Afghanistan’s famous all-female Zohra Orchestra escaped the Taliban. But life in exile is bittersweet

DOHA, Qatar — It was already dark when the crimson-silver Qatar Airways jetliner glided to a stop at its parking slot in Doha’s airport. A small group assembled at the bottom of the gangway to meet the disembarking passengers. Among them was 59-year-old Ahmad Sarmast.

He wanted to seem businesslike, to maintain calm. After all, the experience of the last few months had taught the director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music that nothing’s done until it’s done. But then 13-year-old Farida, her violin case in hand, appeared at the top of the gangway; another budding musician, Zohra, also 13, followed. They saw Sarmast, ran down the steps and hugged him.

Lina with a viola
Anita laughing and holding a tanbur
Lina viola and Anita tanbur Lina viola and Anita tanbur

“That’s when I gave up and started to cry,” Sarmast said. “We all were.”

With Farida and Zohra in Doha, the months-long, herculean struggle to evacuate members of the music school after the Taliban’s triumph in Afghanistan was over. The flight arrival meant that all those willing and able to leave the capital, Kabul — almost 300 students, faculty, staff and their families — were out, and that the journey to the institute’s new home in exile is almost complete.

But the moment was a bittersweet one for Sarmast.

“We’re excited, happy, lucky that we got our community out of Afghanistan, to give them the opportunity to chase their dreams and preserve musical tradition,” he said.

“At the same time, it’s also very painful. You see everything in Afghanistan is shuttered and collapsing, everything for which so many people took so many risks to make music accessible. … It’s all taken away.”

Meena smiles with her cello
Meena cello

At the institute’s compound now in Kabul, no teachers or students sit and chat on the tree-shaded benches. Instead of musicians with instrument cases, Taliban fighters carry Kalashnikovs, guarding the hallways of a music school gone silent.

The new rulers’ injunctions against secular music have forced many performers into hiding and muted part of what used to be a raucous outdoor soundscape of radios blasting Afghan and foreign pop tunes, vendors shouting for business and motorists honking in frustration.

It had all seemed so different in May, three months before the Taliban’s shockingly easy blitz into Kabul. Back then, someone strolling through the compound might hear 18-year-old Sevinch play the opening lines of a violin concerto by Oskar Rieding, or 16-year-old Meena intently practicing a snippet from the cello exercises by David Popper for her audition for the Interlochen music camp in Michigan. (The Times is using only the students’ first names to protect family members still in Afghanistan.)

In the wood-paneled rehearsal hall, the school’s three ensembles — including the Zohra Orchestra, the country’s world-renowned all-female group — would assemble to prepare a repertoire of traditional Afghan and Western classical music for concert tours that had once taken them to Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. They had an upcoming one in Colombia.

Sarmast, whose thick eyebrows and mustache led to ribbing that he resembled a jovial Saddam Hussein, stood in the conservatory’s central courtyard one May afternoon and spoke with obvious pride about his plans for expansion. He would soon have eight buildings under the institute’s disposal; he planned to give scholarships to street children and had already begun work to bring music lessons to a second orphanage.

Fatima laughing and holding her cello
Sunbol holding her violin
Fatima cello and Sunbol violin Fatima cello and Sunbol violin

By then, the Taliban was already ramping up its offensive in the countryside, but Kabul seemed a prize too far, and the United States’ Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawing its forces still felt distant. Although everyone at the school had the Taliban’s past rule in mind — the proscriptions on music and dance, the subjugation of women, the harsh punishments for those who disobeyed — the musicians thought they had time, or could at least negotiate some modus vivendi after the U.S. eventually withdrew and the Taliban joined the government.

“Burqa, whatever they want — but as long as music is allowed, I’ll be fine,” Sevinch said at the time.

Meena was confident that Afghans were stronger and wouldn’t accept the Taliban’s austerity. “My generation won’t let them do this,” she said.

Sarmast also had insisted that he would stand his ground, that Afghan children had the right to have access to music and music education.

“Who said I’m going to give them the opportunity to destroy my work?” he declared.

But he never got the opportunity to protect it. On the evening of Aug. 15, while Sarmast was in Australia for summer vacation, the Taliban entered Kabul.

Marzia plays her viola with a big smile
Marzia viola

“Someone came and told me to leave everything and not take my instrument because the Taliban were outside,” said Marzia, an 18-year-old violist and conductor who described her instrument as “a close friend.”

She was in shock as she walked out of the school. She left her viola in one of the practice rooms.

Tens of thousands of frantic Afghans flocked to Kabul’s airport, desperate to flee their country, some dying in the attempt.

Like a “drowning man,” Sarmast reached out from Australia to whomever might help. He contacted the U.S. State Department, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) — and officials from Germany and Portugal. The Portuguese government had already offered to host the institute in Lisbon.

A few days before the U.S.-led evacuation effort of vulnerable Afghans was set to end, the students, their teachers and their relatives — almost 300 people — boarded buses for the airport. They had all the necessary clearances but hit a snag at a Taliban checkpoint because a commander was asleep. A few hours later, the Americans closed the airport gate. The students were sent back home.

“I was just crying. I said to myself, ‘We can’t go anywhere. I can’t play music.’ It was a terrible feeling,” Marzia said.

Sarmast appealed to famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who reached out to the Qataris in mid-September and urged them to help. That kicked off a round of diplomatic wrangling with the Taliban, along with the painstaking task of assembling documentation such as IDs and passports for hundreds of people.

Shugofa holding mallets
Shugofa percussion

On Oct. 3, the first group of musicians and their relatives went to Kabul’s upscale Serena Hotel, where a woman verified each person’s identity and handed over a passport and plane ticket. Marzia, clad in black from head to toe, glimpsed through a slit in the fabric the minibuses that drove them in a convoy — with the Qatari ambassador on board — past Taliban checkpoints and into the airport. She didn’t have her viola.

“I used to have it with me everywhere. I still don’t know what happened to it. … Maybe the Taliban broke it,” she said.

At passport control, the Taliban had issues with some of the documents, but Qatari officials were able to smooth things over. Sarmast was constantly in touch with colleagues in Kabul, terrified something would go wrong, just as it had before.

“It was only when someone in my team sent me a short video of the plane taxiing and said, ‘We’re off.’… Words can’t describe it. I can just tell you I was crying, my family was crying. I get goosebumps even now talking about it,” he said.

One of those left behind was Sevinch. At that point, she had only an ID, not a passport, and bombarded Sarmast with daily messages asking when she would be able to join her friends. Earlier this month, she went to the Serena Hotel to get her passport, and a few days later was on another flight to Doha. She hugged Marzia the moment she saw her.

(Clockwise from top left) Zohra trumpet, Sohaila violin, Shabana sitar and Marina clarinet Zohra trumpet, Sohaila violin, Marina clarinet and Shabana sitar

Each new group of arrivals brought fresh moments of relief for Sarmast — but also sadness, because it meant the institute had one less link to its home in Afghanistan.

The Taliban has since allocated the conservatory compound to different institutions, including the Kabul municipality and the technical and vocational directorate.

Sarmast swiped through pictures on his phone of a disfigured piano and a guitar smashed into the grass. The Taliban told Sarmast that it had not been involved in the destruction and was protecting the instruments now.

“The building where my office was, they’re turning it into a storage room for our instruments and property,” he said. “But what use are these instruments sitting there with no one to maintain them?”

For now, the institute has to make do with a home away from home. Authorities in Lisbon already have a number of locations under consideration for the exiled musicians.

“It will be much bigger in Lisbon,” Sarmast said, adding that he planned to provide musical instruction to refugee communities and low-income populations, and also to make the institute a center for Afghans in Portugal and anyone interested in Afghan music and culture. He also wants to hold concerts in Portugal, Qatar and at United Nations headquarters next year to “to become the voice of Afghanistan.”

Sevinch holds a conductor's baton
Sevinch violin

“I helped create music in Afghanistan. Now I had to rescue it,” he said, a bit ruefully. “But once the time is right, you’ll have an army of musicians, and they will go back and rebuild.”

Marzia often thinks about her parents back home in the northeastern province of Takhar; she hasn’t been able to speak to them since she left, and she is afraid for them.

“My father had never said anything about music. When I told him I was leaving, he said, ‘I’m proud of you,’” she said, her eyes shining with the start of tears.

“It was the first time I ever heard him say that to me. He was happy.”

Sabria holds folded sheet music
Sabria piano