Out of the Ashes    

After the Taliban Comes the Artistic Healing

After five years of countrywide silence, Farhad Darya's hit single Beloved Kabul was broadcast on Radio Afghanistan on Nov. 13.

November 27, 2001 - Groggy and not quite awake, Farhad Darya logged onto the Internet at his Sterling, VA., home on the morning of Nov. 13 to receive one of the sweetest surprises in his eventful life.

Kabul, his home city and the subject of so many of his songs, had fallen from Taliban control and jubilant Afghans were dancing in the streets of the capital city to his hit single, Beloved Kabul, blasting on Radio Afghanistan.

The 39-year-old Afghan pop star's inbox was clogged with hundreds of e-mails from his fans across the world: congratulations and expressions of gratitude from Afghans living in the United States, Europe, Pakistan, India and Australia.

"Music is the strongest weapon we have," says Darya, a multi-traditional, multi-linguistic musician who fled Afghanistan in 1990 for the refugee camps of Pakistan before making his way to Germany and finally the United States. "It moves in a minute and everyone can follow it. And everyone knows the power of music -- even the Taliban."

Conquerors throughout history have been known to wreak havoc on their newly acquired kingdoms. Libraries have been burned, palaces looted, temples razed and artists and writers silenced through the ages.

The depth and scope of the Taliban's cultural offensive wrought by its Ministry of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice was enormous.

During the five years the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan, music was banned, ancient palaces and fortresses plundered, museums -- such as the world-renowned Kabul Museum -- looted. And in a move condemned around the world, two magnificent 5th century Buddha statues, one of the ancient world's most prized artifacts, were blasted off the face of the earth.

Growing Sense of Hope
But as the victorious Northern Alliance troops marched through the streets of Kabul on Nov. 13, Afghan artists and writers around the world heaved a sigh of relief and mentally joined in the exultations of their fellow countrymen on the streets of the capital.
Three weeks after the fall of Kabul, the situation in Afghanistan is far from settled, and though Afghans know this could well be the start of yet another anarchic chapter in their country's troubled history, they find it impossible to stifle their optimism.

"I'm utterly thrilled that Kabul has been liberated," says Shekhaiba Wakili, an Afghan-American artist whose work has focused on women in the Muslim world. "It means that people can start to taste freedom again and they can start expressing themselves again."

Reeling from the Taliban's draconian crackdowns and the devastation wrought by years of civil war following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the onus of Afghan artistic expression has fallen on the shoulders of Afghans in self-imposed exile across the world.

In recording studios in Richmond, Va., San Francisco, Paris and Frankfurt, Afghan musicians have produced a heady mix of Afghan music from Dari pop to traditional folk songs to lyrical ghazals and raucous qawwalis.
Against All Odds

Community art shows across Europe and the United States have showcased the work of Afghan artists in exile and the literary field has seen the rise of new, characteristically Afghan genres of refugee writings and memoirs.

But even among the group of hardy Afghan exiled writers and artists, the past few years have been emotionally and artistically draining.
"A lot of the stories, folk tales and lores at family gatherings just stopped after the Taliban came in," says Zohra Sayed, an Afghan-American poet and writer who is currently co-editing an anthology of Afghan writing through the decades. "Afghans in exile were just not seeing a future, everyone was so sad about the situation there that it was very bleak even for people to talk about their memories."

After the fall of Kabul, Saed confesses to succumbing to a new sense of creative urgency. "These days I want to write more, I'm listening to a lot more stories and I have to write them down."

Creative blocks aside, Afghan art in exile has put up with an astonishing amount of financial burdens. "I once contacted the editor of a youth magazine in a Pakistani refugee camp for submissions of refugee writings," says Saed. "But the situation there is so desperate, he wanted money for paper, for postage stamps, for envelopes. People do not want to send you their work because if their piece is rejected, it's all that precious money wasted."

Contemporary Afghan literature today is written proof that art indeed mirrors life. Over the past three decades, anthologists have noticed a perceptible shift from rich Afghan oral traditions of phantasmagoric stories to what Saed calls "memoirs of migrancy and loss."

Ghosts of Bamiyan
For most Afghan artists, the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan continues to haunt their work more than eight months after they were destroyed. Cartoonists display ink sketches of finely etched statues blasted to bits, painters mark serrated collision lines across photographs of the Buddhas and watercolorists have attempted to recapture the engravings carved around the caves.

"They had no right, no right," sputters Ahmanoolah Haiderzad, an acclaimed Afghan sculptor now based in New York, who created a specially sculpted coin. One side bears an image of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the other, the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
"Both were destroyed by the same terrorists, terrorists against civilization," he says. "For the destruction of both, I cried."

Weeks after the fall of Kabul, the Swiss-based Afghanistan Institute and Museum announced that it was looking to launch an ambitious program to reconstruct the Buddha statues using the latest technology.

And yet through the heartbreaks and havoc of the past few years, many Afghan artists in self-imposed exile say they intend to go back to their homeland -- before muttering a fervent inshallah (God willing).

"I need to go back," says Darya, choosing to ignore his harrowing days in Kabul, struggling to maintain artistic integrity despite the propagandist onslaught under the Soviet occupation. "But I have to be 100 percent sure I can be active as a free Afghan and as a free musician. The minute I'm sure of the situation there, I will go because my country needs music. Music is the one-shared element in our lives. It binds us all, people of different ethnic groups, speaking different languages. We need unity now. And if I can help reconstruct my country, I will do it."




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