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Afghan Art Banned by Taleban, Now Strives to Survive - 2002-03-05

When the Taleban were in power in Afghanistan, many forms of art were banned, but many artists secretly kept their art alive. The arts are starting to re-emerge with the departure of the Taleban.

In a metal shipping container on a dusty Kabul street corner that serves as his office, Qand Agha Parwani does something that was illegal only six months ago.

Mr. Parwani plays his 99-year-old harmonium and sings, hoping to attract a customer who might engage his services to play for a wedding or other occasion. The last time he played at a Kabul wedding, the Taleban broke his musical instruments and threw him in jail for several days. He got off relatively lightly.

The arts in Afghanistan are starting to awake from the enforced slumber imposed by the strict rule of the Taleban. Artistic endeavors were not eradicated; they just went underground.

In a cold and drafty room at Kabul University, Azim Hussein Zada lovingly fingers an old Indian-made harmonium.

Mr. Hussein Zada is the dean of the university's School of Fine Arts - a school that nearly went out of existence. During the Taleban years, the fine arts enrollment plunged from 500 students to just 10.

The Taleban banned music and theatre, forcing those two departments to shut down. The painting department had to refrain from anything depicting animals or people, as did the sculpture department. So the offending paintings and musical instruments were hidden.

Mr. Hussein Zada says they told the Taleban the instruments had been destroyed in the fighting - a believable claim, since the university had been the scene of fierce clashes.

It was especially hard for women artists, who had to suffer the double indignity of restrictions on women as well as those on art.

Latifa Mira, an artist and lecturer in the school's painting department, was barred from going to the university. She was forced to wear the all-covering burqa, and shopkeepers refused to sell her art supplies. Yet, at great risk, she somehow continued to keep her art alive in secret. Her husband, she says, was not supportive. "Yes, I was afraid, but my husband was far more afraid than I was," Latifa Mira said.

The day she was able to throw off the burqa and openly pick up a paint brush again was, she says, the most memorable of her life. Asked if her husband was relieved, she laughs. "Yes, of course," she answered.

But the fine arts school, which has just reopened, is in bad shape. The building is a battle-scarred, drafty shell, with barely any windows left. Mr. Hussein Zada says there are no art supplies and no funds.

"We do not have a lot of the teaching materials that we need. We do not have colors and the other material used in the painting department. And also the musical instruments, just the few that you can see in that cupboard that were hidden, they were badly damaged and no one can repair them. We have nothing, no Western musical instruments, and also in the calligraphy department. So we need a lot of things. And also the Kabul University does not have a budget to supply all these things," he said.

Art has always thrived in adversity. And in Afghanistan, it is now recovering its strangled voice.