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Salvage Something From Afghan Disaster by Supporting Music Institute

Newsmax – “The Taliban has learned corruption very well,” Dr. Ahmad Sarmast told me in a meeting in his sparse office in Lisbon, Portugal, earlier this week.
Dr. Sarmast, who founded the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in 2010 and has led it since then, knows well of what he speaks.
ANIM’s premises in Kabul are now occupied by the militant Islamist organization, which has repurposed its main school facility as a barracks. Its financial assets in Afghanistan are inaccessible, with the Taliban making determined efforts to confiscate them.
Dr. Sarmast’s task has never been easy.
Afghanistan’s developing culture of musical education, in which he began his studies, was wiped out by the Taliban as soon as it came to power in the early 1990s.
With music outlawed in his country, Sarmast pursued further study briefly in Russia and then in Australia, where he became the first Afghan to receive a doctorate in musicology. In 2006, he returned to Afghanistan, where after two years of negotiations he was charged with creating a new system of musical education.
From its inception, ANIM was designed to blend Afghan and Western traditions of music, and, unusually, functioned as a co-educational institution. Its mandate also charged it with selecting half of its student body from Afghan’s teeming population of disadvantaged youth, including orphans and children from the street.
This bold work did not endear Sarmast to his old opponents, who continued to resist the new Afghan government and the U.S. forces backing it.
The Taliban regularly denounced ANIM as sinful and labeled Sarmast personally as a corrupter of Afghan youth. In 2014, he barely survived a suicide bombing, which caused him permanent hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Nevertheless, over the years ANIM survived and thrived. In 2013 its students performed concerts of Afghan music at New York’s Carnegie Hall and at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
Other international engagements and accolades poured down.
In 2018 ANIM won the Swedish Polar Music Prize, with a Global Pluralism Award following in 2019. A U.S. non-profit, the American Friends of ANIM, stepped up to provide continuing support.
By 2021, ANIM had a community of 273 faculty members and students.
The swift collapse of Afghanistan’s government before a resurgent Taliban in 2021 caught everyone by surprise.
While many Afghans had documents to escape before the U.S. finally abandoned Kabul airport on August 31, most of those who wanted or needed to flee had neither the authorization nor the time to escape.
Sadly, this included ANIM’s community, which was feared lost. With their facilities seized and chief activity banned by the Taliban, their only choice was to disperse.
Some of the students returned to the streets. Others went into hiding.
Many of those with Afghan passports lost them because the school had held them for administrative purposes just before it came under Taliban control.
Gradually, Dr. Samast, who was in Australia at the time, managed to keep the community in touch, while ANIM’s American Friends and foreigners with the right connections (myself included) brought the school’s plight to the attention of diplomats, government officials, civil society organizations, and private sector companies that were in a position to help.
Back in Afghanistan, a school custodian who remain employed by the Taliban smuggled the passports out of the building.
Officials of the Taliban-controlled passport office agreed, often with certain financial enticements, to provide travel documents to those who lacked them.
The government of Qatar offered to transport ANIM’s people to Doha, where they were allowed to remain before finding a permanent refuge. Between October 2 and November 16, 2021, five Qatari-sponsored flights flew all 273 faculty members and students out of Afghanistan.
Discussions with Portuguese diplomats and defense officials resulted in Portugal offering asylum to the entire community. On December 13, a charter flight sponsored by Spotify moved them all from Doha to Lisbon.
Once in Portugal, ANIM set up administrative offices and a student dormitory rent-free in a decommissioned military hospital in a residential part of the city with splendid views of the Tagus river. Portugal’s National Conservatory hosts its music courses.
Many of the students, who range in age from 12 to 22, are enrolled in Portuguese public schools for their general education.
Only about 10 students, in Dr. Sarmast’s estimation, have left for other countries, usually because they have close family members there.
ANIM’s work proceeds apace and has received much attention and recognition.
Last month, Dr. Sarmast received an honorary doctorate from Julliard and spoke at the World Justice Forum in The Hague. The famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma has visited and offered substantial support.
ANIM’s operations, however, remain precarious.
Portuguese bureaucracy poses a number of challenges that must be addressed in costly court proceedings.
Expenses for public performance, the school’s ultimate mission, will depend on private philanthropy and partnerships with international cultural institutions.
If anything can be salvaged from the unmitigated disaster that the “adults in the room” inflicted on Afghanistan and its people last year, saving its music students might be a good first step.


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