“Shoot me in the head if we are caught by the Taliban.”
That was Afghan pop star Aryana Sayeed’s plea to her fiance Hasib Sayed as the couple stood helplessly at the gates of Kabul’s international airport on August 15, among thousands desperate to board an evacuation plane as the country fell under Taliban rule.
“I make music. I advocate for Afghan girls and women. I knew I would be a prime target,” Sayeed, one of the country’s most famous performers, told VICE World News in a Zoom interview from Turkey, weeks after escaping the country on a crowded U.S. military cargo jet that evacuated hundreds.
“I’ve lived through suicide bombings and other threats but I get goosebumps when I think about what would happen to me if I was caught and taken away alive [by the Taliban].”
The story of Sayeed’s harrowing exit from Afghanistan has been detailed widely across media outlets after selfies she took onboard a crowded overnight C-17 military plane went viral. “There were hundreds and hundreds of people crammed on that flight who had fought to get on that plane,” she said. “No one cared about COVID-19, we all just wanted to get out of Afghanistan alive.”
Sayeed and her fiance were among more than 100,000 Afghans who fled the country in recent weeks as fear and uncertainty coursed through society. They included other musicians, artists, journalists, activists, female athletes as well as members of Afghanistan’s famed all-girl robotics team — inadvertently becoming part of a “brain drain,” the exodus of a country’s brightest and most talented people.
“Afghanistan was a dead place under the Taliban—weddings didn’t even have music,” Sayed, who is also Sayeed’s manager, said. “Music represents a country’s culture, identity and people and any country without music is a dead land. It’s just so scary to think that our country will go back to that.”
Through their interpretation of Sharia law, the Taliban have long considered music, art and film a corrupting influence.
When they were in power from 1996 to 2001, they confiscated CDs and cassettes, destroyed musical instruments, and banned most forms of singing deemed unislamic. But over the past 20 years, since the group was ousted after the 9/11 attacks, Afghanistan’s cultural heritage — poetry, film, music and art — flourished. This gave rise to a vibrant music scene and a new generation of young Afghan writers, filmmakers and poets. Inspired and emboldened, they began sharing their work.
However, that is all under threat now with the Taliban back in charge, and the loss is already being felt.
The death of a folk singer named Fawad Andarabi, who was reportedly dragged from his village home and brutally killed, sent communities panicking. A celebrated music school in Kabul, once home to the country’s first all-female orchestra, also shut its doors over concerns for students’ safety, with its founder now wanted by the Taliban. The group also admitted to abducting, beating and shooting to death a beloved comedian popularly known as Khasha Zwan.
All these developments have sent a chilling wave through Afghanistan, silencing the artists and musicians left behind.
Another lifetime ago. Afghan girls in attendance at a music festival in Kabul. Photo: Travis Beard / Save Afghan Musicians
There are few songs of any genre in Kabul these days.
Members of an Afghan black metal band told VICE World News that they had stopped playing out of fear. “There's no place for music in Afghanistan,” said a singer. Another musician who wanted to only be identified as Tareq for fear of reprisals for speaking up, said that he was facing pressure to destroy his guitars and had cut off his trademark long hair to avoid persecution.
“Being a musician or an artist in Afghanistan can cost lives. Blasting Metallica or Iron Maiden would be acts that could get one killed,” said Australian Travis Beard, who organized music festivals in Afghanistan and is now leading an evacuation campaign for musicians. Beard has so far managed to successfully evacuate 20 people but said there were “too many” needing help. “The country’s brightest minds: the creatives, business people and politicians — have all fled. Now comes the brain drain. How do you fix that?”
“Blasting Metallica or Iron Maiden would be acts that could get one killed.”
It’s not just the musicians. A Kabul-based animator, whose work has been featured at international film festivals, said he was taking “careful measures” to destroy all evidence of his career, even if that meant decades of painstaking, hard work. “We are living in a new Afghanistan now and in this current climate of fear, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” he told VICE World News.
He has also delisted links to his online portfolio and removed creative apps like Instagram and Lightroom from his phone. “I will always be proud of what I made because it brought joy to many. My drawings may be gone now but they live on in memory until the day peace returns to Afghanistan again.”
Art curator Omaid Sharifi, who recently held a public exhibition and was out on the streets of Kabul painting murals when he heard the news of the government collapse last month, described the takeover as a nightmare.
Together with members of his team, they started taking down paintings and breaking sculptures and artefacts when they heard the Taliban was back. “That was the first reaction that everyone had,” he said. “Because we knew for a fact that the Taliban would destroy them and if they found out somebody was an artist, they would be punished.”
He also does not believe emerging narratives that the Taliban has become “more tolerant”. “How have they changed? Would a changed Taliban execute singers or kill comedians? I don’t believe any of it,” he said.
Sharifi too has left Kabul.
“The decision by hundreds of artists to flee Afghanistan is completely understandable, especially considering that the former Taliban reign was rabidly anti-culture, and where diverse artists were often brutally silenced,” Dr. Azza Karam, secretary general of Religions for Peace, an international coalition of religious communities, told VICE World News.
“Artists in any part of the world, like their media or press colleagues and human rights defenders, are an endangered species – even in some of the countries with democratically elected governments,” she said. “So one can only imagine the level of fear that reigns in country where democracy itself is held hostage.”
Despite it all, she said the “good news” is that “artists are the bells of freedom tolling in any given context.”
“So even when and if they flee,” she said, “their work continues to serve as testament to human creativity and resilience.”
Pop star Sayeed proves this point. Istanbul is her base now and she says she will continue making music and advocating for human rights in Afghanistan, albeit from afar.
“I will never stop expressing my feelings and views about the Taliban with the world,” she said. “It’s a very sensitive time for Afghanistan, there are millions whose voices are stifled. The world cannot forget about Afghanistan.”