LOS ANGELES — In March 2001, when the Taliban blew up the Buddha statues of Bamian, the world became acutely aware of the threat to arts and culture in Afghanistan.
The Taliban were sharply criticized by the international press for their intellectual poverty. Hostility toward literature, visual arts and music had deprived the nation of much-needed spiritual consolation, reports said.
Nearly a decade later, little has changed. Censorship is still rampant, and Afghan talent would rather flee than suffer its oppression.
The most recent and illustrative example is Shakib Mosadeq, an Afghan singer who dared sing songs of political protest, and who was subsequently forced to leave the country. He fled to Iran in early May, and his uncertain future there is evidence of the Afghan government's empty promise to protect freedom of speech.
Mosadeq launched his songs on YouTube as a way to bypass local media that refused to air his politically subversive music. He became an immediate hit, both in Afghanistan and abroad among diaspora communities.
His popularity revealed the Afghans’ thirst for meaningful music, for songs that address the social and cultural taboos that have stifled political progress, leading to disenchantment and violence.
Just like the country’s politics, Mosadeq’s songs are anything but loving and uplifting. They are brutally honest and tell about violence, corruption and political fraud in an elegant poetic language.
In his most popular song, "Lamenting the Dead," Mosadeq reflects the disillusionment of an entire generation in these lines:
Homeland, your gardens have no flowers,
You are nothing but murder and explosions,
Homeland, what happened to your glory?
Your mountains have collapsed; your rocks have deserted us
Mosadeq’s songs struck a cord with the young generation, and he was asked to perform at universities in the urban centers of Afghanistan. As is customary in Afghanistan, local officials were invited to these concerts, and they sat front and center.
The students’ enthusiasm failed to move the authorities, who recognized the subversive quality of Mosadeq’s songs, and disliked his open attack on the blind patriotism so widely encouraged in Afghanistan.
They took Mosadeq aside to gently recommend that he sing more patriotic songs. They warned him that the situation was delicate and the country needed songs of praise and optimism. Mosadeq's songs, the singer was told, were counterproductive and encouraged despair.
But Mosadeq did not cave in to pressure. At a recent concert at the Herat University campus, Mosadeq sang a song called "Men in Suits," which highlights corruption, poverty and election fraud, directly addressing government officials.
Local officials at the concert asked Mosadeq to leave the stage mid-song. He subsequently received a phone call, saying that his daughter had been kidnapped and was being held in the custody of unknown men. Mosadeq panicked and ran home, where he thankfully found his daughter alive and well.
The threat to his young family yielded the desired result. He took his wife and child and, together with two of his band members, fled to Iran.
A sad irony of Mosadeq's exile is that it coincided with international media reports lavishing praise on another new talent from Afghanistan: Kabul Dreams, an indie pop-band that sings in English.
Kabul Dream's emergence in the war zones of the Hindu Kush mountain range, which stretches from northwestern Pakistan to central and eastern Afghanistan, was held up as a triumph of freedom of speech, one that created opportunities for young musicians and allowed talent to flourish under new democracy.
But this triumph is an illusion. Kabul Dreams has a few songs that are mildly political, but most are innocuous — the sort of music the Afghanistan authorities officially tolerate. The group has made a point of saying they make music for peace since the band is comprised of artists from three different ethnic groups — a gesture of defiance to widespread ethnic hatred in Afghanistan.
Still, compared to Mosadeq's songs, Kabul Dreams' music is anything but subversive. Freedom of speech in Afghanistan is allowed only if the speech remains void of substantial political content.
Mosadeq's music was not the kind that could be sung at a wedding; it was censored and never broadcast by radio and television stations. Now, Mosadeq is destitute and hiding in Tehran with his young family. He couldn’t even afford to pay to use the internet at the cafe from which he told his story to the author of this article. Another patron gave him the money.
Despite millions of dollars spent on democratizing Afghanistan, freedom of speech remains at best the freedom to please the status quo, and at worst a promise devoid of any meaning.
Nushin Arbabzadah is a former BBC journalist and currently a visiting scholar at UCLA.