The Cable

Facing Down The Taliban, One Orchestra Performance at a Time

Dr. Ahmad Naser Sarmast braved suicide bombings and death threats to start a coed children’s orchestra in his war-torn country. Now it’s become a national symbol of Afghanistan.

afghanistan orchestra

When Dr. Ahmad Naser Sarmast first returned to Afghanistan in 2005 after some 15 years in asylum, he heard deafening silence.

Music, once a vibrant staple of Afghan culture, had been brutally stamped out under Taliban rule. And the new government and U.S.-led coalition that chased the Taliban out of power hadn’t brought it back. “It was my biggest surprise,” he told Foreign Policy in an interview at FP’s Culture Summit in Abu Dhabi. “After all these millions from the international community pouring into Afghanistan and its education, there was no plan whatsoever to promote music.”

So he hatched a plan.

That plan turned into the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. It’s a music school open to all Afghan children including orphans, disadvantaged children, and perhaps most controversially, girls. (It’s still one of the country’s only institutes to teach both boys and girls in the same classroom). In its seven years of existence, the Institute has become a national symbol of hope and success, an antidote to extremism and despair, and a potent weapon against the Taliban.

His ensembles and orchestras have performed around the world, including at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC and the glitzy World Economic Forum in Switzerland. And his ambition earned him the unofficial title of “the man who brought music back to Afghanistan.”

No one predicted the institute’s stunning success in the beginning. When Sarmast first began floating the idea to the Afghan government and its Western partners, he said no one saw music as a necessity. “The international community considered music a luxury for Afghanistan,” he said. “One senior diplomat told me, ‘you convinced me, Dr. Sarmast but I can’t convince my government.’” So he set out to prove them wrong.

Between 2005 and 2008, he stubbornly lobbied, wrangled diplomats, and cajoled the Afghan government into buying into his idea. And often, it was from thousands of miles away.

Sarmast is Afghan, but he spent much his adult life in Australia. The music professor and composer fled Afghanistan’s Taliban rule at its rise; the ultra-hardline Islamist group banned nearly all music when it took power. He gained asylum in Australia, where he stayed and built a life and family for 20 years.

During the Taliban’s rule, he became a sort of archivist, desperately collecting every crumb of Afghanistan’s musical heritage from afar as the Taliban erased it at home. “My job was to preserve Afghanistan’s oral tradition and musical phenomenon for the future,” he said. “If our music had been destroyed, there would be nothing to take its place.”

After a U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban regime, he set his sights on returning home and helping rebuild his war-wracked country, beginning semi-regular visits in 2005. He finally got the greenlight from the Afghan authorities to start in the institute in 2008 and after two years of fundraising, opened the institute in 2010. It wasn’t much at first.

“I began with one empty building. But I was building everything from scratch,” he said. With limited funds, he built a music library, recording studio, and 20 soundproof practice rooms to start. A German music association donated three crates of instruments to get him started. With the help of World Bank funding and foreign embassies, he began recruiting faculty from around the world to come teach a fresh batch of students both Western and Afghan music, many of whom never sat in a classroom before.

Sarmast is a reserved, soft-spoken man. But his eyes lit up when he talked about his students. “Can you imagine a child selling plastic bags on the streets of Kabul and now she’s the concept master of a female orchestra?” he said. At one point, he listed specific students and described in detail their initial reactions to picking up a flute or violin. “There’s no word I can describe to you the moment they touch the instruments for the first time,” he said. “It’s just beautiful.”

It’s hard to think of a more innocuous job than running a children’s orchestra. But in Afghanistan, Sarmast knew he was putting his life on the line. Conservative strains of Afghan society weren’t happy with Sarmast teaching Western music — let alone to girls.

One advisor to the Afghan education minister issued veiled threats to him. “He told me ‘some of his friends’ recommended I stay away from this and go back to Australia before I get hurt,” Sarmast said. He didn’t. And as the institute gradually gained success and national prestige, it became a higher profile target for extremists.

In December 2014, Sarmast was watching his students perform at a cultural center in Kabul from the front row. As the children performed, a blast suddenly tore through the audience. It was a Taliban suicide bomber.

One audience member died and 15 were wounded. Miraculously, all the children were unharmed. But Sarmast was sitting just several rows from the bomber. He took 11 pieces of shrapnel to the back of his head and lost nearly all his hearing. He flew to Australia to undergo surgery and spent several months recovering. Sarmast eventually gained back most of his hearing.

By then, his institute had proven itself to the skeptical Afghan government and foreign diplomats. Disadvantaged children became successful musicians, a civil society was building up around the institute’s success, and Sarmast was stubbornly normalizing gender equality and girls education with his coed classrooms and an all-girl orchestra.

“Clearly every day we’d been showing everyone what this meant,” he said. “We cannot bring peace and stability to Afghanistan without investing in music.”

Perhaps their most powerful show of force came from faculty and students the day after the suicide bombing: They returned to school. “That was the most beautiful way to show to the Taliban our face,” he said. “We did not keep silent. We made our stand to the Taliban very clearly. We issued a statement.”

The statement isn’t just to his country. “We are showing the world a different side of Afghanistan. It is not all about war and destruction,” he said. “Hope is alive, optimism is alive, and Afghanistan is breathing.”

Photo credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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