Bay Area Afghan Artists Step Up in Response to Crisis Facing Artists in Afghanistan

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The Bay Area rock band Kabul Dreams performs a gig to raise awareness about the crisis in Afghanistan. Golden Gate Park Nov. 5, 2021 (Seven Seas Music)

In September, a few weeks after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, Ustad Farida Mahwash performed a song on stage at Yerba Center for the Arts in San Francisco about her home country's ravaged capital city, Kabul.

“Kabul, my heart cries out for you so much that it will die in the end from your sorrow," sang the world-renowned, San Leandro-based Afghan vocalist in Dari, her mother tongue.

Mahwash's gut-wrenching performance of the song was the emotional climax of Let Her Sing, an annual event that raises awareness about censored and suppressed female voices from around the world. Speaking with KQED via an interpreter in her dressing room a few hours ahead of the show, Mahwash said the song is the one she reaches for at times of great sorrow, and especially now, as she thinks about the plight of artists in her homeland.

"For now, artists who were able to get out of Afghanistan can continue their work," said the 74-year-old singer, who fled Afghanistan in 1991 in the wake of political turmoil. "But for those still in Afghanistan, I fear they will be silenced."

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Although artistic activity flourished — relatively speaking — in Afghanistan over the past couple of decades, in recent months, artists in Afghanistan have become an endangered species. Many have fled since the Taliban came to power in August, or have been forced to give up their work owing to the hardline Islamic regime’s stance against most forms of self-expression.

Meanwhile, Afghan artists like Mahwash based here in the Bay Area — which has one of the largest Afghan immigrant populations in the U.S. — are stepping up to help in a variety of ways, from using government contacts to try to get refugees amnesty in this country, to using their art to raise awareness of, and funds to help, at-risk artists back home.

“A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive,” said San Francisco-based Afghan cultural adviser, author and blogger Humaira Ghilzai, quoting a statement that can be found engraved at the entrance of the Afghan National Museum in Kabul. "This is why it's so important to save our artistic heritage."

Anti-Art Violence Leads to Flight

During its previous regime in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the extremist Taliban government tortured and killed artists, banned music, and destroyed artworks.

The current Taliban leadership has said they won’t resort to such draconian tactics. But the signs are not encouraging. Among other reports that have surfaced in the media in recent months, Taliban militants killed popular comedian Nazar Mohammad "Khasha" in July, and opened fire at a wedding in October after demanding the party stop playing music. Three people lost their lives.

Since the summer, artists from Afghanistan have been attempting to leave the country in droves. But making it to the United States hasn't been easy.

"There is no category under the refugee assistance program for artists per se, even though that category places you at special risk," said Sanjay Sethi, an immigration attorney and the founder of the Artistic Freedom Initiative, a group that helps resettle persecuted artists.

Sethi said his office typically processes 70–90 cases a year from around the world. But since August, they’ve received more than 1,000 applications for assistance just from artists trying to escape Afghanistan.

"We were not prepared to deal with the volume," Sethi said.

Art Takes a Back Seat

Some Bay Area Afghan artists have decided to help get artists and others out of Afghanistan by forgoing their art in favor of more direct immigration-focused activities.

Castro Valley-based visual artist Biz Rasam (also known as Biz Iqbal) spent around five years of his career working for the U.S. government in Afghanistan as a cultural adviser and interpreter. Rasam said he's been using his military contacts to try to get 50 people out of the country.

A selection of artworks by Biz Rasam. (Courtesy of the artist)

"I don't see any creative element in what I was doing," Rasam said. "It was just, like, get the help over there now, whether it's money or contacts."

For San Francisco-based multimedia artist Gazelle Samizay, working with refugee artists has been a more-than-full-time job in recent months.

"Working on this completely dwarfed my identity," she said. "Like, I was just non-stop, 24/7 in crisis mode."

Samizay, who was born in Afghanistan but grew up in the United States, is a member of the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association (AAAWA). She said her group started hearing from imperiled Afghan artists they’d collaborated with in the past.

"It started as a small thing of like, 'Oh, maybe we can just raise money for them so that they can get out of the country,'" she said. "But it just snowballed."

So far, the AAAWA has raised more than $40,000 in emergency funds for Afghan artists. Samizay said that although she's only just started being able to think about her art practice again, she's proud of how everyone in her network has pulled together to help.

"This is an unprecedented time in terms of the Afghan diaspora really coming together and organizing," Samizay said. "And that is a silver lining to this mess."

Art As a Statement

Other members of the Bay Area's Afghan cultural scene view art as playing a more central role in their crisis relief effort.

The Bay Area rock band Kabul Dreams, which relocated from Kabul to Oakland in 2013 after years of persecution back home, performed a concert in Golden Gate Park in early November to raise awareness about the crisis in Afghanistan. The band has also been sharing links to online resources where people can donate to support nonprofits like Free Women Writers.

"I don't think we still are a political band," said lead singer and guitarist Sulyman Qardash. "We're a band that has some experience that we want to express."

"Just going on stage and saying that we're a band from Afghanistan and we're playing music, that in itself is our statement," said bassist and keyboard player Siddique Ahmed.

Dancer Samia Karimi teaches an Afghan dance class on Zoom to raise money for Afghan hip-hop artists trying to escape Afghanistan. (Zoom screenshot.)

But for dancer Samia Karimi, who grew up in Foster City and Albany after leaving her native Kabul when she was five years old, just going on stage is no longer enough.

Karimi said she recently turned down gigs she would have happily said yes to before the Taliban resurgence.

"Is this the right time for me to put on my dress and be a pretty little girl in the background on a music video?" she said. "No. That role I played as a dance artist — it won't come back."

Instead, Karimi is doing things like performing at political rallies, such as the recent One Billion Rising event in Los Angeles, and serving on the board of ARTogether, an Oakland nonprofit that uses hands-on art-making workshops to help newly arrived refugees find community and connection.

She's also teaching Afghan dance classes on Zoom to students from around the world to raise funds for hip-hop artists on the run from Afghanistan. One of the groups she's trying to help is AK13.

Karimi said some of AK13’s songs are critical of the Taliban, which puts the group’s members at extreme risk.

"Their studio was was destroyed in Afghanistan," Karimi said.

Karimi said the way she thinks of herself as an artist has completely shifted in the face of the humanitarian crisis in her homeland. And she wants her fellow artists to think about how they can use their creative practice to make change.

"I ask all Afghan artists, ‘How can you use your art form? How can you be a megaphone for these voices?’" she said. "If their stories don't get heard, then history will again be written by the oppressors."

How You Can Help

ARTogether
This Oakland-based non-profit uses hands-on arts and craft workshops to help newly arrived immigrants to the Bay Area find community and connection. It has held two workshops since the summer for recent Afghan refugees and hopes to hold more.

Afghan American Writers and Artists Association (AAAWA)
This national group promotes the work of Afghan cultural figures in the United States. It has set up a special emergency fund to help Afghan artists, and also maintains a list of other ways people can help.

Kabul Dreams
The Afghan, Bay Area-based rock band has published a list of ways people can help with the crisis on its website.

Artistic Freedom Initiative
The national legal nonprofit works to get amnesty for artists fleeing persecution and censorship worldwide. Much of its focus lately has been Afghan artists.

Diaspora Arts Connection
The Bay Area organization behind events like "Let Her Sing," aimed at uplifting censored and suppressed female voices from around the world.

Humaira Ghilzai
The Bay Area-based blogger and creative advisor to movie, TV and book projects has published a guide to contacting political representatives about the Afghanistan crisis, among other resources.

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The author wishes to thank Kajal Shahali, Kavian Ravandoust and Saeed Kashani for their interpretation and translation help with this story.