Ahmad Sarmast left his home in Melbourne, Australia, to help bring back music in his home country, Afghanistan. He started a school there that was different than most; it admitted children without parents and young people who had no homes. His school aimed to bring a little joy back to Kabul after the Taliban had banned music.
Last week, Sarmast watched from his home in Australia as the Taliban marched into the Afghan capital. Their quick rise to power shocked him and the world.
Now, Sarmast is wondering what will happen next.
His two mobile phones have not stopped ringing since the takeover. Many of the calls are from worried students asking him what happens next. Will the school be closed? Will the Taliban ban music again? Are their prized musical instruments safe?
"I'm heartbroken," Sarmast told The Associated Press. "It was so unexpected and so unpredictable that it was like an explosion, and everyone was caught by surprise," he said of the Taliban takeover.
Sarmast left Kabul on July 12 for his summer holiday. He could not have imagined that just a few weeks later everything he had worked for in the past 20 years would be in danger. He worries about his 350 students and the 90 teachers at the school. Many of them have already gone into hiding. Reports of Taliban fighters searching for enemies door-to-door have increased their fears.
"We are all very, very fearful about the future of music, we are very fearful about our girls, about our faculty," Sarmast said. He asked reporters not to publish more information, in order to protect the students and school.
In a sign of what the future holds, radio and TV stations stopped broadcasting music, except for Islamic songs. It was not clear if the change was a result of Taliban orders or an effort by the stations to avoid problems with the Taliban.
Sarmast is 58 years old. He is the son of a famous Afghan composer. He sought asylum in Australia in the 1990s, during a time of civil war in Afghanistan. After earning a doctoral degree in musicology, he returned to Afghanistan. In 2010, he founded the Afghanistan National Institute of Music.
Foreign governments and private sponsors soon gave money to support the school. The World Bank gave the school 2 million U.S. dollars. Truckloads of musical equipment — violins, pianos, guitars and oboes — were sent from the German government and the German Society of Music Merchants. Students learned to play traditional Afghan string instruments like the rubab, sitar and sarod.
Elham Fanous, 24, was the first student to graduate from the music institute in 2014. After spending seven years at the school, he said, "It was such an amazing school, everything was perfect. It changed my life and I really owe it to them. A visitor once called it "Afghanistan's happy place."
"I cannot believe this is happening," Fanous added, speaking from New York. He recently received his master's degree in piano from the Manhattan School of Music. He was also the first student from Afghanistan to be admitted to a U.S. university music program.
The institute's musicians traveled all over the world to represent the peaceful side of their country. Fanous himself performed at events in Poland, Italy and Germany.
In 2013, the institute's youth orchestra began its first U.S. tour. Members of the orchestra included a girl who not long ago had sold chewing gum on the streets of Kabul to earn a living. In 2015, the school formed an all-female orchestra called Zohra. The group was named after a goddess of music in Persian culture.
Injured in bombing
In 2014, Sarmast was attending a concert at a French-run high school in Kabul when a bomb exploded. He lost some of his hearing in one ear and has had numerous operations to remove pieces of metal from his head. The Taliban took responsibility for the suicide attack and accused him in a statement of corrupting Afghanistan's youth.
That only increased Sarmast’s wish to continue his work. He kept traveling between the school in Kabul and Australia, where his family lives.
Sarmast said his students all had big dreams to play around the world. "All my students had been dreaming of a peaceful Afghanistan. But that peaceful Afghanistan is fading away."
Still, Sarmast is hopeful. He believes young Afghans will resist. And he wants the international artistic community to fight for the Afghans' right to music.
"I'm still hopeful that my kids will be allowed to go back to the school and continue to enjoy learning and playing music," he said.
I’m Jill Robbins.
Zeina Karam reported on this story for the Associated Press. Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
Words in This Story
faculty – n. teachers or staff of a school
amazing – adj. causing great surprise or wonder
composer – n. a person who writes music
merchant – n. someone who buys and sells goods especially in large amounts
orchestra – n. a group of musicians who play usually classical music together and who are led by a conductor
tour – n. a series of related performances, appearances, competitions or the like that occur at different places over a period of time
chewing gum -n. a type of soft candy that you chew on but do not swallow
fade – v. to disappear gradually
kids – n. children
allow – v. to permit (something)
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