Over 100 Afghans from a music school flew out of the country | Entertainment News

By ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) – More than 100 students, alumni and faculty members of the National Institute of Music of Afghanistan have left Kabul for Portugal, where the government has agreed to grant them asylum, said Monday the director of the institute.

They were on board a flight carrying 235 people from Kabul International Airport to Qatar on Sunday. It was the largest airlift of Afghan nationals since Taliban fighters seized Afghanistan in mid-August, two weeks before the United States and NATO withdrew forces from the country after a 20-year military presence.

“You can’t imagine how happy I am. Yesterday I cried for hours,” school founder and principal Ahmad Sarmast said from his home in Melbourne, Australia.

The musicians join tens of thousands of Afghans, many from the country’s sports and arts scene, who have fled since August. Among those recently evacuated are the women’s robotics team from Afghanistan, known as the “Afghan Dreamers”, and a women’s soccer team which relocated to Mexico and Portugal respectively.

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The last time the Taliban ruled the country, in the late 1990s, they outright banned music. So far, the new Taliban government has not taken this step officially. But musicians fear a formal ban. Some Taliban fighters have started enforcing the rules on their own, harassing musicians and concert halls.

Afghanistan has a strong musical tradition, influenced by Iranian and Indian classical music, and a thriving pop music scene has flourished over the past 20 years.

The National Institute of Music of Afghanistan, founded by Sarmast in 2010, was once famous for its inclusiveness and has become the face of a new Afghanistan, performing to packed audiences in the United States and Europe.

Now its classrooms are empty, its campus guarded by fighters from the Haqqani network, a Taliban ally considered a terrorist group by the United States. Teachers and 350 students have not returned to school since the Taliban took over.

About 50 students were on the flight Sunday, including most members of the all-female Zohra Orchestra, in addition to former students, teachers and parents. The 101 group represents about a third of the ANIM community.

Sarmast is now considering recreating the school in Portugal, so that students can continue their education with minimal disruption, and is already looking for ways to get them musical instruments as soon as possible. He hopes the remaining students and faculty will depart on another flight later this month.

“We want to preserve Afghanistan’s musical tradition outside of Afghanistan, so that we can be sure that one day, when conditions are better in the country, hundreds of professional musicians will be ready to come back and rekindle music,” he said.

“The mission is not over, it has just begun.”

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