After Taliban Attack In Kabul, A Music Teacher Keeps Playing
By Rod Nordland
DEC. 30, 2015
KABUL, Afghanistan — When a Taliban suicide bomber infiltrated a play being staged in a high school attached to the French cultural institute here, it was not clear at first who the target was. The audience was packed with diplomats and prominent Afghans, and the bomber made his way to the front row, where he blew himself up next to a German spectator, killing him.
A few seats away was Ahmad Naser Sarmast, the head of the school, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. Mr. Sarmast was badly injured in the blast, and Taliban statements soon made it clear that he had been the target.
The Taliban were also angry about a student play performed as part of the concert that denounced suicide bombings, and sent a child as their bomber.
A year later, Mr. Sarmast has still not fully recovered. When a bomb goes off nearby, survivors’ hearing is often destroyed. Mr. Sarmast was rendered nearly deaf, a potentially career-ending injury for a musician; he plays and teaches the trumpet and piano, in addition to running the school. Shrapnel lodged in his brain.
An operation restored the hearing in his right ear, but he has only 20 to 30 percent hearing in the left. Doctors are waiting for that ear to heal naturally. If it does not, Mr. Sarmast expects to have another operation in the spring in Australia, where he has residency privileges.
None of this affected the school’s busy schedule of performances in 2015, and Mr. Sarmast was back at work within weeks of the attack. He had already built the music institute into a renowned organization with appearances by its student ensembles all over the world, from Carnegie Hall in New York to the Sydney Film Festival. This year, despite the bombing, the school won a Unesco award for innovation in education.
On a recent Sunday during term break, Mr. Sarmast was in his office after most of his staff had left, “the time when I really get to work,” as he put it. He gestured at piles of paperwork on his desk. “Fund-raising, planning, thinking.”
End-of-term exams had just finished, so there were no students around, and an empty campus can be a melancholy place. The playground is normally full, since classes and sessions are staggered.
Head scarves on girls are optional at the institute; some wear them, some do not. The school is thoroughly coeducational. It may be the only one in Afghanistan with entirely mixed classrooms and musical ensembles.
It is also not an expensive private school; it is a Ministry of Education institution, and most of the students are on scholarships. In fact, the poorest are paid by the school to attend: one of Mr. Sarmast’s innovations. He hands out weekly stipends that are just high enough to make it uneconomical for the children’s families to put them to work in the fields or begging in the streets.
Mr. Sarmast conceded, “It’s been a pretty rough year.” After the suicide bombing, the Taliban said they had intended to assassinate Mr. Sarmast and would try again. Then information came from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, that a squad of four Taliban attackers was getting ready to storm the school. Later, the Australian Embassy warned Mr. Sarmast of credible threats to either the school or himself, and urged him to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible.
He declined. “They didn’t know if the threat was against me or against the school,” he said. “How could I leave and let the school take all the risk, all my students and staff?”
Instead, he stayed and threw his energies into making the school safe, an effort he described with as much brio as if talking about his next concert. He rattled off improvements. There are watchtowers now, as well as other security measures that he asked not be detailed.
What was most important to him, though, was making these changes in a way that did not arouse anxieties among students or their families, but made them feel safer in a society where bomb blasts are a regular feature of life.
The Taliban attack, though it killed one person and wounded more than a dozen others, also had a tremendously uplifting effect, as Mr. Sarmast described it. When he regained consciousness the day after the bombing, he was lying in a bed at Emergency, an Italian-run trauma hospital here, and the staff told him that 200 or 300 people were waiting outside to see him.
“They all came wanting to know if they could give blood or something, anything,” he said. “It was very amazing, very moving and touching.”
That inspired him, he said. The school’s Winter Music Academy had just begun, and the evening concert that was bombed had been a key part of it. The concerts were held once a week for eight weeks, with everyone in town invited. Those widely distributed invitations had apparently leaked out and reached the Taliban, so such events would no longer be wise.
Mr. Sarmast had an idea. He would make the evening concerts lunchtime affairs instead, and rather than inviting diplomats and socialites, the school would invite orphans and children from refugee camps to come to campus for concerts tailored to them. “What could be better?” he said. “These are the most music-deprived people in our society. And they loved it.”
He figures the Taliban did him and the students a favor. Back when the insurgents were in power, they completely banned all but religious music; it is why they were determined to kill Mr. Sarmast. Instead, the school prospered after the attack.
Not only did he lose none of his expatriate music teachers, but he gained even more. For eight positions he had been unable to fill, he was suddenly deluged with applications from all over the world. “For two years, our cello position had been vacant,” he said. “Overnight, I had 10 applications.”
Another Winter Music Academy, sponsored by the American Embassy and the Ministry of Education, will begin Jan. 9 and run through the end of February. Again, Mr. Sarmast said, the institute will hold its concerts for the poor, the orphaned, the deprived and the musicless.
Source: New York Times