World renowned US cellist Yo-Yo Ma, center, plays with viola players Marzia Anwari, left, from Afghanistan and Luis Fernandes, bassist Eduardo Santos and cellist Mohammad Sami, right, from Afghanistan, at the Music School of the National Conservatory in L

Afghan musicians in Portugal reimagine their musical futures

Musicians with the Afghanistan National Institute of Music arrived in Portugal in December 2021 with high hopes of working again in their profession. But six months later, the future remains uncertain for them.

The World

World renowned US cellist Yo-Yo Ma, center, plays with viola players Marzia Anwari, left, from Afghanistan and Luis Fernandes, bassist Eduardo Santos and cellist Mohammad Sami, right, from Afghanistan, at the Music School of the National Conservatory in Lisbon, Tuesday, March 29, 2022.

Armando Franca/AP

When 24-year-old sitar player Huma Rahimi fled from Afghanistan last year, she said she gave her instrument to a man to hide for her before she left.

In Afghanistan, under Taliban leadership, playing music in public is forbidden and harsh consequences mean musicians’ lives are at risk.

“When I came from Afghanistan, I didn't bring my sitar, because if the Taliban knows that we are musicians, it will be dangerous for all of us. It was difficult."

Huma Rahimi, sitar player from Afghanistan in Portugal

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“When I came from Afghanistan, I didn't bring my sitar, because if the Taliban knows that we are musicians, it will be dangerous for all of us. It was difficult,” Rahimi said.

Last December, Portugal welcomed Rahimi among nearly 300 Afghan musicians and some of their relatives affiliated with the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), Kabul's only music academy. 

After a few months of limbo in Qatar, the group landed in Lisbon with high hopes for their futures as working musicians. Yet, six months later, their future remains unclear.

“We are here to have a good life. ... We came with an important mission, to preserve Afghan music for the future.”

Ahmad Naser Sarmast, ANIM founder and director
Huma Rahimi with her new sitar on the terrace at the refugee center outside Lisbon where she is staying.

Huma Rahimi with her new sitar on the terrace at the refugee center outside Lisbon where she is staying. 

Credit:

Francesca Berardi/The World 

“We are here to have a good life,” said Ahmad Naser Sarmast, ANIM's founder and director. “We came with an important mission, to preserve Afghan music for the future.” 

Related: Afghan women say Taliban's new rules aim to make them 'disappear from public life'

Ahmad Naser Sarmast, founder and director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, puts on his face mask as an airplane arrives at Lisbon military airport bringing music students, faculty members and their families from Afghanistan, Monday, Dec. 13

Ahmad Naser Sarmast, founder and director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, puts on his face mask as an airplane arrives at Lisbon military airport bringing music students, faculty members and their families from Afghanistan, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. 

Credit:

Armando Franca/AP

Many of the musicians are struggling to adjust to their new lives.

Rahimi, a member of ANIM’s Zohra orchestra, Afghanistan's first all-female music ensemble, currently stays at a refugee center in an industrial area just outside Lisbon, called the Centro de Acolhimento para Refugiados, run by a nongovernmental organization in partnership with the government. 

She said she was glad when Sarmast, ANIM’s director, found her a sitar to borrow — even if its sound wasn’t as good as the one she had in Kabul. 

She now uses the sitar to teach students staying at another refugee center in the area.

“It's difficult to come somewhere that you don't know the language, the culture, and you don't have anything here. ... But I'm glad that I am safe here and I'm trying to be positive and work hard to see my future.”

Huma Rahimi, sitar player from Afghanistan in Portugal

“It's difficult to come somewhere that you don't know the language, the culture, and you don't have anything here,” she said. “But I'm glad that I am safe here and I'm trying to be positive and work hard to see my future.” 

She hopes that ANIM will reopen in Portugal and that she’ll be able to continue teaching the sitar in a school, like she did back in Kabul. 

Related: Amid chaos, young Afghan refugees find something familiar in St. Louis — soccer

Huma Rahimi plays her sitar.

Huma Rahimi plays her sitar. 

Credit:

Francesca Berardi/The World

The group has already organized a few concerts and established a partnership with the music conservatory in Lisbon. 

World renowned US cellist Yo-Yo Ma, 4th right, plays with Portuguese and Afghan music students at the Music School of the National Conservatory in Lisbon, Tuesday, March 29, 2022. 

World renowned US cellist Yo-Yo Ma, 4th right, plays with Portuguese and Afghan music students at the Music School of the National Conservatory in Lisbon, Tuesday, March 29, 2022. 

Credit:

Armando Franca/AP

Rahimi thinks about the stark differences between her life now and her rural upbringing in Afghanistan, where it was difficult for girls to study — let alone to play music. “I believe in myself,” she said. 

Related: As Canada prioritizes expedited arrivals for Ukrainians, at-risk Afghans remain trapped abroad

Other refugees are finding it harder to stay positive. 

Jamal Hashemi, a 30-year-old pianist, composer and ANIM member, said he thinks incessantly about the family he had to leave behind in Kabul. 

“Because of my [musical] activities, my family … they are in danger. I am afraid to call my wife, really. When I call, they start crying … and I say, ‘oh, my God, what should I do?’”

Jamal Hashemi, pianist from Afghanistan now in Portugal

“Because of my [musical] activities, my family … they are in danger. I am afraid to call my wife, really. When I call, they start crying … and I say, ‘oh, my God, what should I do?’”  

"Afghanistan Islamic Emirate," is written on the main entrance of the Music Institute, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. 

"Afghanistan Islamic Emirate," is written on the main entrance of the Music Institute, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. 

Credit:

Hussein Malla/AP

Hashemi and the other musicians were granted asylum, but they still need Portuguese residency papers to bring their families to Portugal. It could take months before they receive those documents. 

While waiting, Hashemi tries to help his relatives by sending them most of the $160 he receives from the refugee center intended for food, telephone services and transportation. 

Hashemi rarely leaves the center to try to save as much money as possible for his family back in Afghanistan.

“I'm just thinking about my future. What should I do? What should I do for my family? How can I earn money? I can't see the beauty of Portugal now because I don't care,” Hashemi said. 

Related: 6 months after evacuation, thousands of Afghan families are waiting to reunite

He did take one trip with his Portuguese teacher to Nazare, a seaside village north of Lisbon. It was the first time he saw the ocean, he said, but it was a completely numbing experience. 

Hashemi does find a little hope through connections with local musicians who reached out to ANIM members and invited them to play music at popular music venues, such as Tejo Bar, in Lisbon’s historic Alfama neighborhood. 

Related: ‘We have no future’: Afghan women protest Taliban restrictions

Meeting musicians from all over the world inspired Hashemi to imagine opening an artists’ association in Portugal, similar to the one he founded in Kabul, known as azhang, a Dari term that refers to the power of the collective. 

“We have to explain the meaning. For example, we have water, a lake, and one drop of water comes to this lake. And you can see this wave becoming bigger and bigger and bigger. This process, we call it azhang,” he said. 

An Afghan boy carrying musical instruments disembarks from an airplane at Lisbon military airport, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021.

An Afghan boy carrying musical instruments disembarks from an airplane at Lisbon military airport, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. A group of students, faculty members and their families from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music arrive in Portugal, where they are being granted asylum and where they hope to rebuild their acclaimed school.

Credit:

Armando Franca/AP

One local musician in Lisbon gifted Hashemi a piano, for which he said he feels extremely grateful. 

His own piano remains in Kabul, hidden in the back of his parents' house under a mountain of bags filled with garbage.

The new one sits in the corner of his room in Lisbon, a small space he shares with a refugee from another country. 

While his roommate is out, Hashemi plays the piano. 

It’s the one thing that reminds him of who he is and — even here — still makes him feel at home.