Sachyn Mital/Sachyn Mital
It takes a lot of people to help an artist get out of Afghanistan safely.
Ahmad Fanoos is a well-known singer in Afghanistan. Before the Taliban took over, he was a judge and interpreter in a american idol-style show called afghan star.
The Taliban banned music nationwide. At first, Fanoos didn’t come out of his house. Then, he says, he received a threatening letter from the Taliban, accusing him and his family members of being infidels for making music. His wife and 18-year-old son, Mehran, a violinist, had gone to India. Another son, 25-year-old pianist Elham Fanoos, was in New York.
Worried about her father, Elham asked Lesley Rosenthal, the Juilliard School’s chief operating officer, if she could help her father. “And she really activated her contacts,” Elham told NPR.
Rosenthal discovered that the television network behind afghan star was partly owned by the Fox Corporation. She contacted the network, “and they were able to evacuate him and my sister with his family with some of the Fox reporters,” Elham says.
At the end of October 2021, the eldest of the Fanoos traveled to New York. It was the first time he had seen Elham in five years. The Artistic Freedom Initiative (AFI) helped Fanoos find housing and a teaching position at The New School. Last year, Mehran received a full scholarship to study music at Indiana University.
After years apart, Ahmad Fanoos and his sons performed together for the first time last May.
Speaking in Dari, Ahmad Fanoos says he is grateful to everyone who helped him and his family flee Afghanistan. But he is concerned about the musicians in his band he left behind.
Sachyn Mital/Sachyn Mital
“He’s known them for over 20 years,” Elham translates, “They were like basically brothers and now he’s estranged from them.”
Fanoos says none of them could leave.
According to AFI, some 3,000 artists have asked the organization to help them leave Afghanistan or neighboring countries to which they have fled.
“The arts are a special profession in Afghanistan. You are inherently at risk as an artist,” says Sanjay Sethi, immigration lawyer and co-executive director of AFI. The stories they hear are “heartbreaking”, says another AFI co-executive director, Ashley Tucker.
“Beatings or raids on their homes or instruments taken or burned,” Tucker says. “We keep hearing stories of artists who are still desperately trying to get out.”
The Fanoos family hope their upcoming concert tour of the United States, under the name The Heart of Afghanistan, will help bring attention to the plight of their fellow artists and show American audiences a “positive side” and a ” new face” of Afghanistan.
Their music is a kind of intersection between East and West, mixing tabla drum, harmonium, piano and violin. The band is performing this weekend at GlobalFEST at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Meanwhile, Elham and Mehran’s mother and Ahmad Fanoos’ wife are still trying to leave India. She never saw the three play together.
“It’s one of his dreams, to see us all together on stage, live and be there,” he says. “It’s going to be something special. I’m sure she’s going to cry.”