Hailing from a variety of towns and regions in Afghanistan, Zohra isn’t your average orchestra – in fact one would be hard-pressed to find a more unique foundation tale on the global musical stage in recent years.
The history of music in Afghanistan is a fascinating one, particularly during the last twenty-five years. In the early Nineties, the country’s musicians were forced by high-ranking officials to play, albeit only when complimenting the dancing of prostitutes at special parties for men.
For many, even the mere suggestion of wanting to learn music is too much for their families and society to allow.
Since 1995, music had been banned outright under Taliban rule, who believe such an art form is offensive to Islam. This severe diktat was lifted after the US invasion in 2001, however music is still often a taboo subject in Afghanistan. This is much truer for its women, who can still be expected to fulfill the medieval duties of a woman from centuries ago.
Zohra is made up of thirty-five adolescent females between the ages of thirteen and twenty. For many, even the mere suggestion of wanting to learn music is too much for their families and society to allow.
19-year-old Negin Khpalwak is the group’s leader, and spoke to Reuters last year: “Apart from my father, everybody in the family is against it,” she said. “They say, ‘How can a Pashtun girl play music?’ Especially in our tribe, where even a man doesn’t have the right to do it.”
Many of her co-musicians have been disowned completely by their loved ones while death threats towards the orchestra have been constant. “Compared to women outside Afghanistan,” Negin continued, “we feel as if we are in a cage.”
On January 19th this year in the mountain town of Davos, Switzerland, Zohra performed its first international show at the annual World Economic Forum. They were introduced by Ahmad Naser Sarmast, head of Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music.
Amid current global issues, which by this point are growing worse by the day, it is once again the music which shines through, and who more fitting to express it than a courageous and fearless group of young Muslim women.
The collective performed in Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the scene of December’s tragic terrorist attack. On this occasion, Sarmast, himself targeted and almost killed by the Taliban, couldn’t help but mention the incident which took place on December 19th. Having experienced first-hand the evil of religious extremism he paid tribute to those killed that night before concluding with hope,
“I remember when I first came to Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2006, there were even people in the Afghan parliament who wanted to suppress music and keep women from making music, but since then, Afghanistan has come a long way. Musicians have once again found their place in the private, public and cultural life of Afghan society, and today there are no more weddings and events without music. As we said forty years ago, we must overcome the stigma and ideology that has been implanted in the Afghan people, but it is a long process. ”
On the church’s altar sit around thirty musicians, some of the youngest upon the floor, the stage lit up by a scattering of colorful green burkas. Traditional folk songs of their nation are performed on instruments made up of violins, long-necked sitars, traditional drums from the Middle East and, naturally, Afghanistan’s national instrument, the rubab, a stringed instrument similar to a lute.
In stark contrast to the image we have of Afghanistan and the plight of its people, its music is cheerful and uplifting; innocent and nostalgic. It is stirring and rousing and frequently peaks with an immense crescendo, while their rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth never feels out of place.
Amid current global issues, which by this point are growing worse by the day, it is once again the music which shines through; and who more fitting to express it than a courageous and fearless group of young Muslim women.
Pauric Keenan is a teacher and writer living in Berlin.