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Thousands of Afghan artists are still trying to flee the Taliban

The Heart of Afghanistan (from L to R) is tabla player Hamid Habibzada, pianist Elham Fanoos, singer and harmonium player Ahmad Fanoos and violinist Mehran Fanoos.
Sachyn Mital
Sachyn Mital
The Heart of Afghanistan (from L to R) is tabla player Hamid Habibzada, pianist Elham Fanoos, singer and harmonium player Ahmad Fanoos and violinist Mehran Fanoos.

It takes a lot of people to help one 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 performer on an American Idol-style show called Afghan Star.

The Taliban has banned music across the country. At first, Fanoos didn't leave his home. Then, he says, he received a threatening letter from the Taliban, accusing him and his family members for 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 his father, Elham asked Lesley Rosenthal, the COO of The Juilliard School, if she could help her father. "And she really activated her contacts," Elham tells NPR.

Rosenthal found out that the TV Network behind Afghan Star was partly owned by the Fox Corporation. She reached out to the network, "and they were able to evacuate him and my sister with her family with some of the Fox journalists," says Elham.

In late October 2021, the elder Fanoos made it to New York. It was the first time he'd seen Elham in five years. The organization Artistic Freedom Initiative (AFI) helped Fanoos find housing and a job teaching at The New School. Last year, Mehran was given 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's grateful to all of the people who helped him and his family flee Afghanistan. But he's concerned about the musicians in his band that he left behind.

"He knew them for over 20 years," Elham translates, "They were like basically brothers and now he's apart from them."

Fanoos says none of them have been able to leave.

According to AFI, some 3,000 artists have asked the organization to help them leave Afghanistan or neighboring countries to which they've fled.

"The arts are a special profession in Afghanistan. You are inherently at risk by being an artist," says Sanjay Sethi, an immigration lawyer and Co-Executive Director of AFI. The stories they're hearing are "harrowing," says another AFI Co-Executive Director, Ashley Tucker.

"Beatings or raids on their homes or their instruments being taken or burned," Tucker explains. "We continue to hear stories from the artists who are still desperately trying to get out."

The Fanoos family hopes their upcoming U.S. concert tour, under the name The Heart of Afghanistan, will help draw 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, blending the tabla drum, harmonium, piano and violin. The group performs at Lincoln Center's GlobalFEST in New York this weekend.

Meantime, Elham and Mehran's mother and Ahmad Fanoos' wife is still trying to leave India. She has never seen the three of them perform together.

"That's one of her dreams, to see all of us on a stage together, live, and to be there," he says. "That's going to be something special. I'm sure she will cry."

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Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.