Afghan artists find uneasy refuge in France

Fleeing the Taliban, musicians, writers and actors have made their way to French cities, but showcasing their talents remains a challenge

Megan Clement

Afghan musician Ibrahim Ibrahimi (second from right) with his sons in Bordeaux, France. Photographed for Hyphen by Sara Farid

The first time Ibrahim Ibrahimi heard the tabla, he was six years old. He was living in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, when some touring musicians from Kabul came to town. He was transfixed by the sound and soon began drumming on the desk in his classroom at school while his best friend sang along. Although Ibrahim did not have access to a tabla until he was 12, he eventually became an acknowledged master of the instrument, launching a musical career that has taken him around the world, from the United Arab Emirates and Oman to Turkey, Azerbaijan and China.

Over the next 30 years, Ibrahim mentored a new generation of musicians at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul and composed pieces for local television and radio. But in August 2021, he lost everything. 

Seizing the opportunity to fill a power vacuum created by the abrupt withdrawal of US troops, the Taliban took over the Afghan capital within a matter of days. Ibrahimi and other artists were among the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who fled the country, fearing a return to the earlier days of Taliban rule. From 1996 to 2001, the militant group had enforced a brutal interpretation of sharia law across the country. Religious and ethnic minorities were massacred, women were not allowed to leave home unaccompanied by a male relative and prohibited from working, girls could not attend school and television and music were banned. 

Today, 50-year-old Ibrahim sit in exile in a bare room in a suburb of Bordeaux in southern France. He is surrounded by four of his sons — Humayoun, Ismail, Yousuf and Mustafa — and their instruments. He misses his life in Afghanistan desperately, but is determined to keep his art and culture alive by performing and sharing his talents with new audiences. 

“If we cannot share this with each other, we’re going to lose it,” Humayoun told me.

Ibrahim Ibrahimi plays tabla at his apartment in Bordeaux. Photographed for Hyphen by Sara Farid

The flight of musicians such as Ibrahim unleashed a wave of destruction and looting. Back in Kabul, instruments at the state recording studios were smashed and the skins of tablas torn. Only days after the seizure of Kabul, the well-known folk musician Fawad Andarabi was dragged out of his home and murdered by Taliban fighters in Baghlan province, north of the capital. The Afghanistan National Institute of Music has been shuttered, and many of its students and staff — like the country’s other musicians, filmmakers, authors, artists and poets — have left Afghanistan or remain in hiding.

When Ibrahim sits before his two drums — the daya under his right hand, the baya under his left — and begins to play, he is briefly transformed. Creating intricate rhythms with his fingers and palms, he glances at each of his sons and leads the family in a classical Afghan song. 

Humayoun, the eldest at 27, accompanies on a double-sided dhol drum, alongside his teenage brothers. Yousuf picks out a complex melody on a stringed rubab; Ismail complements him on a harmonium and Mustafa joins his father on tabla. Later, Ismail’s powerful voice fills the room, singing a folk song, the lyrics of which he reads from his mobile phone. 

The Ibrahimis’ instruments are borrowed from friends and their apartment is a compromise. When most of the family — 19 people in total, spanning four generations — arrived in France, immigration authorities wanted to house them in different cities. The Ibrahimis refused to be separated and agreed to live in the only accommodation they were offered that would fit them all: two apartments in the same complex in suburban Bordeaux.

Some family members have rudimentary English skills, but only two speak French. Humayoun and his brother Haroon, 25, both arrived in France in 2018. They were living in Paris when Kabul fell and scrambled to get their relatives out of the country. 

Since his family arrived, Humayoun has taken on the role of spokesperson to social workers and immigration authorities, band manager and their guide to French life. He has left Paris and given up his work as an English teacher and refugee advocate to relocate to Bordeaux and now the family subsists on donations from charitable organisations in France and relatives in other countries. Humayoun’s state benefits were cut off earlier this year without explanation.  

He says that living in Bordeaux has also made it difficult for the family to earn money from their music. The Ibrahimis are members of the Agency for Artists in Exile, a Paris-headquartered charitable organisation that supports refugee artists from all over the world who have settled in France, including musicians, photographers, dancers, sculptors and cartoonists. 

According to Elia Chalom, the national coordinator for Afghan artists at the agency, the dispersal of refugees to all corners of France presents “a significant problem” for artists in particular, who can usually only thrive in major cities such as Paris, Marseille and Lyon. 

“We are far from our musical activities, we are far from our community,” said Humayoun. 

A shortage of funding means it is often prohibitively expensive for all nine of the family’s musicians to travel to major cities for shows. Venues either offer to pay for their transport costs or performance fees, but not both. Ibrahim added that audiences outside Afghanistan are largely unfamiliar with the country’s music, which makes it difficult for him to showcase the full range of his talents.

Yet, while the challenges they face are significant, the Ibrahimis are focused on securing a future for themselves in their new home. Their priorities include finding a regular practice space, saving enough money to rebuild their collection of instruments and making a living as musicians.

Ibrahim would like to return to Afghanistan one day, but he knows that for now, at least, it’s impossible. “It’s important to be safe and alive,” he told me.

The agonising calculation between life at home and safety abroad is one that director, filmmaker and actress Atefa Hesari has also recently had to make.

Atefa Hesari, a member of Afghan theatre group Surkh-O-Safed. Photographed for Hyphen by Sara Farid

Hesari, 25, was in her fourth year of a fine arts degree at Kabul University when the capital fell. She had already overcome significant cultural hurdles to pursue a career in the arts in Afghanistan. Her parents were worried about what their community would say about her, but she persisted and carved out a space for herself in the capital’s nascent theatre scene. 

Hesari was in class when she heard the Taliban were entering the city. Aware that her clothes and nail polish would make her a target for the approaching fighters, she was smuggled off campus by friends.

“It had been so difficult for me to continue art, to continue theatre – I had been fighting with everyone and with society because I love art, and in one month I would have graduated,” she said. “But I was sure that I could not come back to the university any more, if the Taliban took control.”

As a director, Hesari had already attracted international attention with Safed Sar, a short film about women’s rights that has been screened by a number of international institutions including London’s Whitechapel Gallery and the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein

Artists’ Film International: Marko Tirnanić, Atefa Hesari

As an actress, Hesari has performed the works of Pierre Corneille, one of France’s most beloved playwrights, translated into Dari. In France, an impossible decision is often described as a choix cornélian, after the thorny dilemmas often faced by the writer’s characters.

Hesari was confronted by such a choice the day she was smuggled out of Kabul University. Her theatre company, Surkh-O-Safed Artistic Group, was affiliated with the French Institute in Afghanistan, whose staff called and offered to help evacuate her to France. While she did not want to leave her family, particularly her younger sister, they eventually convinced her that, as a female artist, she was in imminent danger. 

When Hesari arrived at Kabul airport, the crowds were so enormous that she and scores of others had to stand in a filthy canal for a day and a night, while trying to catch the attention of French soldiers. Finally, on August 25, 2021, French forces lifted her out and helped her board a plane to Paris. The following day, a suicide bomb claimed by Islamic State  Khorasan Province militants ripped through the crowd, killing 183 people. 

In France, Hesari and more than 80 other Afghans are being assisted by the Association of National Drama Centres, a non-profit organisation that supports local theatres. The network lobbied town halls and local and national authorities to find accommodation, and offered residencies, which included access to rehearsal spaces and workshops to help the artists continue their work in France. 

For displaced Afghan artists the greatest obstacle to building a future in France is the French language itself. According to Jérôme Salle, the secretary general of the Association of National Drama Centres, most are “starting from scratch”.

“I’m really trying to know the French language,” said Hesari, who says she watches YouTube videos over and over in an effort to learn. “It’s a big wish for me to speak French.”

Meanwhile, back in Afghanistan, Hesari’s 17-year-old sister can no longer attend school. In March, the Taliban officially reneged on an earlier promise to allow girls to access secondary education. School gates around the country have been locked to female students ever since.

France has a rich history of theatre and has produced some of Europe’s most celebrated playwrights, from Molière and Corneille to Eugène Ionesco. With that in mind, the members of Surkh-O-Safed hope to one day perform in French and not in Dari, as they did back in Afghanistan. 

“If we do it, we have to do it in French,” said Shafequllah Zendagee, Hesari’s colleague from Surkh-O-Safed, who also left Afghanistan in August 2021. “Personally, as an actor, when you have worked so hard and you see that people are looking at the subtitles rather than looking at you, it’’s kind of a bomb.”

Yet, even as the Ibrahimis and the artists from Surkh-O-Safed begin to build new lives in France, there is always the call of home. 

“My soul is not here,” Hesari told me. “My soul is in Afghanistan.”

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