Negin Khpalwak, the first female conductor in Afghanistan.

Negin Khpalwak, the first female conductor in Afghanistan.

Local woman helps female Afghanistan musicians

  • Friday, September 10, 2021 3:07pm
  • News

Can you imagine being a young musician and having your sister call you in crisis and tell you to destroy your guitar because, “The Taliban’s hands are capable of killing you for your art?”

Nasrin Nawa described pleading with her sister to do that in a podcast and Op-Ed in the Washington Post Aug. 16, the day after the Taliban took Kabul.

Nasrin, a Fulbright scholar at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, had fled Afghanistan days before without her sister, or any family. As I listened to her describe her nightmare escape and her fears for her sister it broke my heart.

I was already working on hyperdrive with friends around the world in an attempt to get a mutual friend and his family out of hiding and onto a plane before the Aug. 31 deadline. I had been working in a near frenzy but got stopped in my tracks by Nasrin’s podcast.

The idea that instruments would be destroyed, music would be banned and some musicians were going to being killed-let alone what was going to happen to women and girls-struck me to the core. Only days later, Afghan folk singer Fawad Andarabi would be shot in the head.

I am an activist, born and bred by a mother and grandmother who were feminists, artists and disrupters. I am a musician; I play piano. I am a documentary photographer, daughter of a cinematographer. I’ve traveled worldwide photographing women and their cultures.

I founded a nonprofit for teen girls, Teen Talking Circles, based on Bainbridge Island, and I’ve run talking circles for women and girls for 25 years. At 19, I lived with the first all-girl rock band, Fanny, as their documentary photographer, and became one of the first female rock-n-roll photographers as part of the Joe Cocker Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour in 1970.

So, when I heard Nasrin on the podcast tell her sister to destroy her guitar, my gut clenched—and then I got to work.

First I Googled “girls musicians Kabul” and found a Facebook page of a young woman named Negin Khpalwak, who was the first female conductor in Afghanistan and conducted Zohra, the first all-female Afghani orchestra. Immediately, I felt the need to get in touch with her, to tell her that someone on the other side of the world was worried about her.

After she accepted my friend request, we began to private message each other, and thus began what will certainly be a lifelong friendship. Negin’s story could have been out of an episode of the TV series Homeland, but the details need to be confidential to protect those who remain behind.

Following is some of our correspondence:

Aug. 16, 2021, 9:57 p.m.

Negin, hello, my name is Linda. I live on Bainbridge Island in Washington state in the U.S., and I have been heartsick looking at the news over there, and I saw you and the girl’s orchestra and was so sad and worried for you. If there’s anything I can do, I have many friends in the music industry. I want to help you.

11:06 p.m.

Hi. Thank you so much, we are trying to get out from here Kabul, but we can’t get visa yet. Thank you for feeling me.

Aug. 17, 6:57 a.m.

I don’t know where or how to help, but I’ll try. I’m here for you if you just need an ear. If you need money, I can send it.

7:21 a.m.

Thank you so much dear. Now I have money when I need I will tell you. I apply for Canada visa and USA visa. I am waiting for that.

Negin and I kept communicating through Facebook that night and the next day. I gave her my phone number and told her I would go to work on her behalf. I then went back to working on getting my friends out of Kabul.

Then, a week later, Negin let me know she was in Virginia, but needed a place to live. I was shocked. I’d been starting to feel a little hopeless. All we had been getting in our efforts to help were form letters. I had begun to feel that any chance for my friends was drowning in a tidal wave of fleeing people.

Negin told me a man named Ajmal Subat helped her. She gave me his name and phone number, and I immediately called him. He directed the mission from the U.S. with a team in Afghanistan, led by a 27-year-old woman. I needed to know if he could help our friend get out. He said he’d try, and the first day he texted me that he got him on a list.

Then the suicide bomb shattered everything. The airport in Kabul, already in chaos, was now in crisis. Everything halted. But, on the other side of this horror was this group of some of the most visible and creative women in Afghanistan had been extricated by Ajmal and his team.

Ajmal explained to me what the women and their families needed. They had been processed, were getting vaccinated, and had been put up temporarily in donated Air Bed and Breakfasts, but that was going to end mid-September. They needed housing. They also needed therapy.

I offered to do listening circles on Zoom. And then I got to work calling every patron, friend and contact I had in the Washington area and those in the Pacific Northwest who would help or might know people they could reach out to for help.

So far we have secured funding for AirBnB units in D.C. for a full year for at least five women, and through another friend on Bainbridge we secured a guest house for two more women. All of the funds are being collected by the nonprofit Ajmal co-founded, Restore Her Voice.

I have also secured pledges of funding to offer women’s listening circles on Zoom through Teen Talking Circles, and to train someone, if necessary, who speaks Pashtun and English to work with our facilitators. I am glad to say that my friend and his family still in Kabul is now close to the top of the official list at the U.S. State Department and could be evacuated soon. He and his family feel safe in a new hiding place for the moment.

I have also been contacting my musician friends to see if someone would donate or purchase a guitar. Ajmal had told me that one of the women in his group is a journalist and classical guitar player. Just yesterday, I found someone to help.

Then, in the course of writing this article, my husband, Eric, asked me, “Could the guitar-playing journalist possibly be Nasrin’s sister?” I am relieved to report that Nasrin’s sister, whom she had to leave behind in Kabul, has been extricated to the United States and is now living in Virginia.

I told Nasrin that it was because of her reporting that I was motivated to help. She said: “I’m so happy that at least it caused this good. I can’t explain how badly I’m living with a survival guilt feeling here since I left all my dears and nears behind to be safe.”

I write this to reach out to my community to help others get out of Afghanistan and to contribute to the Gofundme for Restore Her Voice to help in the resettlement of these woman and their families at www.gofundme.com/f/resettleafghans. And watch this video of Negin from her room in Virginia on Sept. 3 at www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/day-music-died-afghanistans-all-female-orchestra-falls-silent-2021-09-03/. It is powerful.

Linda Wolf lives on Bainbridge Island

A female guitarist in Afghanistan.

A female guitarist in Afghanistan.

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A female guitarist in Afghanistan.

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