When Ahmad Sarmast said he would give his life to music, he meant it quite literally.
After more than a decade in Australia, Sarmast, a musicology professor and son of a renowned conductor, returned to after the fall of the Taliban to establish the country’s first institute for classical music.
After a ban on music during the Taliban’s rule, Sarmast ushered in a musical revolution.
Not only did he create a symphony orchestra, which soon including the Kennedy Centre in Washington and the Royal Festival Hall in London, but he also deliberately reserved a number of slots in the orchestral institute for .
But a few months ago, the insurgents came close to silencing Sarmast and his orchestra.
On 11 December, the professor was enjoying the fruits of many months’ labour when his orchestra performed alongside a drama troupe at the French cultural centre in Kabul. Sarmast was seated in the front row.
“The show was a beautiful one. The music was so powerful, the actors’ playing so masterly,” Sarmast remembered.
At one point during the performance, he heard a commotion outside the hall. Following routine, he reached for his mobile phone to check if his driver had alerted him to anything.
That second, a blast ripped through the crowd. Sarmast was knocked unconscious. “I felt like someone with a cricket bat hit my head with his entire energy and power,” Sarmast recalled.
Police later told him he had been sitting only a few seats away from the suicide bomber. When he regained consciousness, Sarmast felt “a very warm liquid all over my body. When I touched, I saw there was a lot of blood.”
He had survived , but he was far from unscathed. Eleven pieces of shrapnel had lodged in the back of his head. And, immediately after the attack, Sarmast had difficulties hearing. An hour later, a man whose entire life revolved around music had become completely deaf.
“At that moment, I thought: ‘You’re a musician, you’re dealing with music, what is going to happen?’” Sarmast said. “But when you are between life and death, I was happy that I was alive.”
His hearing gradually returned, but it was severely damaged. In his sleep, the sound of the blast kept returning.
“[The sound] was probably a combination of the shrapnel entering my head, and the explosion itself,” he said. “The nightmares were different, but the sound was exactly the same. Very loud, very scary.”
Sarmast flew to Australia to undergo surgery, but for many weeks he could barely hear high notes, while bass notes were overwhelmingly loud. “I had the feeling, twenty-four seven, that a large symphony orchestra was playing out of tune in both ears. That was very, very annoying and demoralising,” he said.
Eventually, surgeons removed the shrapnel from his skull and restored his hearing to a level where he could distinguish instruments and once again enjoy the sound of a full orchestra. In April, Sarmast returned to Kabul.
Walking the halls of the Afghan National Institute of Music, Sarmast surveyed students and teachers at work. In one room, a trio of teenagers practised scale patterns on Spanish guitars. Next door, 10 children rehearsed a fast-paced, bouncy tune on traditional instruments including tablas, drums and , a stringed instrument.
In the big auditorium, the youth orchestra, the crown jewel of the school, was polishing up Beethoven’s Egmont and an intermezzo from Bizet’s CarmenThe orchestra included former street children, orphans and children of middle-class families. It was as diverse in ethnicity as it was in age. Boys and girls sat side by side, a sight still unseen in most parts of the country.
In a statement after the attack on the French cultural centre, the named Sarmast specifically, accusing him of corrupting the youth of Afghanistan.
“Music and music education is the most powerful force, but a very soft power,” he said with a smile. “I see in our orchestra tomorrow’s Afghanistan. An Afghanistan which embraces diversity and creates equal opportunity for everyone. A most beautiful mosaic of Afghan ethnicity.”
Sarmast, who is 53, fled his native Afghanistan in the early 1990s. After receiving a master’s degree in musicology from Moscow University in 1993, he applied for asylum to Australia, where he continued his studies, completing a PhD at Monash University in 2005.
Three years later, he returned to Afghanistan as a force behind the Revival of Afghan Music project. He continues to preserve Afghanistan’s largely oral music tradition by writing it down in western notation.
“Ahmad Sarmast is unique in the world,” said Emma Ayres, a prominent British-Australian string instructor at the institute. “He basically saved Afghan music.”
Had Sarmast not returned after his medical stay in Australia, the strong leadership he has put in place would have carried on the school, she said – but it would have been difficult. “His spirit is just soaked into these walls,” Ayres said.
Sarmast’s wife and children live abroad, but he said he had never contemplated staying in Australia. “Not returning to Afghanistan would demoralise my faculty and my students,” he said, adding that many of his students had also been deeply traumatised by the attack in December.
“The enemies of Afghanistan,” he continued, “made a big mistake. They made us more resolved, more committed, and now we believe the job that we’ve been doing made them miserable.”
In fact, rather than shy away, Sarmast is redoubling his efforts. He is building a new concert hall behind the institute, complete with a dormitory for girls and a safe room to guard against attacks.
Eventually, peace will come to Afghanistan, he said. The key is education and information, including for those who today want him dead.
“Freedom of expression,” Sarmast said, “will help them open their minds. They will see what we are doing here is not a threat.”