Migrant culture

November 26, 2023

Afghan artistes fleeing persecution in their own country face another dilemma

Migrant culture


s thousands of Afghan refugees trudge back to their country, one wonders about the fate of Afghan musicians and artistes who had sneaked into Pakistan after the Taliban victory in Afghanistan.

Given their narrow interpretations of Islam, much that happens in the world is unacceptable to the Taliban. There is no ambiguity in their views about the arts, in particular the performing arts. Over the past five decades, many Afghan musicians have been kicked around from one country to another. Those who have settled in the West seem to have done relatively well.

However, the choice is conditioned by several variables. Those who stayed back in Afghanistan after the NATO troops invaded the country found themselves in an environment where they could practice their art and play a role through cultural edification and hence make a living. For 20 odd years, the art and media scene improved for the performers. Various outlets flourished, allowing men as well as women to participate in cultural activities and showcase their talents. The sudden change of regime two years ago again forced many to think of other options, including migration. The first port of call is across the Durand Line in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces of Pakistan. Many end up later in Karachi, the city that could be hosting the largest number of Afghans in the world.

After the first Taliban takeover in the 1990s, many artistes were forced to flee. They made Peshawar their home. In those years, the city became a major centre of Pashtun music. Studios were set up and distribution agencies and cassette shops sprouted up, catering to a growing market of Afghan music listeners.

But then came the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa during the Musharaf-era that banned music and other cultural activities. This made many of the musicians and performers to go back to their country then under NATO occupation. For the next 20 odd years, the Afghan musicians shifted back to the streets and squares of Kabul, leaving the shops and hospices of Peshawar. Subsequent governments had a relatively liberal outlook and provided the musicians the opportunity to escape starvation, if not poverty.

After the Taliban takeover in the 1990s, many artistes were forced to flee. Some of them made Peshawar their home. Over the years, the city became a major centre of Pashtun music.

Being knocked around from one country to another has been the tragic fate of many a performing artiste. It was hoped that this will come to an end but it appears that the misery is to continue for us and for them. The artistes just do not know what to do. Go back to their country, hide their identity, do menial work or just languish and starve in fear of repression or seek a revision of the policy in Pakistan?

After decades of conflict in Afghanistan, the Pashtun diaspora in the West has grown. Those settled in the Western counties have provided refuge and helped those fleeing the country in later waves. They must still want to do that through the illegal channels that cannot be shut down entirely. Given the nature of the unending problem, the stance of even the more receptive countries is hardening. New waves of refugees are being opposed by the first or second generation of refugees who are now comfortably settled in their naturalised countries. The approach associated with the recently sacked British home secretary is becoming the new normal. The opposition, too, is based on the figures almost akin to a tsunami. More and more politicians are turning to a more rightwing framework.

Countries across the world need to put their house in order and make their lands suitable for a reasonable living. Pakistan, too, is sadly a place increasingly to flee from. This is amply demonstrated by the number of those flapping their wings to take off. If it can still be a refuge to some, this is a clear indication of the utter plight of the societies they are fleeing from.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

Migrant culture