Fleeing Afghan musicians stuck in limbo in Pakistan
Musicians who fled Afghanistan fearing the Taliban rule struggle to make a living as refugees in Pakistan.
Peshawar, Pakistan –
Noman Khan remembers the exact moment he realised that he could no longer live in his native Afghanistan without fear of being killed.
On the morning of August 15, hours before taking control of the Afghan capital Kabul, Taliban fighters streamed into Khan’s native Jalalabad, about 120km east of Kabul, taking control of the city with hardly a shot fired.
As fighters consolidated control of infrastructure and paraded white flags in the streets, local Taliban members who knew of Khan’s work as a musician broke into an office that Khan and others used as a makeshift studio.
They dragged out the group’s harmoniums and hand drums, piled them into a metal container and doused them with petrol. Then they set them on fire.
“I could not do anything but cry,” says Khan, a slightly built young man of 22 who has been singing and playing the harmonium since he was a child.
“Music is my passion, but also my livelihood. At that moment, I realised that I cannot stay in Afghanistan with the Taliban in power,” he told Al Jazeera in a dank basement room in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, where he and dozens of other Afghan musicians have sought refuge after fleeing the Taliban.
Afghan refugees in Pakistan
The group of musicians in Peshawar are among thousands of Afghans to have fled their country for Pakistan since the Taliban takeover, fearing for their lives. But now they find themselves in legal and financial limbo in a country that says it simply cannot take in any new refugees.
Pakistan is home to more than 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with an estimated two million more undocumented Afghans resident in the country.
Most of those refugees fled Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets, the subsequent civil war or after the US-led military invasion in 2001. For decades, Pakistan has hosted one of the largest refugee populations in the world, UNHCR data shows.
Since the Taliban’s return to power, that number has ticked up, as thousands of Afghans have attempted to cross into Pakistan at the southern crossing in Spin Boldak/Chaman.
An estimated 10,800 new Afghan refugees have arrived in Pakistan this year, most of them from the Chaman border crossing, according to UNHCR data.
Many of those entering Pakistan hail from communities who believe they would face violence if they remained in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, either due to their ethnicity, gender or, in this case, the fact that they play music for a living.
Living in fear
Shams Raheel, 38, travelled for 15 hours from his native Jalalabad to the southern border crossing with Pakistan at Spin Boldak, after having spent the initial five days of Taliban rule in hiding.
Raheel plays the rubab, a traditional Afghan stringed instrument similar to a European lute, and appeared on the Afghan television channel Lemar TV’s popular Khanda Shpa programme three times a week.
“I grew my beard, changed my appearance, wore a chador (thick shawl) on my head and got myself out of there,” he says, snapping his fingers.
“I had nothing, just the clothes [I was wearing]. My rubab was left behind … and my songbook has been left behind as well.”
Raheel says he spent his first few days in Pakistan in a deep depression.
“For four or five days I just cried,” he says. “When I crossed the border and came here, even then for the first 10 or 15 days my mind would keep thinking: ‘How has this happened? These people have come so suddenly and totally overturned the system’. Music is finished.”
Zia-ur-Rehman, 30, sits on the floor of a makeshift “studio” – in truth little more than a small, badly ventilated room in the basement of a Peshawar market – and shifts his eyes uneasily as he speaks.
Rehman stayed indoors in his Jalalabad home for 12 days after the Taliban takeover, eventually leaving “in terrifying fear”.
For him, the decision to flee was one he describes as the most difficult of his life.
“This is one of the hardest moments in life, when a man leaves his mother and father, his sisters and brothers, his children left behind,” he says.
“It was a question of my life, that’s why I left everything behind.”
While the Taliban has not issued any countrywide edicts on whether they will renew the ban on music imposed during the group’s time in power in the 1990s, several musicians told Al Jazeera they were personally threatened by Taliban fighters if they did not find a new profession.
“I was very scared,” says Gulwali Shah, a 15-year-old singer who is better known by his stage name, Bilal Afghan. “Threats were being issued to all musicians.”
Shah says local Taliban fighters came to his home in Afghanistan’s Khost province and told him he would no longer be allowed to perform.
“[The Taliban fighter] said that I was too old to be singing,” he told Al Jazeera. “If I wanted, I could sing naats (religious hymns in praise of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad). If not, then I had to stop singing or making music.”
Shah left home soon after, making his way across the country to Chaman, crossing the border in the garb of a beggar before convincing a Pakistani border official to let him cross after showing him YouTube videos of his musical performances.
Not all who try to cross the border, however, are as lucky.
Nowhere to go
The Pakistani government has repeatedly
that it will not allow any new Afghan refugees into the country due to financial constraints and has begun to deport some who have crossed the border without documentation.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said that, for now, there was no “refugee crisis”, with the number of people crossing the border at routine levels.
Chaudhry said that while Pakistan’s policy remained not to allow any new refugees, the government was facilitating members of “vulnerable groups”, particularly those who had secured passage to a third country.
“We have done that, we have evacuated journalists, and the [Afghan national]
women’s football team
as well,” he said. “And now musicians who are coming. The vulnerable groups, we are helping them. We are in touch with the Taliban authorities.”
A senior Pakistani government source said that those negotiations were not always straightforward, as the Taliban had expressed concern over Pakistan facilitating the exit of Afghan citizens.
“The situation is that the Taliban leadership, they know there are groups who the [rank and file] fighters may not accept,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the issue with the media.
“Our problem is that a lot of people who came out through Pakistan, there was resentment [from the Taliban] that we were actively evacuating Afghans.”
More than 100,000 Afghans and foreigners were evacuated by the United States and other countries before US-led NATO forces withdrew from the country after 20 years of war following their invasion in 2001.
The UNHCR’s office in Pakistan has said it has so far “not observed large-scale displacement of Afghans to neighbouring countries”.
“Pakistan has always supported those in need of protection,” said Qaiser Khan Afridi, UNHCR’s spokesperson in Pakistan.
“We reiterate and appeal that those seeking international protection must not be returned to their country of origin where their lives or freedom would be in danger on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, or from generalised violence.”
Roots of rejection
While several theories have been put forward for the Taliban’s general opposition to music – particularly instrumental music – in Afghanistan, ethnomusicologists are divided on where the rejection stems from.
“Western commentators like to attribute the Taliban view of music to fundamentalist Islam, but this is far too simplistic a view,” wrote John Baily, an ethnomusicologist at London’s Goldsmiths university, in his 2016 book, War, Exile and the Music of Afghanistan.
“There is no clear injunction within Islam against music, though the matter of the lawfulness of music has certainly been a matter of debate within Islam for many centuries.”
Taliban interpretations of Islamic thought appear to perceive music “as a distraction from the remembrance and worship of God, the logic behind this injunction being that it arouses the passions, lust and causes deviation from piety, modesty and honour”, wrote researcher Andrew Skuse in a 2002 paper based the Taliban’s previous stint in power in the 1990s.
Many of the Taliban’s social strictures – on conduct in public and private spaces, for example – stem from conservative forms of ethnic Pashtun cultural traditions, but Baily wrote that this, too, is not “a reasonable argument because Pashtuns have a great love of music, even if they have reservations about performing it themselves, and prefer to patronise hereditary musicians”.
Ultimately, the rejection may come from a puritanical interpretation of the purpose of life, wrote Baily in a 2002 research paper (
“In my opinion, the Taliban are simply extremely puritanical and against any form of enjoyment or entertainment outside the sphere of religion. It has nothing directly to do with Islam, and one can find similar trends in other religions,” he said, likening the group’s opposition to art and music to 17th-century “Quakers” (Religious Society of Friends) in Christianity.
Afghanistan has a rich cultural tradition of both instrumental and vocal music, influenced by Iranian, Central Asian and Indian subcontinental forms. In the last 20 years, since the Taliban were removed from power, both traditional and newer, more modern forms of electronic and popular music have thrived.
Now, however, Shams Raheel and his fellow musicians say they are struggling to make a living since arriving in Pakistan and face an uncertain future.
“Right now, there is no work here,” he says. “We don’t have a home. My younger brother is also here with me, and he has no work either … We just eat, and we have no place here.”
Noman Khan, the singer from Jalalabad, has been sleeping in an open verandah at a relative’s home, alongside his wife and young son.
“Since I have come, I have not earned a rupee,” he says. “Nor do I see the chance of doing so in the near future.”
Shah, the young singer, has been living in converted office with five other musicians since he arrived in Pakistan.
“I have issues here, and I have gotten sick of it as well, but there is just no way to escape,” he says.
Each of the Afghan musicians Al Jazeera interviewed said that they were uncertain as to how to next proceed, with no clear path in sight.
“Who should I ask where to go?” replies Raheel, when asked if he knew what he would do next.
“We fled from there to Pakistan, to save our lives. And now there are issues here. So where should we go now? No one has the answer to this question: where should we go and what should we do?”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.