Turning the Tide
Music and the arts give a new message of hope to the people of Afghanistan and could become a harbinger of change in the coming times.
Throughout history, dictatorial regimes have sought much more than just to rule people. They desire control over every aspect of life, seek to disseminate only those opinions that align with their ideology and crush all dissent. To this end, freedom of expression is amongst the first things to be curbed in any country by totalitarian regimes. Accordingly, art, which in all its various forms, is a vehicle for self-expression, is also controlled, altered, destroyed and even banished.
Not surprisingly then, when the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan after years of civil war, music was altogether banned. There was no place for such outlandish notions in a country torn apart by violence and in the firm grip of religious extremists. Artistic endeavors took a backseat in the face of a daily battle for survival.
It took another war to depose the Taliban’s terrifyingly draconian government and a few more years after that to bring some semblance of normalcy to Afghanistan. Music began to re-emerge in the country in both traditional and modern forms, thanks to young artistes who sought to establish unique identities which had nothing to do with war or religion. They did this at great personal risk amid criticism and, at times, under threats to their lives.
Things were not always so in Afghanistan. Before the Soviet invasion and its subsequent disastrous results, music was alive and well in the country. Its classical form had produced many renowned artists who had developed a certain style that was an amalgam of various influences from neighboring cultures. Pop music played on the radio and was also performed live.
But in the post-Taliban world, the cultural shift was so drastic that young artistes had to claw and fight to bring music out of the sidelines. These were tenacious youth, both men and women, who struggled then for artistic freedom against all odds and continue to do so even today. Their modes of expression reflect the changing times. Now Afghanistan has people who have become somewhat pioneers of
hip hop and rock music.
One such band is Kabul Dreams. It is, according to its members, the first rock band in Afghanistan. This is not the only unique quality it possesses. Its three members, Sulaymon Qardash, Siddique Ahmad and Mujtaba Habibi belong to different ethnic groups. They lived outside Afghanistan in three different countries – Pakistan, Iran and Uzbekistan – during the Taliban rule. This distance from authoritarianism provided them with exposure and opportunities. The band represents Afghanistan’s diversity and the deep but not overpowering effect its neighbors have on it.
The music of Kabul Dreams has been described as similar to that of British indie rock bands; soft and soulful rather than harsh and loud. The band has been around since the late 2000s. Its members have worked hard to gain recognition both locally and internationally and their efforts are now paying off.
Instead of just playing at closed venues for small audiences, Kabul Dreams and other bands like it aim to connect with the Afghan youth and to impact the Afghan culture on a larger scale. Despite threats and general discouragement, they have persevered and played in front of audiences that have never heard live music before.
Through its very existence, Kabul Dreams gives a message of hope that is necessary to lift spirits and keep extremism at bay. They have developed a fan base that is growing by the day which shows that their countrymen are certainly not looking to a return to the old days of repression.
Despite the Taliban’s continued presence, music festivals and live gigs continue to take place in Afghanistan through the combined efforts of many hardworking and motivated individuals. Sound Central, a festival held to showcase Afghan music, was a product of such hard work. Kabul Dreams and other bands like it took part in the event that allowed the locals to enjoy the music of the land. The festival also gave local musicians the opportunity to attend workshops and meet with bands from neighboring countries.
The problems that Kabul Dreams and other Afghan musicians face are not just security-related. When these musicians first appeared on the scene, there was just no infrastructure to support them. No studios and equipment to record music, no financial backers to sponsor their albums and no way to advertise and sell the music. There were also no music teachers and no art schools.
They started from scratch and used their own funds to promote their passion. Many reports suggest that their families were also critical of their activities and they had to keep their work underground in the initial stage. Things have changed a lot since those days. Music and art is being taught at least in some places. Bands have managed to produce albums and to tour abroad. They have been written about and discussed. They are seen as change agents and give hope to those who are worried about the future of the country once the U.S. forces leaves.
It is believed that because of the presence of alternative opinions and ways of life, the Taliban will have less of an influence on the minds of the Afghan people and will have to struggle much more intensely to reintroduce their brand of beliefs.
This is a tenuous hope at best. The Taliban earlier left Afghan society in tatters and influenced it in more ways than one. Since being toppled from power, they have not slunk away to lick their wounds. Instead, they have regrouped and gained ground in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. This time, they launch attacks and terrorize civilians even more ferociously, as is seen in Pakistan.
In any event, the acceptance of music and other art forms is a reason for hope because extremism needs popular support to stay alive. The Taliban are successful not just because of their weapons and fighting ability. It is the popularity of their ideology and general support, whether vocal or silent, that has led to their becoming such a significant force. Despite the thousands of lives that have been lost due to their activities, they continue to find support and sympathizers.
The Taliban are not a force that can be overcome simply through military action. The need is to remove the support for the way of life they promote. By introducing more positives to replace the violent, authoritarian and misogynistic ideology propagated by the Taliban, Afghan musicians are pursuing their creative interests and are thus doing a great service to their country.
One can hope that Kabul Dreams and other musicians have inspired enough people and changed enough minds to ensure that a return to a life devoid of all entertainment and joy will not be immediately acceptable to the masses.
Music and creativity do not impact people the same way as guns and death threats. But their re-emergence and growth in Afghanistan against all odds shows how deep-rooted the need for self-expression is. It is a freedom striven for even in the harshest conditions and a kind of desire that eventually results in revolutions and overthrow of dictators. If it continues to be nurtured by the Afghan youth, it is very likely that they will be able to convince their fellow countrymen to adopt a new cultural direction so that the demons of the past are buried and their dreams for a better future come true.