Read of the week: A country without music

Amid the news coverage and analysis following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan this week, an NPR spot about threats to the Afghanistan National Institute of Music under the new regime caught my ear.

I love the short clip near the beginning, of a piece played by students on traditional Afghan instruments. It’s a sound I’m unfamiliar with, and want to hear more of.

Opportunities for this music school, which teaches both Afghan and Western music, to share their sound with the world shut down suddenly this week. The school is closed. The school’s teachers and students fear being punished for making music – or even having instruments in their homes.

“Under the Taliban in the 1990s, music was strictly forbidden,” Elizabeth Blair says in the article. “Performing, selling or even listening to music at home could get you in trouble.”

Music saturates my life. I expect this is true for many people, even most of us. Music (of our choice) is as easy as the press of a button and lurks in the background of advertisements, shopping trips, street fairs.

Beyond performance, music is also a way I perceive the world. Things that aren’t music sound like music to me: a running stream, traffic, footsteps, the rattle of my son’s bouncy chair.

I can’t imagine life in a place where music is not just absent but banned. Elizabeth Blair’s reporting points that this is exactly what we must imagine in order to comprehend the brutality — that word western news reports keep using to describe the Taliban — of leaders who want to control the lives and even the thoughts of the people under their authority.

My hope for the young musicians in Afghanistan living in fear of performing their art is that they will find music in their minds, even when they are afraid to bring their instruments home or to gather with other musicians. Beyond this hope, I feel helpless. All I can do is listen and learn.

More from Afghanistan this week: photos and essay by Lynsey Addario in The Atlantic on why “The Taliban’s Return Is Catastrophic for Women.”

“Perhaps the silence of life under the Taliban sits with me more than anything,” Addario writes. “There were very few cars, no music, no television, no telephones, and no idle conversation on the sidewalks.”

And a Monday morning (August 23) update: The U.S. withdrawl from Afghanistan didn’t have to be this way. NPR interviews former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage about less chaotic ways that the U.S. could have left Afghanistan, and the cost of its 20-year military presence there.