Singing Kharabat's Praises

The capital’s musicians defy violent and abusive conservatives.

Singing Kharabat's Praises

The capital’s musicians defy violent and abusive conservatives.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

The sound of music can be heard once again coming from the ruins of Kabul’s Kharabat Street, the cradle of traditional Afghan songs for centuries.

Reduced to rubble during Afghanistan’s vicious wars, it is gradually coming back to life as musicians hounded out of the country by the puritanical Taleban regime return to rebuild their shattered mud-brick houses and resume their careers singing, playing and making instruments.

But despite the collapse of the student militia more than a year ago, being a musician in Afghanistan is still a dangerous business. They face physical attacks and threats from conservatives who accepted and supported the Taleban view that music, dancing, films and television were an insult to Islam.

Late last year, two musicians were killed when a grenade was thrown into the room where they were performing for a wedding party in Paghman province, near Kabul. Several other musicians have been beaten up, while many have received insults and threats.

Ghulam Hussain is a master of the 19-stringed rhubab, a lute-type instrument particularly characteristic of Afghan music. “Musicians and artists generally are still unfortunately out of favour among some people,” he told IWPR. “The situation in Kabul isn’t too bad, but outside it is not good, and unless something is done it could happen here also.”

The singer of a band playing in the street, who declined to give his name, said, “Musicians are living in fear of their lives, always afraid that a group or a person prejudiced against us, through ignorance, will attack us.”

Another member of the band, who plays keyboards, said, “These people are driven by ignorance. They don’t know much about music, and they think Islam is opposed to it.”

However, the situation was much worse under the Taleban. Another musician, Abdul Latif, recalled, “I was kept in prison for 21 days, just for being a musician. They took away all my instruments and destroyed them. They said that if I ever played music again they would cut off my hands and bury me in Ghazi Stadium (Kabul’s main stadium where the Taleban carried out most of their executions).”

Hussain, in common with other musicians who have drifted back to Kharabat Street, is living among ruins. His one-roomed house with a new roof and the walls of unpainted mud stands out as one of the few almost complete dwellings in a narrow winding street of wreckage and rubble.

The street, in one of the oldest parts of Kabul, found itself on the front line as rival mujahedin leaders started pounding each other with artillery in 1992 after driving out the Soviet army.

But others have also come back, setting up their bases in empty shop-fronts in side streets and waiting for invitations to perform at weddings and other parties.

Hussain told IWPR that around 30 per cent of Afghanistan’s traditional musicians had now returned from exile abroad, “I came back to Kharabat, even though it is just a ruin, to serve the people of my country and to try to revive traditional music in Afghanistan.”

Though he did not mention it, he and his colleagues will have to compete with Indian music and Bollywood musicals, which have swiftly gained in popularity among ordinary Afghans since cinemas were reopened last year.

Mohammad Nader, a drummer who fled to Pakistan when the student militia took over, has also returned to the street. “I worked as a salesman in Pakistan, but as soon as the Taleban collapsed I came home. People are eager to have musicians play at weddings. I play the drum while my colleagues sing,” he said.

Some city planners in Kabul are reported to be considering plans to tear down what is left of Kharabat Street and put up high-rise apartments, arguing that the area was an eyesore not fit for human habitation.

However, the Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs, Mohammad Yusuf Pashtun, was quoted recently as saying he wanted to retain the character of the ancient quarter while modernising its infrastructure, adding, “We would like to keep the tradition.”

Mohammad Azim Qaderi, who makes rhubabs in his Kharabat Street shop, said, “Everyone loves their own country. As soon as Afghanistan regained its independence, I could not stay any longer in Pakistan. I prefer the mud houses of my country to the golden palaces of others.”

Ahmad Shifaee is a journalist working in Kabul.

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