In the morning, the news from Afghanistan was grim. That afternoon, it was worse. The next day, the situation had further deteriorated. Three major cities in Afghanistan had fallen to the Taliban. Or perhaps not yet but soon. The distinction didn’t mean much. It was only a matter of time.
An article in the magazine The Economist described the fearful scene in Kandahar, the country’s second largest city. A retired teacher said he was scrambling to hide his book collection. He was afraid of what might happen if the Taliban came to his home and found them. “If they do not like my books or what I’ve been keeping in my house, they could take my life in a moment.” The Economist reporter spoke to Sahar, a woman doctor in her late 20s. As a girl, she was able to get an education in post-Taliban Afghanistan, something that would not have been allowed under their rule. As the fighting drew closer to Kandahar, she stopped going to work, staying home to stay safe. Once, when she ventured out to visit some colleagues, she borrowed her mother’s burqa.
“I feel very little and worthless in it,” Sahar is quoted saying. “It has been really hard for me to accept what others choose for me to wear. But we have little choice other than to obey whoever rules us.” My own experience in Afghanistan was limited to a few weeks in late 2001 in the north at a town controlled by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. At the time, each side was entrenched behind lines with a wide valley between them. They would fire artillery at one another, almost randomly, not hitting much of anything other than a barren hillside. That would change after I had left when the fighting began that would end in the Taliban being ousted.
I had gone there from Pakistan where I had visited a sprawling Afghan refugee camp outside Peshawar near the fabled Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. The refugees, tens of thousands of them, had fled the Taliban and been there for years.
While we were there, we came to a school behind a tall metal wall. The school day had just ended and the students -- all young girls -- were spilling out, giggling and joyful. Our host, an Afghan woman, said the classes were held behind that high wall to prevent it from being seen by someone sympathetic to the Taliban. She said Taliban were infiltrated among the refugees and might react violently to a school for girls.
Just a week ago, I spoke to my friend, Elham Fanous. Elham is a 24-year-old Afghan living in New York. where he is trying to build a career as a classical pianist. Elham was following the news from his homeland feeling, as he put it, “hopeless and helpless."
“It’s extremely heartbreaking actually,” Elham said. “I really feel for my country, for my people and for everyone that I know there.”
At least his mother and younger brother are safe. They live in India, where they moved three years to escape the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. But Elham’s father, a professional singer, had continued to shuttle between India and Afghanistan where he performed traditional Afghan songs.
When I checked back with Elham a few days ago, he was alarmed. His father is currently in Afghanistan.
“We are trying and hoping for him to get out of there somehow,” he texted to me. Elham was 4 years old when the Taliban were ousted by the American military and Afghan allies following 9/11. In the Afghanistan he knew, there was music. Girls and women could go to school. When he was just 5, Elham picked up a tabla, an Indian drum his father had, and tried to play it. At 11, his dad encouraged him to learn an instrument. One day, he watched a YouTube video of Vladimir Horowitz playing a Chopin piece. He was mesmerized.
“This is what I want to learn, what I want to play,” he recalls thinking.
The first time he saw an actual piano, he was dazzled.
“This is so beautiful, so prestigious,” he remembers. Pianos are rare in Afghanistan. There are only a few dozen in the entire country. Elham’s dad bought him a keyboard and for a couple of years, he played around on it, learning the C scale by himself and plucking out traditional Afghan songs he knew. He took no lessons.
He was finally able to begin piano lessons during the day at the Afghan International Institute of Music. He would return in the evenings and practice for hours.
One day, in December 2014, he was supposed to join some classmates and the institute’s founder at a concert at the French Cultural Center.
Elham arrived 10 minutes late to a scene of chaos. A suspected Taliban suicide bomber had struck minutes earlier, killing one person and severely wounding the institute’s founder.
After that attack, the music institute was closed out of security concerns. Elham had nowhere to practice. So he went to the luxurious Serena Hotel to practice on a piano he knew was there that was rarely used. He sat down and started playing a Chopin nocturne. “I just wanted to go out and play, especially after that attack, to show the power of music and the power of young generation from Afghanistan to show we won’t be silenced,” he told me. Hearing the music, security guards came to investigate. Finding Elham at the baby grand, they let him play. A representative of the Aga Khan Foundation happened to be passing by and heard him. They talked. That chance encounter led to an invitation for Elham to perform a private concert for some of the foreign diplomats in Kabul. A year later, Elham was in New York, studying music at Hunter College, which is where we met. I was assigned to do a feature story about him for ABC News. The story never ran, but we stayed in touch. I attended Elham’s graduation concert in 2019. He played beautifully, but what I remember most vividly was his shy, happy smile when he took a bow as the audience stood applauding.
Elham went on to advanced studies at the Manhattan School of Music where he earned a master's degree this past May. He’s now teaching and planning to record an album of Western classical music and Afghan traditional music.“There has never been a pianist from Afghanistan who has recorded an album,” he said.
When I interviewed him for the ABC story, he said he aspired to return to his native land to perform and start a music school.Elham is under no illusions about what a Taliban regime will mean.
“Their answers are cruel,” he said. “They will kill people.”
If the Taliban win, music will be silenced, and Elham’s dream of playing his beloved Chopin in his country for his people will assuredly be denied.
“History has shown us how much they hate music,” he said. “I’m still planning on doing it, but unfortunately it seems like it won’t be possible anytime soon, or maybe not during my lifetime, especially if the Taliban take over, but I am still hopeful." I asked Elham what music means to him, what it does for him.
“When I listen to music, it transforms me to a different world where there’s peace, where there’s connectivity, union, unity,” he said. When I’m listening to a Chopin nocturne, it just gives me chills and I just love that feeling because it makes you feel human and it gives you satisfaction that you cannot really find anywhere else. For me, it’s a way to express myself and even to myself.” If, or more likely when the Taliban retake control, that will be the end of many things, very likely including all music, but certainly Western music.I saw a poll that said 75% of Americans want the U.S. to leave Afghanistan. I can understand the sentiment after a 20-year occupation during which there were 2,300 U.S. military casualties and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians killed with little to show for it.
There are those who point to Afghanistan’s long history of outlasting foreign occupiers and say America was arrogant and foolish — or worse — to think its tenure would end any differently. Some say the U.S. was doomed to fail by not building a viable Afghan military. When the Taliban offensive began, many units surrendered or melted away. There are those who argue that the U.S. had and has no geo-political interest in Afghanistan in any case and should stop trying to play cop to other countries, even those that oppress and murder their own people. The arguments — pro and con — at least as they apply to Afghanistan will be moot very soon, if not already. On Sunday, August 15, the Taliban entered Kabul. We know what’s coming. But we cannot turn away and pretend not to see.