September 10, 2023
By Arshad Mohmand
For the first time in nearly two years, Zahid Jan is able to actually enjoy playing his tabla and sitt with other Afghan musicians in the relative safety of Peshawar.
Jan was a student at the National Music Academy in Afghanistan.
But with the fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021, he was forced to migrate to Pakistan where he eventually found work at a hairdresser’s for a daily wage of a meagre 500 Rupees.
“Everything went wrong when the Taliban came. They banned music, and we lost our jobs,” he says, adding that that their journey to Pakistan was out of desperation rather than choice. “But there is not enough work here to make a decent living.”
When he went back to the academy for the first time since the Taliban assumed control of his country, he was barred from entering.
Inside the building, he could see his institute’s musical instruments broken and strewn about. He remembers going back home with a heavy heart.
“The Taliban told me that they had closed down the school, and only naats would be recited there… I went back home sobbing.”
Jan spent the next six months in abject fear, hiding in his own home. With all their money running out and the crushing economic crisis in Afghanistan, he and other artists like him decided they would make their way to Pakistan in the hope of a better life.
According to Rashid Khan, a musicologist and founder of Hunri Tolna, a representative organization of artists from Pakistan and Afghanistan based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, over 800 artists have migrated from Afghanistan to Pakistan, since the fall of Kabul. Many of these new migrants have found residence in not just areas of Khybsr Pukhtunkhwa, but also in Balochistan and Sindh.
Khan says that these artists were forced to cross the border areas due to the Taliban banning music, as well as out off fear of reprisal.
“If anyone is caught with an instrument or are found performing at a music program, they are subjected to torture,” he explains why Afghan artists had to flee their country. “We received multiple videos where [the Taliban] shaved [musicians’] hair off, where they were paraded on donkeys, their clothes torn off, faces smeared with black ink. We also received videos of instruments being destroyed.”
Some of these migrant Afghan artists stake out on street corners late into the night, hoping to get hired to perform at music programs and functions. Hardly anyone gets such an opportunity – and if they do, it is a one-time gig once every one or two weeks.
“When the Taliban came, artists were all in deep trouble,” says Hameed Shedai. When asked why, he explains that the Taliban have zero tolerance for music. “They say its not right, that its haram. We begged them to let us work, we were doing nothing that was haram. Our performances did not hurt anyone, what bad could we have possible been spreading?”
Bedar Bacha prefers to sing songs of his separation from his homeland.
He left his family in Afghanistan, seeking to make a living in Pakistan. Although he refrains from speaking openly, he makes mention of scrounging up whatever he can to send back to his family, who seem to be only barely making by.
“Music has been completely banned in Afghanistan. It appears to be some divine mandate that music cannot be played any more in Afghanistan, so there is nothing we can do about it,” he says. “We struggled there, and we face struggles here as well.”
Afghanistan is the only country in the world to impose an outright ban on music, according to experts. Khan says that when the Taliban first imposed this ban, there was a mass exodus of artists which put Afghanistan’s music at risk of extinction.
“If this goes on for another 20 or so years, Afghanistan’s various musical traditions will be completely wiped out,” he posits. “The Taliban are scared of music because they operate on spreading terror and fear, while music spreads love and peace. Where music rings out, there is peace and they do not want that.”
Because of the ban, newer generations of artists like Jan as well as experienced masters like Bacha are trapped in a struggle for survival. They call on the international community to do what it can to keep Afghanistan’s rich musical tradition from being snuffed out.