The Displaced Rabab

Shams Sanam, Afghan musician

I was at home having dinner with my family and my father when I got a call. I left the dinner table and went outside to take it. The man on the other end asked for my address. Then he threatened me. He said he will chop off our heads and our hands and will destroy all our musical instruments.

The day after the call, my father told me to leave for Pakistan. I already had a visa.

I was scared and all alone. And then I came here–to Peshawar. Where else could I go?

Read the full transcript

I am Shams Sanam from Nangrahar, Afghanistan. My father, Ustad Sanam Gul, is the best tabla player in Afghanistan. He won a gold medal.

I was 11 years old when I developed a passion for rabab. I also got rabab lessons from rabab master Ustad Humayun Sakhi.

We’ve been here for six months, and this is the fourth house that we’ve moved to.

The owner of this house gave us a notice to move out. He said he has sold the property. He told us to get a house somewhere else. My brother and I have been house-hunting for 15 days, but no one wants to rent to Afghans.

They demand $1500–$2000 in advance to let us rent it. We don’t have this kind of money. We don’t have such resources.

We have trouble finding one paid music performance per week. The money we make is hardly enough to feed our family, our children. It’s tough. We have 18 members in the family, including five school-aged children.

Every morning, I wake up with anxiety about how to pay our bills —electricity, gas, the children’s tuition fee for school. This is the second time we have become refugees.

Ustad Sanam Gull, Shams’s Father

The first time I became a refugee, I had two children. This time, I am a refugee with my grandchildren.

Shams Sanam

In Afghanistan, whenever the artists had a get together, we used to discuss the possibility of Taliban rule. We used to discuss how the Taliban would treat us and it scared us.

We worried they would come to our homes or work. We thought they would cut off our hands or even kill us. The artists were scared.

We heard that the Taliban had entered Kabul. All our programs were canceled and everything was chaotic. My family was in Nangarhar. I talked to my family in Nangarhar. They told me to leave Kabul immediately.

At 10 o’clock at night, I called a cab. Throughout the journey, I was gripped by fear. It was total chaos.

People were telling me that they would slaughter me, that they would not let me go. At home, the whole family was afraid.

In other districts, like Kaama, the Taliban raided some evening performances, beat up musicians and smashed their instruments.

Ustad Sanam Gull

In Afghanistan, we had music academies. Students took music lessons. Things were organized.

Still, it’s a blessing that we managed to get some instruments out.

Some transporters took money from us and smuggled our instruments to Peshawar.

We can only thank them.

I want to go back but only if things change in Afghanistan. I have no money, so I might have to sell all this.

For now, there seems to be no hope for Afghanistan.

Last time we became refugees, it took us 22 years to return. Who knows how long we are fated to be refugees this time.

Shams Sanam

I am glad that after a long break I’m performing with so many other artists again.

In Afghanistan, we were invited to play at the best venues–official concerts.

I have been here for eight months but there is hardly any work.

No one knows us locally, so no one invites us to play anywhere. I wish they did. I wish people recognized us and our work.

After the Taliban took over, some 160 Afghan musicians left that country and came here.

Our music is in danger under the Taliban. It’s heading toward extinction.

I fear for our music and our children’s future. We don’t have other skills.

I have been playing rabab for the last 17 years.

This is my passion. I can’t do other things.

It’s the same for my father and others in my family.

Our children’s lives and education depend on it.

I am confident that once people hear me, they’ll like my music. They’ll acknowledge my art.

It broke my heart when the Taliban came. I felt like our music died, like it was the end for the rabab. For a month and a half, I forgot everything. The rabab. Everything.

My mind became blank to any tune, any song.

I was kissing the instruments. These are precious. These have been with us for decades. All of this. These drums, these have been with us from the time of my father and grandfather.

We the Pashtuns have lost much of our culture. We’ve lost the richness of our traditions.

If this collapse [of Afghanistan] leads to the closure of our music schools, then we will be left empty handed. We will be doing dishonesty by our future generations.

Shams Sanam

No one knows us in Peshawar. We need to market ourselves. We need contacts.

Some friends suggested that we launch a YouTube channel to make money. But YouTube is very competitive. People won’t watch unless our music is well produced.

That’s why traveled almost 300 kilometers to come here, to find nice visuals to appeal to the public.

I hope that the Afghan culture, our music, our melodies don’t die. I hope they survive.


Hamid Ullah
Field Producer
Usman Khan
Associate Producer
Malik Waqar Ahmed
Camera and Editing
Nafees Takar
Concept & Research
Ayesha Tanzeem
Executive Producer

About the project

One year into Taliban rule, VOA has taken a detailed and objective look at Afghanistan, yesterday and today. In this special project, we bring you previously untold stories, features on Afghan refugees and their struggles in foreign lands, eyewitness accounts of the day Kabul fell, analytical pieces on the Taliban’s governance, security challenges, and relations with regional countries, and several documentaries.