Despite Bombs and Bullets, These Men Made Music and Drama In Afghanistan and Sarajevo

The Daily Beast

September 19, 2015

In all the talk of movement within cities, and “centers of diversity and diversity of centers” of modern cities, one talk stood out in the afternoon session of the inaugural Lincoln Center Global Exchange in New York on Friday.

This day-long event, that brought together international leaders, stars like Michael J. Fox, artists, scientists—and guest speakers including Barry Diller, chairman of IAC, parent company of The Daily Beast—explored “how art and culture can become even more effective in fostering healthy citizens, vibrant cities and strong communities.”

It was as cerebral and ranging as that description infers–with talk of over-regeneration and Olympic bids, and would we all be urban-based in 60 years–but in the final discussion of the afternoon two extraordinary men related much more dramatic stories, which showed just how important, and perilous, making art can be.

Dr. Ahmad Naser Sarmast, the founder and director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, and Haris Pašović, the artistic leader of the East West Theater Company in Sarajevo talked about producing art, and believing in the importance of art and culture, when war is raging all around you.

In Dr. Sarmast’s case he was almost killed by a suicide bomber, who exploded a device at a play, the focus of which was surviving a suicide bombing.

He spoke first about the general, and cultural devastation of his country. Human rights, he said, were “impossible” without investing in arts and culture. Stability for his country would not happen without investment in the arts.

When he established the music school, Dr. Sarmast said it wasn’t just so young Afghans could learn music, but also “a modest contribution in the establishment of a civil society.” He encouraged girls in particular to learn, he said; arts and culture were a “small contribution to the unification of our nation.”

Pašović said that now, 20 years after the end of the Bosnian War, artists had helped make a strong foundation for a multicultural, secular society, but “conservative forces in various communities” are making their presences felt.

“If you don’t nourish your achievements in building a cultural society here or elsewhere it will be lost,” Pašović said. “Freedom of expression exists in theory, but in other areas it is pretty dictatorial. You can be brave and say things, but if no there is support around you…You don’t need saints, you need results. Art can articulate new ideas.”

Dr. Sarmast agreed. There was not official censorship of arts and culture in Afghanistan, but terrorist and extremist groups make life difficult for promoting culture within the country.

He has had to invest in security to guarantee the safety of his students and faculty, he said, because in December 2014 he and his students became the target of a terror attack, which killed several people.

Dr. Sarmast was attending a performance at a high school in Kabul, featuring some of his students.

“The students were playing together as a company in a piece about a suicide bombing–then the show’s reality became a reality. There had been 15 minutes of the show going in a peaceful manner until the suicide bomber exploded himself in the 15th minute.

“Everything depicted in the early minutes became a reality, which had been what happened after an explosion: people reaching for their mobile phones, and assisting the fallen. I then witnessed everything in reality.

“After I opened my eyes I couldn’t see anyone, I didn’t know had happened. In a way I was between nightmare and reality,

I thought I was dead, then that it was part of the show. Then I saw a lot of victims on the floor–some bleeding and crying.”

Today, over nine months later, Dr. Sarmast’s students and the wider cultural community are still in shock, he said–many of those in the room that day still have post-traumatic stress disorders. He still wakes up in the middle of the night, and feels it will take a lot for him to get over what happened.

“But,” he stated emphatically, “the reason I return to Afghanistan is that I am not ready to give up to the victory of evil to the gods. Not returning would also have an enormous, negative impact on the school and the cultural community of Afghanistan. I’m not ready to give up.”

Those seeking to, he said, should not be allowed “to silence the people of Afghanistan, or deny the youth of Afghanistan their right to music education.” The audience loudly applauded.

Asked why art mattered, Pašović said it had proved to be a “primary need” during the siege of Sarajevo.

For four years, he recalled, the city was under fire from bombardment and snipers. The residents did not have water, electricity, telephones, or public transport. There was very little food, and very little medical help. Yet people risked their lives to hear concerts, or see plays.

One day, during a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the bombardment “seemed to be coming from every direction.”

Pašović wondered should they stop the show and offer the opportunity to the actors and audience to go to the bomb shelters.

No-one went, everyone stayed: to risk their lives to perform or enjoy the arts wasn’t about “the entertainment element,” Pašović said. “In war everything changes. You are very selective of what you do, because everything you do can be the last thing you do in your life.”

In Sarajevo at that time, people proved art was “as important as medicine, food, and sex.”

Pašović came to the conclusion “that art is the most essential expression of our humanity. Art is freedom. If we don’t have that element we don’t feel human any more. Art is not decoration or a function. Before all that, art is art. This connection to meaning–our inner, intuitive knowledge–is something,” said Pašović, which endures even in the worst circumstances. “There are artists working in Syria today: it is not vanity. It’s basic human need.”

Dr. Sarmast assented, and added that art and culture helped us overcome “the daily miseries of life and give necessary comfort on a daily basis,” while also helping people understand one another–both friends and enemies.

Pašović had one last anecdote.

In 1993, in the middle of the war and siege of the city, “I wanted to see some movies, and thought, ‘Lets organize a Sarajevo Film Festival.'”

This, he estimated, would involve a generator, a television set, and several videotapes. However, the festival ended up playing in three cinemas, featured 140 movies, and had 20,000 people visit, “all under bombardment and sniper fire.”

Pašović recalled: “Reporters asked ‘Why have a festival during the war?,’ and I said, ‘Why is there a war during the film festival?'”

There was another burst of loud applause from those watching at Lincoln Center.

Pašović said his wordplay enshrined a serious point. “The more film festivals, theatrical shows, and music performances and visual arts we have the less chances there are for war. Art is hope, and it is found in hope, and that’s why we need to share our experiences and cherish art.”