From 9/11 to the silent rubab

By our founder William Harvey

Twenty years ago today, I performed for members of the Fighting Sixty-Ninth regiment as they returned from a long day of clean-up work at Ground Zero of the World Trade Center in New York City. The letter I wrote about this experience went viral, and inspired me to want a life in which music would be an active agent of positive social change.

A couple months later, in the aftermath of the defeat of the music-hating Taliban, the New York Times interviewed a 16-year-old named Ajmal from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, who said, “We are searching for any kind of music. It’s been six years since I heard music. There are no words to explain the happiness I think I will feel when I hear it.” What would be the affect on Ajmal if an American were the first person to play music for him?

My experience 20 years ago today and that one article started a journey that led me to found Cultures in Harmony in 2005, and eventually, to move to Afghanistan in 2010. For four wonderful years, I taught violin and conducted the orchestra at Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded by Dr. Ahmad Sarmast. Playing and conducting Afghan music frequently on national television allowed me to present a different model of how Afghans and Americans could relate. The American presence, a direct result of 9/11, created the security that allowed the students I taught to believe in a different model for how Afghanistan could function as a country: one that cherished its millennia-old musical traditions and gave women and men, girls and boys, and people from all ethnic groups the freedom to participate in society. 

Since the Taliban stunned the world by retaking Kabul on August 15, each day I receive dozens of messages from Afghan musicians desperate to get out. Dr. Sarmast has been focusing on evacuating the ANIM community, while many other musicians come to me. Now I manage a WhatsApp group representing 334 Afghan musicians eager to get out. While I was typing this message to you, yet another contacted me: a singer named Jawad wrote to my WhatsApp just now, “if taliban knows i am a singer they will kill me.” The assassination of Fawad Andarabi was the first documented instance since August 15 of the Taliban killing someone for being a musician. 

We’ve made some progress with partners in the USA, Mexico, Chile, Germany, Italy, the UK, and Pakistan. But it might not be enough. All 334 people on my list risk total income loss, instrument destruction, persecution, corporal punishment, jail, or assassination. 

We have raised $22,255 so far towards the cost of getting Afghan musicians to the nearest available country on commercial flights. But it is not enough. Please donate today. Your donation will literally save lives.

The world is morally responsible for helping Afghans whom we encouraged to dream dreams that now put them at risk. The letter I wrote about the experience 20 years ago today that inspired me to found Cultures in Harmony ends thusly: “Words only go so far, and even music can only go a little further from there.” With this video of a haunting Afghan folk song, recorded in Kabul’s Darulaman Palace in 2015, I ask you: 

See yourself in the Afghan musician. See the thread that connects the fall of the twin towers to a liberated Afghanistan to a land where the strings of the rubab (their national instrument) have once again fallen silent. Help the Afghan musician in their hour of need, so that they live to lift up their voice another day.  


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