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Opinion: The Taliban is cracking down on music, and joy

In 2022, a man in Kabul covered his face to protect his identity, as he showed his harmonium musical instrument. The Taliban have begun to burn these instruments, and others.
Hussein Malla
In 2022, a man in Kabul covered his face to protect his identity, as he showed his harmonium musical instrument. The Taliban have begun to burn these instruments, and others.

The Taliban, who shot their way to power in Afghanistan two years ago, have thrown women out of their jobs, banished them from sports, and banned girls above the age of twelve from going to school.

They have also banned video games, foreign films, and music as "idolatrous."

And now, they have begun to burn musical instruments.

A guitar, a harmonium, a drum, amps, and speakers were recently set afire in the province of Herat, and posted online. The BBC quotes an official at the Taliban's Vice and Virtue Ministry as saying music "causes moral corruption."

There have been more bonfires of musical instruments reported.

"Music is denounced as unlawful and un-Islamic," Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, told us. "Musicians are treated as criminals."

Dr. Sarmast emailed us from exile in Portugal.

Musical instruments are not human lives. But they are objects that give voice to life.

Florence Schwartz, a violinist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, told us the burning of musical instruments pierces her personally.

"It would be like silencing my voice, and a part of myself," she told us.

Yuan-Qing Yu, assistant concertmaster at the symphony, said, "To destroy an instrument is more than the physical thing. It destroys the possibility, hope, and joy that comes with that instrument."

Possibility, hope, and joy might all seem especially vital in Afghanistan right now.

Dr. Sarmast reminded us that those instruments were also the way the musicians supported themselves and cared for their families.

"Destroying those instruments also means taking someone's bread away," he pointed out.

"Our instruments are an extension of our beings," Marin Alsop, chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, told us. "Destroying them is an attempt to destroy their souls."

There is another loss: millions of Afghans may now be forced to live without the comfort, diversion, inspiration, and delight of music. No music to be heard, and danced to, at weddings; no music to enchant children; or console those who suffer loss, or may be lonely. No music for those who want to feel something inside them soar.

But Dr. Ahmad Sarmast also remembers how musicians under the first Taliban regime continued to play music quietly, in secret, in basements, storerooms, and caves.

"They will do it again," he predicted. "They will not let the music die."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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