For more than a decade, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music has been a symbol of the country’s changing identity. The school trained hundreds of young artists, many of them orphans and street vendors, in artistic traditions once banned by the Taliban. It formed an all-female orchestra that performed extensively in Afghanistan and abroad.
But in recent days, as the Taliban reconsolidated control of Afghanistan, the future of the school has been questioned.
In interviews, several students and teachers said they feared that the Taliban, who have a history of attacking school leaders, would try to punish people affiliated with the school and their families. Some said they were afraid that the school would be closed and that they would not be allowed to play anymore. Several female students said they had been staying in their homes since the capital was taken on Sunday
“It’s a nightmare,” Ahmad Naser Sarmast, the school principal, said in a telephone interview from Melbourne, Australia, where he arrived for medical treatment last month.
The Taliban banned most forms of music when they previously ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001. This time, they have pledged a more tolerant approach, vowing not to retaliate against their former enemies and saying that women will be allowed to work and study” Within the confines of Islamic law.”
But the history of violence against Taliban artists and their general intolerance to music with no religious significance has cast doubt on many artists.
“My concern is that the people of Afghanistan will be deprived of their music,” said Mr. sarmast. “There will be an attempt to silence the nation.”
In 2010, Mr Sarmast, an Afghan music scholar trained in Australia who plays trumpet and piano, opened the school, which has more than 400 students and staff, with the support of the US-backed government. It was a rarity: a coeducational institution dedicated to teaching music from both Afghanistan and the West.
The school’s musicians have been invited to perform at many of the world’s most renowned venues, including Carnegie Hall. They played western classical music as well as traditional Afghan music and instruments, such as the rubab, which resembles the lute and is one of the national instruments of Afghanistan.
The school placed special emphasis on supporting young women, who make up a third of the students. The school’s all-female orchestra, Zohra, founded in 2015, received widespread acclaim. Many were the first women in their families to receive formal education. As a symbol of the modern way of life, headscarves were optional for girls on the school campus in Kabul.
The school’s habit of challenging tradition made it a target. In 2014, Mr. Sarmast was injured by a Taliban suicide bomber who infiltrated a school play. The Taliban attempted to attack the school again in the following years, but their efforts were thwarted, Mr Sarmast said.
Now female students say they are concerned about a return to a repressive past when the Taliban abolished education for girls and banned women from leaving home without male guardians.
Several female students — who were given anonymity for fear of reprisal — said it felt like their dreams of becoming professional musicians could fall apart. They feared that they might not be able to play music in their lives, even as a hobby.
In recent weeks, as the Taliban rampaged through the country, the school’s network of foreign supporters tried to help by raising funds to improve campus security, including installing an armed gate and walls.
But it is now unclear whether the school will even be allowed to operate under the Taliban. It is also becoming increasingly difficult for citizens of Afghanistan to leave the country. Airport entrances have been a chaotic and often impassable scene for days, even for those with travel documentation. The Taliban control the streets, and although they say they are dispersing crowds at the airport to keep order, there are widespread reports that they are forcibly evicting people if they try to leave the country.
The State Department said in a statement it is working to get US citizens, as well as local personnel and vulnerable Afghans, out of the country, although the airport crowds had made it more difficult. The department said it gave priority to Afghan women and girls, human rights defenders and journalists, among others.
“This effort is of utmost importance to the US government,” the statement said.
In the 1990s, the Taliban allowed religious singing but banned other forms of music because they were seen as a distraction from Islamic studies and could encourage unclean behavior. Taliban officials destroyed instruments and smashed cassette tapes.
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William Maley, an emeritus professor at the Australian National University who has studied Afghanistan, said he was troubled by reports that the Taliban had recently tried to restrict the distribution of popular music in some parts of the country.
“The Taliban were extremely hostile to any kind of music other than religious chants in the 1990s, and people had to hide their instruments and play music in secret,” said Professor Maley. “I wouldn’t be optimistic.”
Amid the chaos in Kabul, students, teachers and alumni of the school have exchanged frantic messages on chat groups. They have complained that they may have to hide their instruments or leave them in the care of others if they try to flee.
William Harvey, who taught violin and conducted the orchestra at the school from 2010 to 2014, said he felt despair because he thought his former students could be put in danger by pursuing their passion. Still, he said the school is an inspiration to artists and audiences around the world.
“We therefore have an enormous responsibility to those students,” said Mr. Harvey, now concertmaster of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional in Mexico. “They have to live to raise their voices again another day.”