Breaking: Portugal rescues Afghanistan orchestra

Breaking: Portugal rescues Afghanistan orchestra


norman lebrecht

December 14, 2021

The US President pulled out of Afghanistan at perilously short notice. The British Government abandoned employees to certain death as it assigned a flight to animal rescue.

The Portuguese, we are happy to report, have higher values.

Message received:

ANIM – AFGHANISTAN NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF MUSIC and Friends of ANIM – Afghanistan National Institute of Music press release:

… In what represents the largest rescue of a self-contained Afghan community since August’s Taliban takeover, 273 ANIM students, faculty, staff and immediate family members have now landed safely in Lisbon, Portugal, where they have been invited to reestablish the school. By keeping its young students and master musicians together to continue their work in exile, ANIM founder and director Dr. Ahmad Sarmast hopes to ensure not only their physical safety, and freedom to pursue their artistic dreams, but also the future of Afghanistan’s rich but beleaguered musical heritage.

In five airlifts between October 2 and November 16, the ANIM community, including the famed, all-female Zohra Orchestra, escaped from Kabul to Doha, Qatar. Now joined by two new babies, born last week to ANIM faculty families, the group has reached its final destination by means of an SAS charter flight from Doha to Lisbon. This completes a long and complex effort made possible by the government of Portugal, where ANIM’s
members have been granted group asylum; Spotify, which, together with philanthropist Victoria Robey, the Mattina R. Proctor Foundation, the Afghan Rescue Project, and other generous donors, funded the vital last leg of their journey; and the State of Qatar, which provided aircraft, diplomatic assistance and accommodation since October. Other key players include Marie Ledin, Managing Director of the Polar Music Prize; cellist Yo-Yo Ma, conductor Daniel Barenboim, and other members of the artistic community; a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY); and leading philanthropists, diplomacy experts, military veterans and pro bono lawyers.

Dr. Sarmast explains:
“The arrival of the ANIM community today means that the first and most important step of saving lives and insuring freedom is now over. From now on, ANIM musicians will be a symbol of courage and resolve, not only for Afghan artists, but also for the people of Afghanistan, in their struggle against the oppression and tyranny of the Taliban.”

Lolwah Alkhater, Assistant Foreign Minister of the State of Qatar, comments: “Qatari officials have worked with ANIM’s leadership over the last few months to evacuate more than 273 of their members safely. We have been honored to host them here in Doha. We will dearly miss them, as we have bonded with them during their stay and enjoyed their musical performances, which spread hope and joy for the evacuees here.

“We wish them all the best in their journey to Lisbon and hope that the future of Afghanistan will be prosperous, inclusive and encouraging for those who left to return home. We’d also like to thank the Portuguese government and the Portuguese embassy in Doha for their close collaboration and coordination, and for giving many Afghans a home.”

Elizabeth Nieto, Global Head of Equity & Impact at Spotify, says:
“As a global company, Spotify is committed to identifying ways to make an impact around the world, including providing relief to those in the music community who are most in need. We’re proud to be a part of bringing the Afghanistan National Institute
of Music community to Lisbon, Portugal to begin its new chapter.”

Since its founding in 2010, ANIM has been internationally recognized as “a great success story in the effort to renew cultural life and the arts in Afghanistan” (NPR). The war-torn nation’s first and only music school, it gave Afghan boys and girls the rare
opportunity to learn side by side, and to study both Western and Afghan music, while also receiving a general education. Under the Taliban occupation, however, girls’ secondary education and the practice of music itself both stand in jeopardy. The school’s original Kabul campus has been turned into a command center for the Haqqani Taliban network. The school’s bank accounts have been frozen, its offices ransacked and its instruments abandoned behind locked doors. Only by evacuating and relocating its people outside the country could ANIM hope to realize its students’ educational dreams and keep Afghan culture alive.

By reopening ANIM in its new Lisbon location early next year, Dr. Sarmast hopes to start the students on the road to recovery from their traumatic experiences and to continue their education as soon as possible. Over the longer-term, audiences around the world
can look forward to Zohra and the school’s other celebrated ensembles, including the Afghan Youth Orchestra and National Symphony Orchestra, resuming their international touring schedules. Furthermore, Dr. Sarmast and the Portuguese
government are working to expand upon ANIM’s mission to transform lives through music and education. The school will be open not only to Afghan students but also to wider communities, including refugees and other disadvantaged children in Portugal.

The Portuguese government shares Dr. Sarmast’s vision of ANIM as the heart of a new, Lisbon-based Afghan cultural center, where exiled Afghan musicians, writers and visual artists will be able to convene, keep alive the art forms they are no longer free to
practice in the land of their birth, and share them with the Portuguese community. Like today’s successful arrival in Lisbon, this end goal offers an inspiring beacon of hope. 



  • Another orchestral musician says:

    Well done Portugal. There’s hope for humanity after all!

  • Realist says:

    How many Portuguese soldiers died in Afghanistan?

  • John Borstlap says:

    Deeply moving.

    The Portugese are true Europeans.

  • CarlD says:

    Your opinions on U.S. foreign policy are unwelcome and unnecessary, Norman.

    • green knight says:

      Spherical objects!

    • Alan Glick says:

      It’s not his opinion and it’s not unnecessary. It’s a fact that the Biden administration, by pulling out of Afghanistan precipitously in order to hopefully benefit from a September 11th photo op put politics ahead of American lives (following the Benghazi example). The Portuguese example is in marked contrast to that of the Biden administration, showing how it could have and should have been done. It would be a lack of journalistic integrity to hide the relevant and obvious difference.

    • Lord Bus Stop says:


  • Farmergusto says:

    Thank heavens there is some sanity and kindness left in the world.

  • Y says:

    “The US President pulled out of Afghanistan at perilously short notice.”

    Not true. The withdrawal date was set over a year in advance — in February 2020. It’s just that many people assumed that (1) the date would be pushed back or canceled or (2) life would be business as usual after the US left (i.e. most educated Afghanis never predict the Taliban’s swift return to power). That’s neither Biden’s nor the US’s fault.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    The Portuguese press release itself lists a broad international coalition supporting the effort — including prominent members of both parties in the U.S. Congress. Congratulations to the government of Portugal, but also thanks to the citizens and officials of many countries who aided in the rescue of, in essence, the musical heritage of Afghanistan.

  • Angela Giblin says:

    What a wonderful initiative from the Government of Portugal, the Qataris, and nunerous other charitable organisations and individuals. However the U.S., UK, and Australia, who all made war in Afghanistan, stand rebuked. The Morrison government in Australia promised 3,000 visas for Afghans who worked with the Australian military during the war. Their lives are now at risk, but not a single visa has been issued to an Afghani.

  • Nice to read some good news 🙂

  • christopher storey says:

    I notice that my comment in which I described the second sentence as “sententious drivel” has been suppressed. It seems that NL is frightened of criticism . If he is not, he will put my post up

  • Michael P McGrath says:

    Wonderful news and a bright, positive contrast to a world overwhelmingly full of news relating to idiocy and idiots.

  • christopher storey says:

    Full marks to NL for posting my criticism of him