Following Music to Freedom

Sankar Raman
Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story

It has always been music that has guided Ahmad Fanoos’ life.

“My whole family liked music,” he explains. “And it was part of my life from a very early age.”

Fanoos was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965. When he was about five years old, he started singing ghazals, traditional songs that originated in Arabic culture and are popular in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Ghazals follow a particular rhyming pattern and are often about the beauties and sorrows of love and about religious faith, Fanoos explains.

“I liked ghazals because they give a sense of poetry and calmness,” he said.

Fanoos studied with several ghazal teachers but describes himself as mostly self-taught.

Kabul in the 1960s

In the 1960s, when Fanoos was growing up there, Kabul had many cultural ties with the West, and was sometimes referred to as “the Paris of Central Asia.” Among some segments of the population, women dressed in Western fashions and music was frequently performed in public. However, at the same time, there was tension about music in public, Fanoos explains, because Afghanistan is an Islamic country, and many families preferred to live in traditional Islamic ways, with women following a more secluded life.

When Russia first invaded in 1979, many people initially experienced more freedom because the Russian government was secular, rather than religious. However, soon the mujahideen began fighting to take back control of the country.

College in the USSR

When Fanoos finished high school, he wanted to study music in college but there was no university in all of Afghanistan offering a degree in music. In 1982, at age 17, he got a scholarship to study in St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad). Because the Russian government was paying his expenses, he had no choice about what degree to pursue and was assigned to study telecommunications.

However, studying in what was then the USSR turned out to be a fortunate turn of events for many different reasons, Fanoos notes. Even though he was not able to major in music, he was able to study privately and would often play music with other Afghan students living in St. Petersburg at the time. Being out of the country also allowed him to postpone his required military service in Afghanistan.

“And best of all,” he notes, “I met my wife. We met in Kabul when we were preparing to take the exam to go to Russia and then we were classmates there in St. Petersburg.”

Ahmad Fanoos with his son Elham on his shoulders as they sit with a group of extended family in Kabul in 2002. Photo Credit: Fanoos Family Archives

After seven years in Russia, he returned to Kabul in 1990 with an MA in telecommunications and did his military service.

“But since I was now trained in telecommunications,” he says, “I was able to do office work for the army, rather than go out and fight.”

He and his wife married in 1991. She taught math and, after completing his army duties, Fanoos worked for Ariana Afghan Airlines.

But soon, he notes, life in Kabul became more violent, with frequent rocket attacks on the street. One of his older brothers was killed during the violence at that time. When the Afghan mujahideen collapsed during the Afghan Civil War (1992 – 1996), the Taliban rose to take its place. The performance of music became forbidden.

“But I can’t live without music,” Fanoos says. “So we knew it was time to leave.”

Fleeing to Pakistan

He grew a long beard so as to appear more of a Taliban sympathizer, and in 1997, he and his wife, with their three small children, crossed the border into Pakistan. They were able to drive for the first part of the trip but had to walk the rest of the way, which included crossing the Khyber Pass, the mountain pass on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In Peshawar, Pakistan, there was already a large Afghan community, and Fanoos soon joined a group of musicians.

“I would get gigs in the Afghan community,” he remembers. “We lived, mainly, on the tips I would get and on my wife’s salary as math teacher. I would also do odd jobs, like repairing bicycles.”

A Second Return to Kabul

After almost five years in Pakistan, the Fanoos family returned to Kabul in 2001. By then, the Taliban had left, and the U.S. military had arrived. Hamid Karzai would become president in July 2002, and the situation seemed more stable.

The family settled into life there and a fourth child was born in 2004. 

“Music was allowed again,” Fanoos says, “and eventually the two younger children were able to finish their schooling at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, a music school in Kabul.”

Fanoos became actively involved in the music scene in Kabul, giving concerts there, as well as  in India and Pakistan. He was also a judge on the Afghan Star television show.

“One part of music,” he notes, “is to develop the craft, and another part is to know what the audience likes. The TV show helped young people with this. It was a good way to encourage young musicians.”

But as the violence in Kabul gradually escalated yet again, Fanoos began receiving threats, both written and oral, from the Taliban. It was time to think again about finding a safer place.

One by one, everyone in the family found a way out of Afghanistan. In 2015, Fanoos’ next-to-youngest son, Elham, was admitted to Hunter College in New York City to study music. He later went on to get an MA at the Manhattan School of Music. In late 2018, Fanoos’ wife and youngest son moved to New Delhi. 

Ahmad Fanoos and his son Elham playing together in Portland, OR, during the Genocide Awareness Month, 2022.

Trapped in Kabul

By the end of August 2021, Fanoos, his daughter, her husband, who was an interpreter at the U.S. embassy, and their three small children were the only ones in the family still left in Kabul.

“The Taliban were approaching, but moving slowly,” says Fanoos. “We did not expect them to enter Kabul.

“Then, suddenly, they were in the city,” he continues. “I did not leave the house from that moment on. I knew that, even if they didn’t kill me, they would beat me. Music, especially singing, is not allowed in their form of Islam, so we musicians knew we would be in danger. Some other musicians were killed by the Taliban at that time. “

The family waited at home for seven tense days while the Taliban spread throughout the city. Like many in Kabul at that time, they sensed that their options for leaving were closing hour by hour.

Meanwhile, Elham, in New York City,  was working around the clock to find a way to help his father, sister, brother-in-law and their family escape.

He chimes in to explain. “In 2013, when my school orchestra from Kabul had a tour in the US, I  had met Lesley Rosenthal, who was then General Counsel at Lincoln Center. By the time my family was stuck in Kabul in August 2021, she was chief operating officer at Juilliard.

“In Kabul, my dad had often appeared on Tolo TV, which was partly owned by the Fox Corporation. So, when my family needed help getting out of Kabul, I decided to try to contact Lesley Rosenthal. She was very gracious and helped us by activating her contacts and eventually getting to FOX News and their board, who were also trying to evacuate their journalists.”

At last, Fanoos, his daughter and son-in-law and their three children got word to go to the Kabul Serena Hotel, where many others were also waiting for a way out of the country. After one anxious night in the hotel, they were taken to the Kabul Airport at 4 a.m.

“The airport was surrounded by the Taliban,” remembers Fanoos, “and we were waiting for 12 hours there, most of the time in the hot sun and with no way to know whether there would be a plane available to take us. We had gotten so close to escape but still we did not know if we would get out.”

Ahmad Fanoos and his son Elham in Beaverton in April, 2021. Photo Credit: Sankar Raman

Escape to Freedom

Finally, together with a number of journalists from Fox News and other agencies, they boarded a plane sent by the emir of Qatar. Through the help of Rosenthal and Fox Corporation, Elham had been able to arrange evacuation for them.

After staying in Qatar a few months to arrange the proper documentation, Fanoos flew to the U.S. A few weeks later, he was able to go to New York to join Elham in a musical event where they both performed. 

“I had not seen my son for five years until that day we performed together in New York,” he says. “But now I have musical freedom at last. I can travel, and I can play my music.”

Reflecting on the family’s odyssey out of danger, Elham says, “It has been amazing and wonderful and a lot of hard work, but also we were lucky. Many people did not have this chance, and that is terrible. Many people are still suffering there.”

Recently, Fanoos’ youngest son was admitted to Indiana University to study violin. The family is still waiting for Fanoos’ wife to be able to leave New Delhi and come to the U.S.

“My mother and I have not seen each other for six years,” Elham says.

Fanoos has been an immigrant for 57 years. He has endured long stretches of time during which he could not be sure if he would ever find a home again. He was always on edge, often having to move on for safety and continuing to live with uncertainty. Despite all this, Fanoos says he is, at heart, still an optimist. His philosophy has been to expect the best, and that is the advice he gives his children. 

“Follow your dreams,” he says. “You will meet difficulties along the way, but you will learn from those, and that will make you stronger.”