Music occupies an enormous place in Central Asia, and in particular in Afghanistan.
Dr. Razia Sultanova, a musicologist and cultural anthropologist, has studied the music of the Uzbeks and other national minorities of Northern Afghanistan. How cultural life survives in constant turmoil? That basic question is examined and answered by Razia Sultanova with extensive eye-witness and personal contacts and conversations with a wide variety of Afghan men and women. She looks at basic questions of gender, identity, tradition, and especially the role of music as a vital element for survival. She made a short film and wrote a book, Afghanistan Dispossessed: Women, Culture and the Taliban, to document her studies, but is worried that with Taliban now in power, female performance and music making in the country will cease.
Dr. Razia Sultanova is a musicologist and cultural anthropologist. She is a Visiting Professor at Charles University, Prague, and a Research Fellow at Cambridge Muslim College. Her primary areas of research are Central Asian and Middle Eastern culture, within which she studies Islam and music and gender and music. Razia Sultanova has been awarded a number of international scholarships, including, but not limited to, ones in Germany (DFG in 1993, the Ministry of Culture of the Land Brandenburg in 1994 and 1997); in France (L’Institut français d’études sur l’Asie centrale, in 1996 and 1997); and in the UK (from 1999 onwards).
How did you become interested in Afghan Uzbeks and their music? What kind of music did you study?
The answer to this question can be found in my short documentary film, “Music of the Uzbeks of Northern Afghanistan.” The 35-minute-long film (in Uzbek language with English subtitles, sponsored by the British Council, edited by Usman Tufail), which I directed and produced in 2013, is a story of cultural survival, told through the voices of musicians and performers interviewed and filmed by me in 2006.
Following the collapse of the USSR, I was fortunate to receive a grant in 1993 to work at the Otto-Friedrich-University Bamberg, Germany, transcribing the Uzbek folk songs of Northern Afghanistan that had been recorded by Dr Ingeborg Baldauf in 1977-1978, i.e., prior to the Soviet invasion. So I was dealing with Uzbek songs from Afghanistan recorded on six old bobbin magnetic tapes. The lyrics of all those songs were transcribed and published in two large volumes called Materialien zum Volkslied der Ozbeken Afghanistans (Reihe Islam & Ethnologie) (Emsdetten: A. Gehling, 1989), and it was a privilege to be involved in these musical transcriptions.
However, those Uzbek songs were not examined from a musicological point of view, even though the songs were very beautiful and there were quite a number of them. Dr. Ingeborg Baldauf is a philologist and an outstanding scholar who specializes in Turkic-speaking world languages and cultures and had spent two years in the North of Afghanistan traveling from one village to another, recording songs and meeting with local musicians.
So, in 1993 I arrived at the University of Bamberg to work on that project. Once I began working on it, I became deeply impressed with the scope of the material. At the time of my grant, the Soviet Union had already lost the war in Afghanistan and withdrawn its military presence. We who had lived in the Soviet Union did not know much about what had happened in Afghanistan, because press coverage of the war was practically non-existent. So certainly, in a time of war, music was the least of all concerns in that country, and that’s why for me, as a musicologist, it was so exciting to find such a treasure-trove of little-known recordings and songs. While the song lyrics had been transcribed, musically, the songs had not been examined at all, so I tried to help with musical transcriptions. This was the point at which I became interested in Northern Afghanistan, its music and culture.
There is a huge population of Uzbeks in the North of Afghanistan (according to scholars, up to 5 million people). People think that they migrated there following the October revolution in 1917, but in fact, Uzbeks have been living there for centuries. If you refer to the map of Central Asia, you will see mainland Uzbekistan on the right-hand side, and on the left-hand side is the Uzbek part of Afghanistan, located on the left bank of the Amu Darya river, which is historically known by its Latin name, Oxus River. Anyway, when I came across these folk song recordings, they were in Uzbek. They were all very beautiful and had catchy tunes.
So what kind of songs were they? Ingeborg Baldauf had collected a huge amount of love songs with instrumental accompaniment, as well as female domestic songs like lullabies, songs of celebration, children’s songs, and religious songs.
In Soviet Uzbekistan, many examples of old folk-style music completely disappeared from the public domain, and only through these recordings of the old Uzbek songs could one understand how rich it all had been.
The various genres of Uzbek songs from Afghanistan were a completely new discovery for me. As you can imagine, in Soviet Uzbekistan, many examples of old folk-style music completely disappeared from the public domain due to the Soviet policy of rejecting the old “feudal” traditional heritage, and only through these recordings of the old Uzbek songs could one understand how rich it all had been and how meaningful was the performance of these old Uzbek songs that had been preserved in the Uzbek part of Afghanistan and on the Uzbek bank of the Amu Darya river. Listening to them, it was easy to feel the close connection of Afghan Uzbek culture to the culture of the Uzbek mainland.
The more I transcribed, the more interested I became in these songs and their performance by Afghan Uzbek musicians. Some famous musicians—like, for example, Mammat from Acha, Sabzi Gul, and Taj Muhammad—were real icons for local music-lovers. Those beautiful songs, sometimes improvisational, like the Kazakh kuis, were simply accompanied on daf (frame drum) or dombura. In this, they were very close to our Central Asian culture, even though Northern Afghanistan was virtually outside the awareness of Soviet scholarship and absent from public knowledge in Soviet Central Asia.
So for me, it was like discovering a whole new universe, which I came across by chance, thanks to the grant and scholarship from Bamberg University. Since then, I have received some further grants and scholarships to continue my research on the area and to keep an eye on Afghan culture. I have been able to search for further data in famous archives around the globe (the Smithsonian Institution, Library of Congress; the Bibliothèque nationale de France; the British Library Sound Archive; and the Vienna Phonogrammarchiv).
When I went to the Vienna Phonogrammarchiv, well-known for its huge recordings collection, there were so many new discoveries to be made there—for example, recordings by the Austrian ethnographers Max Klimburg and Hermann Markus Preßl, who documented rare data on Afghanistan. However, because they were primarily studying ethnography and languages, they archived these song recordings under the Languages category and not in the Music section, so they remained unknown from a musical point of view.
Having come across them, I found that the first scholarly evidence of the Uzbek folk-song heritage in the North of Afghanistan indeed came from these Austrian ethnographers Max Klimburg (in 1958) and Hermann Markus Preßl (in 1967-68). It means that Austria was the first country to explore the rich multinational culture of Afghanistan. There was a myriad of folk-song recordings there, waiting to be discovered by us music scholars. So thanks to the very strong Austrian scholarship (by the way, Ingeborg Baldauf is also an Austrian scholar), I had a chance to gain access to those old Uzbek songs. I was fortunate to later obtain grants for this project from the British Academy and the British Council, visiting Washington, DC, and the Library of Congress, etc.
The Afghan population is nearly 40 million-strong and speaks 40 minor languages, but the official language there is Dari Persian. Some highly valuable studies on music in Afghanistan were conducted from 1960 in the main Afghan cities of Kabul and Herat by Hiromi Lorraine Sakata, John Baily, and Veronica Doubleday. They were followed by an American scholar, Mark Slobin, who traveled there in the 1970s, i.e., more than 50 years ago, to research provincial countryside folk music in Northern Afghanistan. But then Afghanistan descended into a very difficult time of 40 years of uninterrupted war, preventing further study and exploration.
Please tell us about your new book Afghanistan Dispossessed: Women, Culture and the Taliban. How have Afghan women changed since the Taliban have seized power? Are they finding the courage to speak out against the Taliban? Do they have a connection with global women’s movements—and if so, how?
My book is in the process of being published. It is in the very final stages of book production. I am particularly grateful to my commissioning editor, Dr Lester Crook, and the production editor, Harriet Fielding, at the Pen and Sword publishing house for their work preparing the publication.
When Taliban-2 came to power, Afghan women made several attempts to hold protest demonstrations in the city streets but were stopped and brutally suppressed by their government. Afghan women possess no real capacity in such activity; although some of them are professional medical doctors or TV presenters, even they have by now lost their jobs. The few who have kept their jobs have had to wear the burqa and keep quiet. Whereas in Iran, for instance, recent female demonstrations have gone viral throughout the whole country and across the globe, Afghan women’s protests have failed to succeed or merge with global women’s movements. In Afghanistan, a female country-wide uprising is impossible, as they simply do not have widely connected communities across the whole country.
Another reason behind their inability to rise up against the oppression is that Afghanistan is, in essence, a multinational country. It consists of many districts, each with a different government, different rules, and its own language. The resulting language barriers and ethnic diversity actually prevent people from uniting. For women, in particular, it is a real problem. Afghan women do not have a voice, which young Iranian women do have at the moment. Afghan women have lived for 40 years under conditions of non-stop war, arrests, restrictions, and prisons, so for them to challenge the current political situation is far too complicated and challenging a task.
When I started learning about Afghan female music, I had to research the general situation of Afghan women and learn some facts about them. I was horrified by their history and by the difficult life of the female population, which is harrowing even against the backdrop of female suffering across the globe. Here are some statistics: the total fertility rate in Afghanistan is about five births per woman, although the infant mortality rate is the highest in the world. Around 10 percent of all newborns are stillborn, which means even going through labor has always been a lottery for Afghan women. They simply don’t know, when delivering a baby, whether the child will be born dead or alive and whether they will go on to live. Even now, life expectancy in the country is only 40 years for women and 42 years for men.
The country’s population is quite young. Forty-two percent are under the age of 15. More than that, 43 percent of all males but only 13 percent of females are literate. That’s the harsh reality of their existence. Can you fathom what a difficult country it is to live in for Afghan women?! For example, in 2002, an estimated 900,000 boys attended school, while women and girls were almost completely excluded from educational communities and opportunities.
It is obvious that it is extremely difficult for Afghan girls and women to survive, to be educated, and to live a normal life. In 2011, there were around 8 million students in Afghanistan, a third of whom were women. But now, following the return of Taliban-2, a ban on female education has been announced again, which spells disaster for the country.
So what can we observe? Before the return of the Taliban-2, women were given some opportunities to partake in education and allowed to have careers in medicine, media, and justice. But now, since the Taliban-2’s return, these women have no right to study, to work, or to be in the public eye as TV presenters, etc. So once again, we can see the return of medieval times, when women were not allowed to do much in terms of partaking in public life.
We can also talk about how Afghan women were treated, particularly during the time of Taliban-1, based on the original documents issued to govern the country. I quote from the Decree announced by the General Presidency of Amr bil Ma’ruf and Nahi Munkar (religious police) in November 1996: “Women, you should not step outside your residence. If you go outside the house, you should not be like those who go out with clothes that provoke lust, wearing much make-up, and being seen by every man, as you did before the arrival of Islam.” The same kind of bans and limitations applied to music: a law was issued preventing music from being broadcast by sources of public information, in shops, hotels, vehicles, at rock shows, and in cassette form and recordings. That meant everything that was more or less available before the onset of Taliban-2. So women did enjoy a little bit of freedom and new possibilities before 2021, whereas now everything has once again been banned. Music and dancing have also been forbidden at wedding parties. Ahmed Rashid, the world-famous expert on Afghanistan, has said that the Taliban has banned every conceivable form of entertainment. I will give you some quotations from the speech of the Afghan Education Ministry, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund: “Of course, we realize that people need some entertainment. But they can go to the park and look at flowers and from this they will learn about Islam.” So according to Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, the Taliban opposes music because it creates a distraction and a strain on the mind and hampers the study of Islam. During the time of the first Taliban, all the musicians who struggled to survive fled to Pakistan. And now the situation is the same. Everyone who had the means has left the country and moved abroad with their family, seeking safety.
We know that many experts see Afghanistan as part of Central Asia. Please tell us, what distinguishes Afghan women from Central Asian women?
First of all, the harshness of their living conditions, embodied by the burqa, which is worn by Afghan women. The burqa—or, as locals call it, chadri—is a mark of Taliban rule. It is a terrible thing for local women to wear, as I found out when I spoke to them. From the first minute of arrival in Afghanistan, every woman has to wear the burqa, which is very unusual for us Central Asian women—although I immediately found an advantage in wearing it.
I came to Afghanistan because I wanted to make recordings and to talk to musicians, so I always had my video camera, a sound recorder, and a photo camera on me. The burqa actually increased my chances of survival, as it helped me conceal the equipment. As I traveled long distances from Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif with the families of musicians by car, at all the numerous checkpoints we passed through during our journey, soldiers would stop the car, shouting, “Get out of the car!” as they approached it, searching through everything. They would certainly have confiscated all my equipment if they had found it. Since I kept all my equipment hidden under the burqa, it remained safe! Therefore, in my situation, the burqa was the only thing that protected me and my recordings. So I was happy to wear it!
But for local women, it is very difficult to wear it on a regular basis. The climate there is very hot, especially during the summer. To leave the house, women have to be completely covered in the burqa from head to toe. The women with whom I have had a chance to talk said that it is like being in a cage, or even worse: they end up breathing in their own carbon dioxide and cannot get enough oxygen in through the small eye opening. They said that after a while, you start to feel as if your lungs are going to explode—as if you are suffocating—and as you walk, the sun blinds you from the front and its heat burns your back. So it is really difficult for Afghan women to experience all the social bans imposed by the Taliban, and they hate the limitations with which they have to live.
We in Central Asia certainly do not have a tough life to that degree! Going to Afghanistan was an eye-opening experience for me, even though I had studied many publications prior to my visit. In Central Asian countries, even a hundred years ago, my great-grandmothers used to live in fairly adequate domestic conditions. When you visited our Central Asian villages, you would see that households had all the essential kitchen furniture, like tables and countertops designed specifically for cooking. Afghan village women do not have these simple luxuries—they literally cook food for their families on the ground, without access to any domestic comforts.
Tell us about some of the remarkable women-singers in Afghanistan that you studied.
Among the most famous Afghan singers, only a handful are women, but the most famous is Mahwash. She was born in 1947, and when the country started to descend into war, she emigrated to California in the United States. Now she lives there, and many years ago I had the opportunity to enjoy a performance of hers here in London, at the Royal Albert Hall.
There was an Afghan-Uzbek female performer called Sabzi Gul (1957–2017). When I met her in 2006, she was in her prime. She was the only female wedding singer in Northern Afghanistan. Meeting her was a memorable experience for me because in Uzbekistan there are many female wedding singers. They have a number of female students they teach, so they usually sing a repertoire of special female wedding songs at local weddings. In Afghanistan, wedding singers faced many difficulties and were not allowed to have any students. Sabzi Gul was a fantastic lady who was the only representative of this genre. Luckily for her, she was supported by General Abdul Rashid Dostum (born in 1954). General Dostum, who was born in Sheberghan, is of Uzbek origin. He protected Uzbek and Turkmen villages. That was his land, which he kept under his protection and somehow people lived more safely in the North of Afghanistan than in other parts of the country.
In my interview with Sabzi Gul, she came across as very proud of the fact that General Dostum could not host any parties without inviting her. She used to perform regularly at his evening gatherings. However, when I asked her who would be her successor in female wedding singing, she said that as long as the Taliban remained in power, she would not be allowed to have any students. It was not even possible for a lone woman or a teenage girl to make her way from one end of the village to the other unaccompanied to meet her teacher, and without the opportunity to meet, learn, and practice, knowledge transmission could certainly not take place.
Nowadays, however, one can still find some noteworthy pop singers of Afghan origin. I had a chance to meet one of them, Elaha Soroor, in London. Elaha recently produced a CD album, “Songs of Our Mothers” (CD Album, Kefaya +Elaha Soroor. Bella Union. September 2019). Elaha is a Hazara pop singer who was born in 1988 in Iran before her family moved back to their native place in Afghanistan, where all her troubles began. Elaha wanted to become a musician and a singer. For a short time, it was possible to dream about it, and then everything came to a halt because her father told her: “Stop. Just forget about it!” She, however, took part in a TV singing competition under her nickname. She won the competition because her voice was so powerful and beautiful. And she became famous in Kabul practically overnight. That came at great cost to her safety. She had to leave her family immediately, as her neighbors informed her father that she had gone on TV and had won the competition! Somehow she managed to escape abroad. I met her in 2012 in London, and now she lives in Switzerland. She is a well-educated girl with a degree from a London university. Her testimony about how difficult it is to be an Afghan female professional singer demonstrates that Afghanistan is a very challenging country for female professionals.
Now, following the arrival of Taliban-2, all female singing and performance have been rendered virtually non-existent.
Tell us a bit more about the documentary that you made about your trip to Afghanistan.
If you watch my short documentary film, there are a couple of explanations of my trip to Afghanistan. A few years after returning from Afghanistan, I learned that some of the Uzbek musicians with whom I had conducted interviews had passed away. I thought to myself, I made these recordings with my tiny hand-held video camera just for myself and for my students. However, I realized that my video recordings represented the only documentary evidence of the amazing musicians I met in Afghanistan. Fortunately, it was possible to produce a 30-minute documentary film from the footage I took to honor these memorable music masters and so that you could enjoy their work.
In the documentary, Afghan women happily gather for Eid (a celebration of the end of Ramadan) and other religious events. They sing their religious songs, as well as some teasing songs and lullabies, and these are passed on to the younger generations by women, as you can see in the film. In fact, Eid Mubarak is the most important time, when they all gather together to mark the end of Ramadan. You see three generations of women—grandmothers, mothers, and young girls—singing the songs all together. It is something they do in Uzbek language, which means you can witness their national identity surviving through mutual interest in their culture, in their shared musical experience—and certainly, those genres mean so much to their hearts and to the younger generations that follow in their footsteps.
One of the most important factors shaping female life in the country today is gender segregation. It is a highly important issue in Afghan society. When the family has a newborn boy, this event is followed by a huge celebration. However, if the newborn baby were a girl, they would normally keep it quiet. Sometimes they do not even tell anyone about the newborn baby because it is not considered a joyful occasion. They consider having a girl to be a failure.
It is no wonder, then, that Afghan traditional folk songs—lullabies—are all addressed to baby boys. From this point of view, it is so interesting to hear the songs of the pop singer Elaha Soroor, who was born in 1988. She has composed several songs, including lullabies, that substitute the usually male hero with a baby girl. Her lullabies bring girls into the spotlight.
“You, girl, you have come into a difficult world, but I believe you will win. Your fight will be a struggle for your own sake. You will achieve everything you set out to and be happy when you get there, girl.”
She has created a song saying: “You, girl, you have come into a difficult world, but I believe you will win. Your fight will be a struggle for your own sake. You will achieve everything you set out to and be happy when you get there, girl.” It is very touching, because you see that these women, who have gone through so many difficulties and achieved something, believe that in music you can see a kind of blessing for the new generation of girls, encouraging them to be strong, to keep fighting, to hope to become professionals, and to get out of the country, which is seen as success.
The music of the countries of Central Asia often serves as a calling card for the region. How do you think it attracts tourists and foreigners? What music do you play for your friends when you talk about Central Asia?
Central Asian music is very powerful and is one of the strongest aspects of the area’s cultural heritage. It is multi-faceted and there are many genres coming from various strata of society and different periods of history. But besides music, we have inherited medieval architecture, classical poetry, visual arts, crafts, and many other traditions.
I play the Uzbek dutar, which is my favorite instrument, and right now I am learning the Kazakh dombra. There are plenty of similarities between these two string instruments, despite some visual differences. There are epic genres that are a big part of Kazakh and also Uzbek heritage. We all belong culturally to the Turkic-speaking world. It makes us united.
Historically, in Central Asia, the Uzbeks, Turkmens, and Tajiks were sedentary people, while the Kazakh and Kyrgyz people were nomads. But nowadays, everything has become thoroughly mixed. I think this explains the many mixed marriages among all these ethnicities and nationalities. I believe we have more commonalities than differences. Music, along with other local traditional heritage, attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists and foreign visitors from around the globe every year.
Have you studied gender issues in these countries? If so, can you tell us what gender segregation is like and how women in these countries differ from each other? What distinguishes women in the Central Asian countries now from their counterparts during the Soviet Union? I am especially interested in learning about women in politics in those countries.
I studied gender in music in the most detailed way. I was the first scholar in UK academia to do so, designing from scratch a new course entitled “Gender and Music” and teaching it in 2004-2006 at SOAS, University of London.
The gender issue was never as important in the Soviet Union as in the West. In the Soviet system, gender equality was a key policy and the state demanded that women be educated and work equally, on par with men. In Central Asia’s recent history, Kyrgyzstan had a female President, Roza Otunbayeva (2010-2011), and there are many female government ministers in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
I remember from my personal experience, when I arrived in Europe, having worked at several universities, and currently still working at the University of Cambridge, UK, that looking at the gender mix in various faculties, you would see that majority of the faculty members were men, with only a few women. My UK colleagues also posed the question: “How many women did you have at your faculty when you were working in your country?” So I replied that the numbers were proportionately the same—fifty/fifty. They were surprised, enquiring: “So how could those women find time for children and housekeeping?” Somehow, our Soviet women managed to find time for everything!
I believe that in our challenging twenty-first century, more Central Asian women will get a chance to advance their careers so that their individual voices can be heard, becoming famous not only in music, but also as active figures in local politics and social care. I hope that for Afghan women, in particular, brighter days lie ahead.
Interview by Elvira Aidarkhanova, Analyst, PhD in International Affairs