When the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan two years ago, the militant regime restricted music — again — for causing "moral corruption." But, as Kabul was falling, pianist and composer Arson Fahim found refuge in Cambridge at Longy School of Music. “I know musicians who are still in Afghanistan,” he said. “And they've had to destroy their own instruments for fear of being caught."
At Longy, the 23-year-old can practice in a building filled with pianos. During his childhood in Pakistan, where he was born an Afghan refugee, Fahim had never even seen one. “My only way of even knowing about it was through movies,” he recalled.
One of them was Roman Polanski's “The Pianist,” which tells the true story of Jewish musician Władysław Szpilman whose art helped him survive in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. “I found it hard to believe, to be honest,” Fahim said. He remembered wondering, “How could music save someone's life? Can it really be that powerful?”
In his homeland, making music could mean death. The Taliban banned it after taking power for the first time in the mid-1990s. “Sometimes they would kill musicians,” Fahim said, “or cut off their hands just for playing an instrument.”
But, after the United States ousted the Taliban in 2001, music flourished in Afghanistan. When Fahim's family moved back in 2012, he finally got to play a real piano. He took lessons, practiced eight hours a day, and learned the Chopin nocturne he first heard in “The Pianist.”
As a teen, Fahim got into the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, the country's only conservatory. It was founded in 2010. But even with the Taliban out of power, he said extremists continued to target artists. “Just being a musician in Afghanistan means you're not just a musician, you're also an activist, you're doing something that is putting your life in danger,” Fahim said.
A tragedy compelled Fahim to compose one of his first piano pieces. He wrote it for Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year-old woman who was killed by a mob in 2015. “She was falsely accused of burning the Quran, and an angry crowd started beating her, they threw her off a building and drove a car over her,” the musician said. They also set her on fire, in the middle of Kabul, with hundreds of people watching.
For a long time, Fahim was in shock. He kept asking himself, “How can humans be so cruel?” To mark the anniversary of her death, Fahim performed “Farkhunda” on the very spot where she died.
Despite ongoing threats to his school, Fahim continued to study and compose music, and eventually conducted the orchestra. He went on to apply to Longy and received a full scholarship, but had to defer because of the pandemic. Then, as Fahim was getting ready to fly to America, U.S. forces were preparing to pull out of Afghanistan.
“We were worried he wouldn't get out,” Longy president Karen Zorn recalled.
But Fahim made it, just two weeks before Afghanistan fell, again, to the Taliban. Since arriving, the young musician has been sharing his mission at Longy. “He's had life experiences that, I think it's fair to say, have matured him beyond his years,” Zorn said, “and that shows up in who he is as a person and who he is in our community.”
Zorn sees Fahim as a musical ambassador who's deploying soft diplomacy to raise awareness about the brutality in his country. Fahim explained, “I want my music to be a way for me to fight for social justice, and actually 'fight' is a good word because that's how I feel about my instrument — I feel like I'm on the front line of a war against barbarity.”
Once in Cambridge, Fahim poured the churn of sadness, guilt and dismay he felt into a composition called “Broken Mountains.” “People here in the U.S. — which is so directly involved with everything that happened in Afghanistan — just didn't seem to care ... as my country's falling apart,” he said with a catch in his voice.
"I want my music to be a way for me to fight for social justice, and actually 'fight' is a good word because that's how I feel about my instrument — I feel like I'm on the front line of a war against barbarity."Arson Fahim
“Broken Mountains” began as a piano piece with a melancholic, cinematic melody. “Kabul is just surrounded by mountains that are so beautiful, so grand,” Fahim explained. “And I could feel how hard it must have been for those mountains to suffer again and again.”
Other musicians wanted to join in Fahim's work, so he expanded it for an orchestral ensemble. They performed it at a fundraiser he and fellow students organized called the Concert in Solidarity with Afghan Musicians. In 2022 and 2023, players from around the world – including Afghan exiles – brought “Broken Mountains” to life.
Hearing the piece, in a hall filled with other musicians, gave 26-year-old Negin Khpalwak goosebumps. Then it made her cry. When she lived in Afghanistan, she conducted Zohra, the country's first all-female orchestra.
“I was thinking about all of the things that happened in Afghanistan for me, for my family, for the music,” Khpalwak said from her new home in Virginia, “and about how hard it is for musicians not to play.”
Khpalwak has known Fahim since he was a teen and said he's always been driven to support women. You can hear that in “Broken Mountains." At one point, the orchestra recedes. Then a solo soprano releases a plaintive wail.
“That was a very intentional decision,” Fahim explained, “because one of the most important things that the Taliban are taking away is women's rights. I felt like screaming, and I'm sure that Afghan women feel like screaming.”
Fahim's heart breaks for his younger sister in Afghanistan who's being denied the right to an education. Every day, he worries about his family and friends back home. But, even with reports of the Taliban burning instruments in bonfires, Fahim holds on to hope. “I have 100% faith that there will be a day where people like me – Afghans – will be able to return,” he said, “and have more music than ever before.”
Until then, Fahim will keep amplifying their silenced voices through his compositions, performances and an upcoming CD he curated of works by musicians in hiding under the Taliban. He also hopes to host another Concert in Solidarity with Afghan Musicians in 2024.
In a concert on Oct. 28, Arson Fahim's teacher Don Berman will perform a program titled "Long Distance" at Longy School of Music, which includes a new work from Fahim, "Song from a Dreamland." The piece is "a symbol of the hope and change made possible through love and art."
This segment aired on October 18, 2023.