I first met Sulyman Qardash and his band Kabul Dreams in 2014, when they came to the U.S. to play at South by Southwest, a music festival in Austin. The band decided to call Oakland their home soon after, because they'd received death threats back in Afghanistan for being in a Western rock band.
Three years later, in February 2017, they released their first U.S.-produced album, called Megalomaniacs. Sulyman says that in the wake of President Trump’s second travel ban, and the rise in hate crimes, he hopes to build a cultural bridge by bringing Afghan rock to the West.
“If a kid in California finds out about Kabul Dreams being from Afghanistan and being an Oakland-based band," Qardash says when we met up at a rehearsal studio in Oakland, "if they listen to our music and they say, ‘Oh, wow, I like their music,' I'm pretty sure they would change their perspective about immigrants and people from different backgrounds."
Qardash has dark eyes, black hair and a thin frame. He’s dressed in a black leather jacket and Converse shoes. He picks up a guitar and plays a song for me off their new album, called "Saturated Hope," about the feeling of never being able to live in the place you call home.
“The song is about waking up every day, and some days waking up in different places and starting all over again," Qardash explains. "And coming here and not having anything you have back home. And then you have to start all over again.”
Qardash was born in Kabul, but grew up as a refugee in nearby Uzbekistan during Taliban rule. In Uzbekistan, he enrolled in high school and his new punk friends introduced him to bands like Nirvana and the Sex Pistols. He was hooked. He picked up his first guitar at 14 and never put it down. As a refugee, music gave Qardash a sense of home. After the fall of the Taliban, Qardash returned to Afghanistan in 2007 and started Kabul Dreams. Bassist Siddique Ahmed had just returned from being a refugee in Pakistan, and former drummer Mujtaba Habibi had just returned from Iran (he was replaced by Raby Adib in 2014).
Qardash wrote the song, "Sadae Man," or "My Voice," a couple of years later as an anthem to his country’s hopes for democracy.
“I think we needed a song to really encourage youth to be united, and that is what we felt, and that is really the entire idea behind having a band," Qardash says.
Kabul Dreams never planned to leave Kabul. But Qardash’s dreams of the U.S. invasion bringing democracy to his home were shattered. He saw people killed on the streets of Kabul. Bombings were frequent. The band received countless death threats. The U.N. reports more than 63,000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2016. Sulyman didn’t see an end. So Kabul Dreams decided to leave Afghanistan for good.
“We tried to copy the democracy that the U.S. or the Western world provides," Qardash says. "Especially in Afghanistan, we preach about that. But if you look at it for me, outside of Bay Area, when I travel to different states, I'm experiencing the things and thoughts that I had were slightly wrong. Because we are living in 2017, and we are in America, and people are still fighting against racism or fighting against gender equality."
Qardash says he’s grateful for the freedom he feels here in the U.S., and opportunities. In 2017, Qardash got to meet one of his childhood heroes -- Metallica -- when Kabul Dreams starred in an award-winning indie movie with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, called Radio Dreams.
Qardash says that blew his mind. He says he is grateful, but now he confronts a new challenge: Islamophobia.
“I can be a Muslim, but I can play rock 'n' roll and I can be a doctor or an engineer," Qardash says. "That’s something very spiritual between me and what I believe in. You don't really get to choose what I believe in.”
Qardash calls the new travel ban aimed at Muslim-majority countries "ridiculous." Even though Afghanistan is not on that list, he says his religion and ethnicity are being targeted. Qardash hopes his music will get people to reassess their own stereotypes.
Sulyman Qardash says the title of their newest album, Megalomaniacs, is a nod to those who rule the world today -- in Afghanistan, in the U.S., in so many places -- turning citizens into immigrants and refugees. Qardash says that is Kabul Dreams’ story -- a story they will share one song at a time.
This story is part of West of Middle East, a podcast by Neda Nobari Foundation about changemakers from the Middle East Diaspora in the West.