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Piano keys await musician's touch

©Los Angeles Times
December 29, 2001

QASABA, Afghanistan -- In a shabby fourth-floor walk-up in this suburb north of Kabul, beyond a scruffy market filled with wilted produce and scampering kids, stands a thing of beauty that time and Afghans have forgotten.

The black-lacquered piano has languished in silence in an engineer's barren living room since the day the music died, Sept. 26, 1996, when Taliban fundamentalists took power and deemed song and music offenses to God.

Despite the more enlightened era that dawned when the Taliban was driven out last month, there seems no one left in Afghanistan who knows how to play.

"We might as well sell it to a carpenter. Maybe someone could make use of the wood," says Ghulam Mohammed, a member of the extended family living in the sparse three-room flat that was once alive with nightly recitals by a cousin's Russian wife, who has since returned to her homeland.

Mohammed's brother-in-law Shirinel bought the piano from his cousin for less than $100, even though he couldn't play a single note on the Ukraina upright. Nostalgic for the nightly serenades and hopeful that his young sons might one day learn to play, the furloughed public works engineer hid his investment whenever the Taliban staged its destructive raids.

"We put some boards in front and a cloth over the whole thing and convinced them it was a cupboard," he says. Although the piano is partially hidden when the living room door is opened, the room's only other furnishings are the floor cushions and rug of the traditional Afghan salon -- a stark contrast to the instrument.

With the fundamentalists now chased into hiding, the ivory keys could safely be coaxed into music-making. But the Taliban's systematic extinguishing of culture broke spirits as well as keys, chords, strings, bows and trumpets. Unable to indulge their passions and talents, those who might teach a new generation of Afghans their scales have fled abroad.

"After the Taliban came, artists feared there was no hope for them, so they left, and those who went to Europe have found new lives for themselves now," says Ustad Golam Nabi, head of the defunct cultural programming section of Radio Afghanistan.

Rafiq Khushnood, once a popular vocalist and practitioner of Eastern string instruments, returned from his wartime refuge in Pakistan as soon as the Taliban withdrew Nov. 13 from Kabul.

A teacher of classical music among Afghan refugees in the Pakistani city of Peshawar for the past six years, he has been lobbying former colleagues at the radio culture department to help re-establish a Western music school.

Khushnood has urged his friend Shirinel to hold on to his piano for a few more months in hopes that he can buy it for his future students to use.

"It was hardly more than a decade ago that we had a faculty of art at the university and a theater in the city. We had students who went off to Moscow to study at the conservatory or the Bolshoi Ballet," he recalls wistfully. "Now we are starting with nothing, but it must start."

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