Afghanistan National Institute of Music

A year and a half ago I was caught up in a wild effort to spirit the Afghanistan National Institute of Music from Kabul. For days while HKIA (the airport) was protected by US Marines, and besieged by panicked mobs fearing exactly what happened and a ring of Talibs looking like the dog that caught the car, we worked. Busses full of students, force protection (former special forces guys engaged for the perilous extraction). Trying to identify which gate would open, trying to get word to the Marines on the fences through Central Command (who had a file open with manifests and all the data of our precious cargo). Calls to senior US military officials; calls to the White House. A cat and mouse game with the Taliban – how to get the academy through the perimeter.

We failed, which led to an idling 747 on a dirt runway south of Kabul and a failed attempt to get the academy down dirt roads during the chaotic first days as the Taliban consolidated their power.

We failed again. Months of diplomatic effort ensued. Calls to the Qatar Ambassador and to Doha. Calls to half a dozen embassies looking for travel documents or temporary passports to allow the students safe passage. Pressure on the Taliban to issue the last passports that we needed. Diplomatic efforts with Portugal to secure asylum. Finally, in December of 2021 – four months after the fall of Kabul – we were successful. Four airplanes from Doha. ANIM was the biggest single consolidated evacuation from Afghanistan. It was the last emergency flight out. And it was the biggest evacuation of a music group in history.

ANIM (as they are called) was under particular danger. They are what the Taliban hate most, fear most, in the world. Little adolescent girls with violins. Playing Beethoven or Mozart. Their school (which had been painstakingly built over 10 years with donor money, building by building, piece by piece) was seized by the Haqqani network for a security headquarters. Instruments were destroyed. A priceless collection of antique Afghan instruments lost, probably forever.

The young men and women of ANIM have been in Portugal for more than a year now. Learning Portuguese; going to school; learning how to be refugees; experiencing all the growing pains of adolescence – dreaming of home. And playing music.

Yesterday, for International Women’s Day, they released an orchestra version of a simple song that filtered out of Taliban controlled Afghanistan. Two women, shrouded in burkas, singing a song of rebellion against their captors. This is all the more sad, because most Afghans (it is a young country) had not lived under tyranny. They had lived under the security umbrella provided by a very willing United States and NATO. They were doing what we encouraged them to do, building a free society. “Go forth, build theaters, study Shakespeare, travel, connect, engage with the world – play music,” we told them. “We’ve got your back!!” But we were unfaithful, and Afghanistan has been returned to the most brutal tyranny, even worse than Cuba and North Korea.

But they are still fighting. And they are still playing music. Please share this video, make it go viral, show the world that there are girls inside Kabul who didn’t plan on living in tyranny and who dream of being able to play the violin, and there are kids who made it out who still want to go home, to their dry high mountains and the comforting aroma of kebab and burning wood and the haunting melodies of the Rubab drifting over the passes.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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