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Zarifa Adiba loves music. In Afghanistan, that makes her a target.
Humankind

At just 18, she conducts an orchestra that has performed around the globe. She’s at the top of her high school class, with dreams of attending Yale or Stanford.

In most of the world, that would make her a star student.

In Afghanistan, that makes Zarifa Adiba a target.

Under Taliban rule, music was banned — listening to it, singing it, and above all learning and playing it. But at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded in 2010 in Kabul after the Taliban lost power, music is flourishing.  Zarifa is among the first girls in her country in 30 years to study music. She is also one of two female conductors of the Afghanistan Women’s Orchestra, made up of Institute students between the ages of 13 and 20, who play a mix of Western and traditional Afghan instruments.

They risk their lives with every note. At a school performance about two years ago, Institute founder Dr. Ahmad Sarmast was almost killed by a suicide bomber seated directly behind him who detonated himself mid-concert. Sarmast survived only because he had dropped his cell phone and bent down to pick it up as the blast went off. After the attack, the Taliban issued a statement warning that he – and the school — remained in danger.

Sarmast founded the co-ed Institute, which also gives academic instruction, not only to reintroduce music to his country, but to offer an education to girls who had been denied it.

“A good girl is the one who never goes to school. A good girl is the one who washes the dishes and sits at home,” Zarifa said. “Unfortunately, I am a bad girl, because I go and study. I want my human rights, I want to do what I love.”

Along the way, the Institute is teaching a larger lesson at home and around the world: the power of music to unite, and to heal. It’s a message with resonance everywhere, including the United States.  But it has special meaning in Afghanistan, a country torn apart by war, and whose people have been brutalized by conflict and repression for decades.

“We need more than anything music to recover from the traumas of war, from the divisions that have been imposed on the Afghan people by politicians, not by themselves,” Sarmast said.  “Music is going to teach them to open their minds, and give them the skills to listen to each other, to be patient.”

Within Afghanistan, ethnic rivalries still fester — but not so in the Afghanistan Women’s Orchestra. Zarifa is Hazara; her fellow orchestra conductor and best friend Negin Khpolwak, is Pashtun. In the outside world, they would be bitter enemies, where “Negin hates me and I hate her,” Zarifa explained.  But in the orchestra, “we all are sitting together and playing. We are best friends, and music is the only reason that has put us together.”

The Afghanistan Women’s Orchestra recently performed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to a packed house of world leaders and executives before heading off on a European tour. It’s a remarkable departure from where most of these girls started.

Half of the Institute’s students come from orphanages or were impoverished street hawkers. Negin, 19, lived in an orphanage in Kabul for 10 years — placed there as a desperate measure by her father, who wanted her to get an education that was unavailable to girls in their village.  When Negin enrolled in the Institute, her family was shamed. Her grandmother disowned her father. Her uncles at one point forcibly removed her from the school. Her family ultimately was driven from their village and their home. And yet, she says, “I am the lucky one.  I am educated, and I play music.”

Zarifa too feels like she is one of the lucky ones. Her family fled the Taliban when she was a toddler.  Her father is a refugee in Indonesia. Yet she is irrepressibly optimistic. She is determined to attend college in the United States, get a law degree, then return home to Afghanistan to work on behalf of musicians there. Music “made me more powerful, made me believe that I can do it,” she said.

“I’m dreaming big,” she said. “I was dreaming from childhood that I wanted to study music, but I never believed” it would be possible. “But I got the opportunity to learn music, and now I’m dreaming more. … I believe in my dreams.”

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