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Afghan music school helps kids recover from war

Kids who once sold gum or boiled eggs on the roadside now have a shot at a classical music education, thanks to a new school in Afghanistan. Institute director Ahman Sarmast told DW about the school's roots and goals.

Kids play instruments in a room at the school

Both girls and boys get a general and music-based education at the institute

Afghanistan's Ministry of Education established its first music school in 1973. The Kabul-based school has had a tumultuous history, paralleling that of its home country. Since 2008, musicologist and Afghan native Dr. Ahmad Sarmast has headed a new project at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) that aims to help rebuild musical life in the country. The project is sponsored in part by the World Bank, the German government, the Goethe Institute and the German Society of Music Merchants. Dr. Sarmast talked with Deutsche Welle about the challenges and promise of the endeavor.

Deutsche Welle: What does ANIM stand for?

Ahmad Sarmast: The Afghanistan National Institute of Music is the only music school in Afghanistan. Students enroll in the fourth grade and they receive both formal and musical education. They graduate after 10 years of continuous music education with a diploma in music.

Our music department is divided into two branches: Afghan traditional music and Western classical music. At the moment, we have 154 students, but eventually we will be able to host 300.

Where did the idea come from?

Students practice outdoors in front of the school

Integration is a major hurdle - but also a central goal - at the school

I left my country at an early age after completing my studies in Moscow. Actually, I am the first Afghan with a doctorate in music. Since the collapse of Najibullah's leftist regime [in 1992], I have kept an eye on the evolution of music in my country.

I spent most of my time in exile in Australia, and it was there that I thought about establishing a music school in my country of origin. Negotiations with the local administration and potential fundraisers began in 2007, but the final implementation of the project took place in 2008.

You had a comfortable life in Australia. What brought you back to Afghanistan?

One of the reasons was my background and my social status here. My father was a well known conductor, but I also had the secret dream that I could help to change the minds of thousands of young Afghans towards music. Many of those who grew up under the Taliban regime were completely brainwashed against music.

In fact, Kabul used to be a more cultivated and sophisticated city but most of the intellectuals and educated people of Afghanistan left during the rule by the communist government and after its collapse. Kabul today is nothing but a big village, which has lost its once sophisticated and open-minded society.

You mentioned before that you have 154 students. Are all of them "street kids"?

When I came to Afghanistan my goal was to establish a music school just for street kids and orphans. But after discussions with the Ministry of Education we agreed that 50 percent of the seats would be reserved for the most advantaged families of the country. We didn't want to deprive any talented potential student from getting musical education.

At the moment, street kids still don't make up 50 percent of the total because we have "inherited" some others that already belonged to the former School of Fine Arts. Today, we have 24 street kids with us. Some were selling chewing gum, plastic bags or boiled eggs in the street. Now, we give their families 30 US dollars to stay in school as a kind of compensation for their loss of income. We are also trying to provide them with buses so they don't need to waste any money at all on transportation.

What kind of problems do you face with this group of children?

Recently, I lost a very talented girl. She wasn’t attending her classes, and I couldn't contact her family. Just a few days ago, we discovered that she had been engaged. She is only 14.

There are also the difficulties of integrating the street kids into a basic school discipline. We have to re-educate them, in the full meaning of the verb. It also helps them to recover after so many years of war and destruction. That is all that they have seen.

Dr. Ahmad Sarmast

Sarmast came home to Afghanistan to head the music project

Do you have any other plans for the near future?

Once we have fully implemented the Kabul center, we have plans to spread the idea to Mazar-e Sharif and to establish a second school there. We are also planning a third school in Herat and a fourth in Jalalabad. I have already started to gather funds for Mazar-e Sharif's school, and Germany is very interested. Their troops are based in the same area, in the North of the country, and Berlin is investing in several other cultural projects there.

Given the current situation of unrest and the apparently ever-growing power of the Taliban, aren't you afraid that music might well be silenced again in the short term?

I am a very optimistic man - otherwise, I would not be here now. But more important is the fact that music has always been present in Afghanistan. Even during the Taliban regime, people would smuggle records and cassettes at the risk of their lives. Drivers would always have two kinds of music: the kind they liked, but also the Muslim chants in case they ran across Taliban officials and had to swap the tapes. Afghans have always loved music.

Interview: Karlos Zurutuza (gsw)
Editor: Kate Bowen

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