Afghanistan Remembers Music

I listened to a piece from WNYC’s Radio Lab recently only to form a more concrete relationship with the loss that victims suffer under Taliban rule.

From the outside, looking in, the culture seems muddied with the intermingling of past and present times.  Between incomplete reports from the news agencies, history, and modern documentaries, it is difficult at best to discern the true sociology for a given place and time.  My interpretation of the events that have transpired in the Middle East, especially those concerning the Taliban, were that I was getting a one-sided story and that the culture in general seemed very foreign – even hostile – to my Western upbringing.  I didn’t have a real appreciation for the victims, primarily because I felt as though the victims were only really victims because the U.S. government told them they were.  Because I didn’t have the contacts to speak to in the Middle East and I’ve never been to evaluate the situation for myself, I could only trust what I’m told for so far.

The Radio Lab podcast, Pop Music, went into a segment regarding one man’s experience in Afghanistan with his accordion.  The piece is really quite good and I encourage you to listen to it for my post to have it’s full impact.  At any rate, this novice accordion player discovers that some forms of music cross the boundaries – or preconceived boundaries – of our world’s cultures.  There are ideas that translate to sounds in music that are echoed through every civilization and tell the same story.  Afghanistan had just crawled out of very long period of silence during its war with Russia, then Taliban rule.  Music is one of those mediums that can insight such raw emotions in people and the Afghans were no exception.  After the cultural bans experienced through the previous years, this accordion player steps timidly onto a bar stage where prompted by his new audience and supported by his translator, performs Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire to “the best audience [ever].”  It wasn’t particularly well done, but the crowd goes wild.  At a certain point during the program, I was awashed with a feeling of joy, triumph, grief, and camaraderie.  There’s probably a more succinct way of stating that, but it isn’t anything that’s happened to me often enough to find the proper word for.

It was this last bit that really stuck with me.  I finally understood what it must have been like to live in such a stifled society as to be allowed no cultural displays; no music, no dancing, no art.  It’s an incredible feeling of sadness and hopelessness that I feel when I try to imagine it.

The Taliban were not the first to run a people in this way, and it’s doubtful they’ll be the last.  I just hope that I’m always in a place where I am free to explore my culture, or anybody else’s for that matter.  I really hope that people being oppressed in the world today find liberation and the strength to reunite with their forgotten past.

Further Reading: Afghanistan, Ahmad Zahir, Taliban


  1. Art and music are the heart and soul of mankind. I think that, above all else, is what defines us as human. Animals can be creative, but it is usually associated with some part of basic survival. I think only humans create just to create. In this we are mirrors of our greater Source.

  2. It’s hard to explain to folks what pre-Taliban Afghanistan was like w/out me ever seeing it first hand. I, of course, can only go off what I’m told from my friends and colleagues who lived over there during that time. Of course, life wasn’t that great before the Taliban- especially under various Shah regimes…but that poor war-torn country has been through a lot, and when the Taliban came in there and took away what little “Afghan-culture” they had left, it was very heart-wrenching for most Afghans. It’s sad to see and listen to my friends talk about their homelands (pre-Islamic extremist ruled homelands). They tear up when they talk about their childhood and how wonderful things were for them. And honestly, for the most part, they are all VERY GRATEFUL for what our country is doing over there. Obviously some of our strategies could have been played out a lot better if all of the pieces fell into place and we’ve also made several mistakes in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But, coming from a 10-year USAF veteran and current Dept of Defense “intell-geek” / language analyst / and mid-east language instructor – we’ve done a pretty damn good job over there – all things considering. We have never once went into a country and attempted to impose our western values, customs, and culture onto another nation. We are the only country in the world to have ever battled with an enemy, and then when the smoke clears, dump millions upon millions of dollars into the reconstruction and conservation of that same civilization with which we fought! I just wish more folks saw that. When the Taliban “conquered” Afghanistan, they took away a rich and proud heritage…and now they are slowly starting to rebuild that within themselves. It was awesome to see all of those men being able to shave their beards for the first time in over a decade! It was inspiring to be able to watch grandfathers “legally” teach their grandchildren how to play chess!!!

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