“The Taliban scare me, but not as much as I scare them.
“I’m a woman from Afghanistan and I’m a musician. My songs told stories of femininity, pain and the spirit of resistance.”
These are the defiant words of Elaha Soroor, a singer, composer and designer from Afghanistan. Soroor shot to fame in her country in 2008 after appearing on Afghan Star, their equivalent of The X Factor.
She says: “When I first performed to Afghan audiences as a young woman, I met girls who told me that they feel braver and empowered by watching me on the TV. The Taliban didn’t like that at all, a strong progressive role model for Afghan girls. But we won’t be silenced.”
After a series of hit singles, Soroor began to use her platform to speak out about women’s rights, but her security was threatened and she was forced to flee the country.
She is now based in London, performing with the Kefaya collective and continuing to raise awareness of her people’s persecution while celebrating Afghanistan’s endangered culture.
The Big Issue: Does Afghan Star still exist?
Elaha Soroor: No, the show is not running at this moment due to the ban on music.
When did it become clear you had to leave Afghanistan to stay safe?
Following the release of my song Sangsar, which spoke out against the stoning laws, life became more difficult for me in Kabul. Myself and people close to me were targeted and intimidated so I decided it was best for me to leave. The Taliban had a lot of influence in the country and they tried hard to discredit and defame women who were active in media and politics. I resorted to living with friends to feel safe, but ultimately even my friends and family were targeted for providing me with sanctuary. Eventually I had no choice but to leave.
How is culture surviving in Afghanistan at the moment?
Culture is one of the most resilient human attributes. I believe that although it may move underground, culture will always survive even the harshest environments. People are using technology to document what’s happening to them and activists and artists who’ve left are doing all they can to produce their work with what little resources they have. This collective effort is meant to keep the lifeblood of Afghan culture alive.
The radio and TV shows that used to play your music – what are they playing and showing now?
The Taliban currently broadcasts lots of religious content, and they purposely use their airtime to destroy and diminish Afghan culture. The Taliban is a racist and misogynist group that only represents a very narrow-minded outlook on the world. It is their intention to propagate this way of thinking across Afghanistan and the world. This is a political tool used by the Taliban and has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with power. Now more than ever it’s important for Afghan artists to produce as much work as possible and to build a bridge of communication with the world that the Taliban can’t burn.
Do you feel responsibility to safeguard and promote Afghan culture because people in your country can’t?
These days, raising awareness about the humanitarian crisis that’s taking place there is one of the most valuable things we can do from our side of the world. I feel that artists are meant to create art, and their work is inevitably influenced by their culture and upbringing. I see my work as an extension of myself, but am extremely happy when I see that others feel represented in it. Since I began working as an artist, I felt it my duty to preserve culture and traditions not only for the sake of its survival, but of my own.
Is music and film and art from outside accessible at all to people in Afghanistan? Can they still listen to your music?
I am not sure, but I believe in the resilience of art and hope that people all across Afghanistan listen to music whenever they can. Currently the only way people can access music is through their phones using the internet and the Taliban is using methods to suppress that also, similar to other countries such as the Islamic Republic of Iran and North Korea.
If we wanted to learn about Afghan culture, where should we start?
There are lots of good works to choose from. Here are some of my favourites:
Literature: Music in the Mind: The Concepts of Music and Musician in Afghanistan by Hiromi Lorraine Sakata.
Music: Qais Isar, Kabul Fire Records, Kefaya, Ustad Rahim Khushnawaz, Mir Maftoon, Sonita.
You are one of the producers of Fly With Me, why was it important to you to put on this festival?
I find Fly With Me to be an empowering and accessible way to show solidarity with the people of Afghanistan. As an Afghan woman, I feel I represent a very large part of the population that has been suppressed and as such, it is my duty and privilege to be a link between my origin and host cultures.
These days, raising awareness about the humanitarian crisis that’s taking place there is one of the most valuable things we can do from our side of the world. Fly With Me represents the rich and joyous culture of Afghanistan and allows a channel for Afghans to remember as well as for strangers to Afghan culture to acquaint themselves with our customs and traditions.
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