Ahmad Naser Sarmast: "All those who have promoted culture in Afghanistan are now in danger"

3 min
Ahmad Naser Sarmast

BarcelonaMaybe here, in the West, his name doesn't ring a bell, but Ahmad Naser Sarmast - or Doctor Sarmast, as everyone knows him in Afghanistan - is a true eminence. The son of a well-known Afghan composer, he grew up listening to music and music has always been his life. In the 1990s he went into exile in Australia because of the war and could have stayed there peacefully, but in 2008 he returned to Afghanistan to revive music after the fall of the Taliban regime. Two years later he founded the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, from where he has worked miracles.

Many of the Institute's students are street children, but even so, many are members of the Afghan Youth Orchestra, which has performed on such prestigious stages as Carnegie Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington. In December 2014 Sarmast was injured in a Taliban suicide bombing. After the attack, the radicals released a statement accusing him of corrupting young Afghans by teaching them music. Far from cowering, Sarmast expanded the Institute's capacity. Now he is not ready to give up with the return of the extremists, even if he has to start from scratch.

What's the state of the Institute now?

— The Institute consists of seven buildings, but now we have no access to them because they are all under Taliban control and they won't let anyone in.

And what has happened to students?

— They are at home. We have a total of 350 students and 90 staff members, but I have instructed that no one is to return to the school for the time being for their safety until we know what the Taliban's position is.

Why? Are they in danger?

— Everyone who has promoted culture, human rights or women's rights is now in danger in Afghanistan. That is why thousands of people are trying to flee the country.

What do you think the Taliban's position will be? Will they allow music?

— Most likely not. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an interview a few days ago that music and movies will be allowed if it's in accordance with Islamic law. In other words, in a diplomatic way he said that there will be neither music nor cinema. This, however, is a statement of the spokesman and not the official position of the Taliban, so we will continue to wait to know the official position to know what will be the future of education and culture in the country.

What does the Islamic law say about music?

— To my knowledge there is no explicit reference to music in the Holy Koran, which is the guide for all Muslims. However, there are contradictions on how to interpret Islamic law. What is beyond doubt is that music is not forbidden in Islam.

Despite this, the Taliban banned it in the 1990s.

— Yes, completely. They even destroyed musical instruments and people who listened to music were punished. But not only that - they perpetrated a real cultural genocide. For example, they destroyed thousands of art pieces from the Afghanistan Museum.

Does music have a long tradition in Afghanistan?

— Of course, people have always listened to music and we have traditional music. And, in fact, people will continue to listen to music and download it from the internet even if it's on the sly. But the people of Afghanistan also have to be able to express themselves through music. That is, they need to be able to go to a concert, to learn music and to teach. That's why I ask the international community to protect music for the Afghan population.

And you think the international community can do this?

— It can hold the Taliban accountable for respecting musical rights.

Maybe that's too optimistic.

— I can't give up hope. Music brings people together, it's a common language for humanity. Any ban on cultural activities in Afghanistan will have terrible consequences. We can't allow that.