Sulyman Qardash, a stylish young musician from Kabul, sits in the sprawling lawn of Esteqlal Lyceum, engaged in animated discussion with friends. The topic is an event planned for that evening, one that will bring to fruition a dream Qardash has been chasing since his teens. Because on this day, Qardash and his rock band, Kabul Dreams, would be releasing their first album.
This is more than just a personal victory for Qardash; it is a significant step for Afghanistan. Kabul Dreams are considered to be the first rock band to emerge in the nation following the Taliban’s rule, during which music was banned. The release of their album is a testament to the sweeping changes that have occurred since 2002, giving voice to Afghan youths and their hope for change.
Formed in 2008, the band was the idea of Sulyman, who studied music in Uzbekistan, where his family migrated after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996. At a time when art and music were punishable offences in his homeland, the young Sulyman was exploring punk and grunge music in Tashkent. In 2008 he met Siddique Ahmed, a bass player, and Mujtaba Habibi, a drummer, and together they formed a band. Within a year they were ready to give their first international performance at India’s South Asian Bands Festival.
Each of the members of Kabul Dreams spent the Taliban era outside Afghanistan, with Ahmed living in Pakistan and Habibi in Iran. Coming from different ethnic groups – Uzbek, Tajik and Pashtu – their idea was not only to create a rock band but to work towards the idea of a united Afghanistan where all ethnic groups could live in harmony.
Initially, the fledgling band faced problems of resources and logistics, not to mention resistance from many who had never seen a rock performance in Kabul. Today, it represents a new generation of Afghans who see in the band a modern face of their country.
In 2011, Kabul Dreams organized the first street concert at Shar-E-Now, the capital’s main street. The performance took locals by surprise and the experiment generated publicity for the band.
Hossai, a 25-year-old Afghan girl working with an international aid agency in Kabul, came to the Esteqlal Lyceum to witness the album launch. “This is a great thing to happen in Afghanistan,” she told The Diplomat. “It will motivate young people. This is a sign of a positive change and I hope this will be sustained.”
Sulyman also believes that the ascent of Kabul Dreams is an important milestone for the war torn country. “Art can bring a huge change in our society,” he told The Diplomat. “You would be impressed by the energy and passion youth have towards music. You cannot solve the problems through force or war. Music helps people to understand the value of life and enjoy every minute of it.”
The young Afghans who gathered in the main auditorium of the French cultural center the evening of the album launch relished the performance, which was unlike anything Kabul had seen for long time. For an outsider like me it was a treat to see fans clapping, whistling and swaying to the beat.
But when the buzz wears off, will this become a regular phenomenon in Afghanistan? In particular, can this joy extend beyond 2014 when most foreign troops are scheduled to leave the country?
According to Sulyman, the outside world exaggerates this fear. They forget that the bulwark of modern Afghanistan is its educated, tech savvy youth. There is no way history is going to repeat itself,” he said. “Now people can differentiate between who is a real enemy and who is actually trying to build this country and wants to bring positive changes to their lives.”
Kabul Dreams are not the only voice representing the new generation either. The nation’s first female rapper, 23-year-old Soosan Firooz, made her debut with a song that speaks directly to other Afghans who have shared the painful experience of living in exile as refugees. Her lyrics narrate the agony of the past and hope for the future.
Some lyrics by Kabul Dreams also lament past tragedies, alongside criticizing present realities of corruption and mismanagement in Kabul. Yet, perhaps more importantly, the band also presents a vision of hope for the future.
Upon leaving the auditorium after the show and entering the streets of Kabul, you wonder which one is the real Afghanistan: The hopeful one that was on display at the Esteqlal Lyceum or the media’s vision of a place plagued with unending violence and uncertainty. This contradiction lies at the heart of modern Afghanistan.
But one thing is certain: A new country is gradually asserting itself and breaking free from the old.