by Mohammad Jawad/ DPA
Kabul: A life devoted to music nearly came to an abrupt end with a 2014 bomb blast during a cultural show in Kabul: Ahmad Naser Sarmast, who is head of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, was left deaf.
"I was lucky to be alive," says Dr Sarmast, recalling the terrorist attack. He was flown to Australia for surgery and has recovered 90 percent of his hearing in his right ear. The left ear will follow.
"I have more surgery coming up and doctors have assured me that after this surgery, I will get most of my hearing back," says Sarmast, who insists that not even a bombing campaign can drive him out of his native land.
With a PhD in music studies from Monash University in Australia, Sarmast says he owed it to his country to return after his studies and "create a centre for culture and for traditional Afghan music that has been moribund for so many years."
The school currently has 170 children and young people aged from 10 to 20 on its roll.
"I felt an obligation towards my culture. It was a way to pay back my community," he says. "The music institute was my idea from the start." His efforts to set it up began in 2008 and the one-of-a-kind academy formally started operations in 2010.
The Sarmast institute does not focus exclusively on western classical music.
"He has built up an entire symphony orchestra, with violins, violas, cellos and so on, but he also teaches traditional music, which is not common among conservatories in Asia. They tend to turn up their noses at local music," said Tiago de Oliveira Pinto of Germany.
"In that way he is very progressive."
Brazilian-born Professor Oliveira, who teaches music ethnology at the Music College of Weimar, has helped develop the Kabul curriculum.
"I saw no one paying attention to traditional Afghan music or bringing it back to life," explains Sarmast, who among seven children is the only one who followed in the footsteps of his father, Salim Sarmast, a renowned Afghan musician.
When he set out to obtain financial assistance, officials at international agencies and foreign embassies told him that Afghanistan had other priorities and music was a luxury.
"Music is not a luxury; it is a necessity. It is a tool to bring good relations between countries. It is a tool for healing the soul, improving the economy and portraying the cultural diversity of the community that we live in," says Sarmast.
Sarmast argues a democratic society needs more than free political parties. A democracy also needs to raise up its own culture.
Most of the funding ended up coming from the World Bank.
While showing a dpa reporter around the institute, his students brightened up when they saw him.
To a teenage girl in the hallway, he asks, "Are you prepared for exam?"
"Yes I am, teacher," says the student, smiling.
"I know you: you pass your time not paying attention to your classes. Study hard. I don't want to fail you. I will personally observe your test," he admonishes her.
In the rehearsal rooms, students are playing numerous instruments: 11-year-old Tarannum is practicing on the piano.
Sarmast observes her closely and corrects her mistakes, but then has to leave for a packed day of work and appointments.
Tarannum continues playing an old French song on the piano. In the background, a flute and traditional Afghan instruments are audible.
Tarannum is originally from western province of Herat and has been at the school for the past three years.
"I had interest in music since I was a little child," says Tarannum. "Music will help me improve personally."
She says her dream is to become a great musician one day.
Every scholar must specialize in two instruments: an international one like the piano or violin and an Afghan one like the stringed rhubab or the dol, a kind of drum.
Another student, 18-year-old Negin Khapalwak, has been at the institute for the past five years and is now its first woman conductor. Her all-female orchestra of 40 is preparing for a first public performance.
A native of Kunar, Afghanistan, she had to go through a lot to convince her parents, especially her mother, to let her attend the school.
"Being a girl, even my relatives were against me being at this institute, let alone leading an orchestra," says Negin.
She has become one of the faces of the institute, playing in numerous concerts abroad including at the Kennedy Center in Washington and in Berlin in December 2015 in the presence of the German and Afghan presidents to mark the centenary of diplomatic relations.
"Every tour we take is a mission and that mission is to echo and express the positive changes in Afghanistan," says Sarmast.
The Germany visit nearly fell apart because Berlin is very restrictive in issuing visas to Afghans out of fear that they will decamp and refuse to go home. Afghans make up a large portion of the 1 million asylum seekers who entered Germany in 2015.
Only five students, comprising two girls and three boys, and five teachers were granted visas. Sarmast said the German embassy had required all their families to be present to sign a consent form, which was impossible for orphans and children from far provinces.
The suicide-bomb blast that nearly killed Sarmast went off while a group from his institute was performing on stage at the French Cultural Institute (IFA), just 500 metres from the presidential palace.
"I am not afraid, nor will I ever be of the terrorists that deny change to Afghanistan," says Sarmast, who insists the project will go on, despite the Taliban's hostility to theatre and music.
"We are also planning on hiring the students as teachers once they graduate," says Sarmast, adding, "This way, we won't have to pay a huge sum of money for international instructors and the money benefits an Afghan family."