I’ve been unable to read fiction for the past week, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – I just can’t concentrate, or it seems flippant and irrelevant. I have to follow events in the conflict for my work, so turning away isn’t an option. It also feels like we need to bear witness to what is happening, and it feels increasingly that security across the whole world is under threat as a result of Putin’s barbaric recklessness.
On a personal level spending time reading and researching the culture of another country ripped apart by war – over decades – feels more and more like unpalatable misery tourism, but I’ve done a fair amount of research into Afghan musical culture over the past weeks, and it seems irrational not to write it up.
We know that the Taliban is anti-music; it doesn’t fit in with its religious ideology. However, a musical scene in Afghanistan has existed over the years, pre- and post- the first Taliban regime, and has no doubt simply now been forced underground. I listened to an interview on BBC’s Radio 3, Music under Restriction, with Aryana Sayeed, the country’s biggest pop singer, who is now recording in exile in Turkey. She claims that even Talibs listen to her music in their personal lives, albeit clandestinely. Her most streamed track on Spotify is Bache Kabul, which has a distinctly Afghan feel, even while her look is very Western-influenced:
Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music (ANIM) has received a lot of press interest recently, due to its ground-breaking work, and the tragedy of that work being unceremoniously halted last year. It was founded in 2010 by Ahmad Sarmast to create opportunities for young people, especially girls, to play and compose music. His work was – perhaps unsurprisingly -controversial in Afghanistan even before the latest Taliban takeover, and he was seriously injured in a suicide attack in 2014. Members of the ANIM have sought asylum abroad since the return of the Taliban, and its work is currently suspended, although Sarmast hopes that one day it can resume.
A singer mentioned in passing in both of the books that I’ve read recently by Afghan writers is former Prime Minister’s son Ahmad Zahir, the ‘Afghan Elvis’, who remains popular more than 40 years after his death in 1979 – some suspect that the fatal car crash that ended his life on his 33rd birthday was no accident. His most streamed song on Spotify is this, Baz Amadi Aye Jane Man: