we were at school recording some songs for a program, when our driver knocked on the door and said: ‘Two students in Kabul, you have to leave school now,’” recalls 17-year-old Sevinch from Faryab. She lives in an orphanage, and is also a member of the Al-Zahra Orchestra. We recorded it but I was so scared. I looked at my instrument and thought to myself, “What do I do with it?” If I took him with me it would be dangerous so I left him at school but I was very sad that I couldn’t bring him.”
The students of Afghanistan’s National Conservatory of Music have returned home, not knowing what to do from that day on. They hid their gadgets, put on the clothes the Taliban considered acceptable, and watched the days go by for two months.
“I felt like I didn’t live” Sevinch says. “I was afraid because I’m a musician, because I’m a girl… I spent my days at home, I didn’t leave the house.”
Until Ahmad Nasir Sarmast, founder and director of the National Conservatory of Music of Afghanistan, called to prepare to leave the country. There was more than one evacuation that galvanized the international effort, from House Speaker, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, to famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The first stop was Doha in Qatar, and the last destination Lisbon in Portugal which accepted to host the group of 273 people.
“When I told my dad I was going to Portugal, he told me for the first time that he was proud of me. I was in shock, he kissed me!” Marzia says with a smile on her face.
A country without music
Today, on the streets of Afghanistan, all you hear are taranas, religious songs that have long been present in Afghan culture but are used as propaganda by the Taliban. Playing in public is prohibited. From radio and television, not a single note.
Nothing new for Ahmad Nasir Sarmast, who witnessed the ban on music when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. They consider music a sin especially when it is played by women. They always say that music is forbidden [proibido pela lei islâmica] In Islam, I do not know where God says that in the Qur’an. I can’t really find that part because I actually know the Qur’an, I’ve read the Qur’an, and there’s nothing to say that,” says Marzia.
Ahmed Nasir Sarmast explains: “The Taliban’s interpretation is based on very limited knowledge and understanding of Islam. They are a group of ignorant people who have been brainwashed in refugee camps and schools by the Pakistani intelligence services.” Sevinch concludes, “They are afraid of girls because they know that if girls have power, they will be expelled.”
“Education and music, this is how we give back our country”, Sevinch confirms.
Today, the Taliban and their families occupy the eight buildings of Afghanistan’s National Conservatory of Music. Although they have not yet taken an official position regarding music education and music, the INMA director has no doubt that nothing has changed since the 1990s, they do not want to draw the attention of the international community to avoid sanctions.
“The happiest place in Afghanistan”
Zahra is one of several musical groups in this school where boys and girls study side by side. Murtaza is 18 years old, proudly speaking from his colleagues: “They brought many awards to Afghanistan and we are very proud of them, they are very talented girls.” Afghanistan’s National Conservatory of Music recognizes values that go beyond music: “We can practice together, we can read, we can play games, we can do anything without any discrimination.”
In “Afghanistan’s happiest place,” says Ahmad Nasir Sarmast, the school is known for its struggle for equality on several fronts: half of its enrollment is reserved for vulnerable children such as orphans, street-workers, and children. Girls of all ethnic and religious groups.
Portugal, the haven of Afghan music
In the corridors of the building provided by the Ministry of Defense and operated by the Red Cross in Lisbon, which temporarily serves as a home for these young adults and children, music can be heard from mobile phones and a small group playing guitar.
Murtaza expresses his feelings through the traditional Afghan rabab, which he managed to save. “If we had not come to Portugal, it would have been very difficult for us to play, continue our lessons, live in Afghanistan, survive… All these things would be impossible and unimaginable if we were in Afghanistan.”
His father and family supported him from the beginning with his music studies, and even more so now. “Now my family is very optimistic about my future and theirs. I am the hope of my family and I also want to be the hope of the entire Afghan people,” Murtaza says.
Sabera is happy with her safety but is still worried. “Everyone is in great danger in Afghanistan now. But my family in particular, because of my association with the National Conservatory of Music in Afghanistan.”
Ahmed Nasir Sarmast considers him to be more than a goal, it is his duty to bring the families of each of his students closer to them. The Qatari government was an important ally and Sarmast was confident that by the end of the summer the remaining group of 300 people would reach Portugal.
Fight through the music
They arrived in Portugal in December and the goals were set – the National Conservatory of Music of Afghanistan would rise again in Lisbon, as a center of excellence open to all.
Meanwhile, the fight continues. “One of the missions of the Afghan National Conservatory of Music in Exile will not only be to preserve Afghan music, but also to become the voice of the Afghan people,” says Ahmad Nasir Sarmast. “This time, the women of Afghanistan are leading the resistance against the Taliban.” “I have no doubt that Afghanistan will regain its freedom very soon.”
“I want to see my country free. I want to see all Afghan women study and work for themselves,” says Marzia.
Note: At the request of the National Conservatory of Music of Afghanistan, CNN Portugal only used the first name of the students interviewed in the report.