"God, everyone in this world has a lover except me," sings a woman. "Why is it so?" Her lament, in Persian, throbs over the speakers of a cab heading for Kabul, Afghanistan. An hour into the six-hour journey from neighboring Pakistan, the taxi driver abruptly switches cassettes, and chants of Koranic verse replace the pop song. Moments later, the car stops at a checkpoint. The wooden poles of the barrier are entwined with strips of confiscated audiotape and film, the loose ends flapping in the wind. A guard peers into the car and inspects the four passengers and driver before allowing them to proceed. "We are lucky," says the driver. "They could have beaten us all if they had found us listening to the music."
The Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue is on patrol. Its job is to eradicate sin, which, as defined by the totalitarian government of Afghanistan, includes simply listening to music. The Taliban, a collection of former theology students who took over Kabul in 1996, is best known for destroying ancient Buddhist statues and restricting the rights of women. It insists that there is a hadith (a record of the Prophet's sayings) warning people not to listen to music lest molten lead be poured into their ears on Judgment Day. Until then, the Taliban police are wreaking their own violence--against musical instruments and anyone who dares enjoy their use.
Religious songs with no instrumentation are exempted, as well as patriotic chants such as "Taliban, O Taliban, you're creating facilities, you're defeating enemies"--a bit of nationalistic verse that has received heavy play on Radio Shariat, the state-run station. Before the prohibition, sung Persian poems known as ghazals and instrumental Indian melodies called ragas were highly popular in Afghanistan. Concerts featuring such traditional instruments as the rubab (a short-necked lute) used to last for hours at celebratory occasions like weddings and births. Even Western pop made its way to Kabul in the 1970s, when the capital was host to an international rock festival sponsored by a cigarette company.
ABBA will survive the ban, but Afghan musicians fear some forms of music are threatened with extinction. The archives of traditional Afghan folk songs at Kabul Radio, for example, are being destroyed. The sounds of silence, after all, are more reassuring to many governments than voices that have the power to move, to persuade and to protest. In the Sudan, musicians cannot perform after dark; in a Nigerian state where Islamic law is followed, a musician was recently imprisoned for singing. "In much of the Third World, people cannot read or write," says Marie Korpe, executive director of Freemuse, a group in Denmark that monitors music censorship. "People listen to the radio, to songs. It is music that reaches people's hearts and souls." When music is muzzled, an outlet for self-expression is lost.