Afghan artists who fled oppression now face it in Pakistan

Years after escaping civil war and the Taliban regime, Afghan musicians in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province are facing tough new laws

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ten years ago, the popular Afghan singer Humayun Hairat left his homeland because of civil war. Five years ago, when the Taliban came to power, Mr. Hairat was forced to remain in exile because of a Taliban ban on music.

Today, with the Taliban gone, the young singer is in a bind. Peace is still not a sure thing in Afghanistan; and here in Pakistan, religious parties are beginning to impose the same laws that made it impossible for him to work under the Taliban.

In one of their first acts, the six religious parties that won electoral control of the Northwest Frontier province last fall banned music in public buses and taxis. Last month, police forced musicians to take down signboards with pictures of musical instruments.

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"When I go to parties to perform, I sometimes hear people saying stop the music, because there are Taliban here," Hairat says. "I don't feel fear, because there is no ban here. I'm not sure whether our music will be banned or not."

It's the kind of unease that hundreds of Afghan musicians are feeling in this Pakistani border state. Initially euphoric over the defeat of the Taliban in their homeland, many Afghan refugees are horrified that some of the Taliban's staunchest backers have taken control of the land of their exile. The Oct. 10 election of six pro-Taliban religious parties has brought a number of new state laws and ordinances that mirror the strict social rules of the Taliban. Some leading Pakistanis worry that Pakistan itself may soon become "Talibanized."

Most of the Taliban leadership attended hard-line religious seminaries in Pakistan, and it is these seminaries, run by radical religious parties that won the October election, that are providing a base for a social revolution in the province. "I think what has happened in Afghanistan - the imposition of strict social rules by the Taliban - actually was born inside Pakistan in the seminaries of a particular religious sect," says Khalid Ahmed, consulting editor of the Friday Times, a leading weekly in the city of Lahore. "Now these same clergy are rising to power in the frontier."

But Mr. Ahmed believes any Talibanization will be temporary, in part because Pakistan is much more pluralistic than Afghanistan, with a variety of religious sects, political parties, and economic actors competing for and balancing each other's power.

"The democratic process will water down these restrictions. If you look at the vote in Punjab, where 62 percent of the population lives, these same clergy won only 2 percent of the vote," says Ahmed. "What this means is that the majority of the voters do not accept them."

Rasool Shabahang, a refugee from Kabul who came to Peshawar a decade ago during the brutal civil war that followed the defeat of the Soviet Army, says he hasn't felt the threat to his livelihood by the new government. As long as people get married, or celebrate the birth of a son, or just plain feel like a party, musicians will find enough work to feed their families, he says.

"Music is a part of your soul, but those who don't understand music don't appreciate it," says Mr. Shabahang. "I just hope that I don't have to face the policies where I have to fear for myself. When you ask about the future, only Allah knows, but we have to perform. It is in my blood."

But the new government is not targeting musicians alone. It has also taken action against painters and visual artists, ordering movie theaters to pull down their hand-painted billboards for the latest Pashtu or Urdu language thrillers, deeming these too lascivious or provocative. And in a chilling reminder of the Taliban times of Afghanistan, some billboards or advertisements have been literally defaced, with the human figures painted over with black or white paint.

"We all feel that fear inside," says Shamir Khan, a video cameraman who tapes weddings. "There is so much fear, and we have gone through so much that we are afraid even of ourselves, and what could happen to us."

Safuddin Khandaan, a comedian and refugee from Kabul, says the key to survival is making people laugh. "I don't make jokes just for the sake of making a political point, I just believe in making people laugh," Mr. Khandaan says.

As if he can't help himself, he stands up and starts dancing like a belly dancer. "I want to see a government that likes artists, and we don't mind making them happy," he says. He then makes a fist. "But if someone hits us, we will flee."

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