On a carpeted classroom floor at New England Conservatory earlier this month, Huma Rahimi, 25, sat with her legs crossed and a sitar in her lap.
A sitar, not her sitar — an important distinction. After borrowing an instrument from her school throughout her teenage years, Rahimi had picked out a sitar for herself during her undergraduate studies in Delhi, India. She loved the sound, and the designs decorating the instrument.
But that sitar was half a world away, hidden somewhere in Afghanistan with a friend of her father’s. She had entrusted the instrument to him after the Taliban seized control of the country in August 2021, and banned all music. Some musicians were able to smuggle instruments out of the country, she said, but the sitar is so large and distinctively shaped that there was no way she’d be able to haul it to the airport without being spotted.
So here she was, at Silkroad’s Global Musician Workshop, learning unfamiliar music on an unfamiliar instrument — but she was playing music again, and that mattered as much as anything.
The annual Global Musician Workshop unites musicians working in many traditions from around the world. Many of the fellows and faculty play instruments that might never otherwise share the stage: During a Global Musician Workshop performance, one might hear a beatboxer backing up two players of the large Chinese zither called the guzheng, or a klezmer solo played on the kamancheh — a Persian bowed string instrument tuned like a violin, but held upright like a cello.
One afternoon of the weeklong workshop, which ran earlier this month, Rahimi was in a small group workshop led by cellist Mike Block. He was guiding an ensemble consisting of two vocalists, two cellos, saxophone, piano, guzheng, and Rahimi on sitar to arrange the progressive bluegrass tune “Fish Scale,” which would be performed at Jordan Hall two days later.
Rahimi is more used to Afghan traditional tunes and North Indian classical music, so the Global Music Workshop repertoire was unlike anything she’d ever played, she said over a cup of green tea later at a café on Massachusetts Avenue.
“It’s my first time playing with these different musicians in different styles of music,” she said. “Very challenging.”
Rahimi arrived in the United States in June with assistance from Silkroad’s newly established Refugee Fellowship, which coalesced with guidance from Harvard University’s Scholars at Risk program in response to the situation in Afghanistan. When she landed here, she reunited with the three other Afghan people who had come here with Silkroad’s help — her longtime best friend Fahima Ashori, 22, a visual artist; her fiancé Sardar Ashori, 28, who is Fahima’s brother; and Fahima and Sardar’s younger sister Parastou Ashori, 20, a journalism student. The four are being housed together, and Rahimi and Sardar plan to marry soon.
“Bringing at-risk musicians to the United States was something the organization felt very strongly about,” said Ben Hartley, Silkroad’s new executive director as of mid-May, who took the reins of the program from former leader Kathy Fletcher.
Fletcher, who now directs the Wellfleet Preservation Hall on Cape Cod, has continued to support the program, and Fahima and Parastou described her as a parental figure in a Zoom interview together.
”We call her Ma,” Parastou said.
Hartley and Silkroad education programs manager Adam Gurczak said that Silkroad doesn’t see itself as a traditional refugee aid organization, but it feels it can use its wide network to help refugee musicians and other creative artists gather resources and make connections to continue their careers after being uprooted.
Musicians and artists are especially at risk under the Taliban regime, said Fahima in a Zoom interview beside Parastou. “Many of my friends were visual artists, and now they are just at home and don’t do anything,” Fahima said.
Rahimi, Fahima, and Parastou are not old enough to remember the period between 1996 and 2001 when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, but they grew up hearing stories. The Ashori family has several female friends who don’t know how to read or write, Parastou said, because the Taliban banned education for girls.
When Rahimi was growing up, there was only one school in her home province of Takhar, in northeastern Afghanistan, and “the way was not safe for girls to go,” she said. When she was 10, her parents sent her to Kabul to live in an orphanage run by friends of theirs, so she could go to school in the city. Several other girls there came from similar situations, she explained; their parents were alive, but there was no way for them to get a formal education while living at home.
As a preteen, she took her first music lessons during a home-stay program in Italy. “I was in love with music,” she said. After returning home, she joined the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM), which had been established a few years earlier. She had hoped to study piano or flute, but those programs required more prior experience than she had. A teacher saw her long fingers and assigned her the sitar.
Fahima and Parastou also spent their childhoods in rural Afghanistan, mostly in the northern province of Kunduz, but the entire family — two parents and six children — relocated to Kabul after the Taliban took control of the province in 2015. Not too long after the family resettled in the city, Fahima attended a concert where Rahimi was performing, and the two struck up a friendship.
By 2021, Rahimi was blossoming as a musician. She finished a bachelor’s degree in music at Delhi University following her graduation from ANIM, and planned to return to Afghanistan and instruct the understaffed sitar course at her alma mater. “I wanted to teach for girls, and for people that like to learn,” she said.
The Taliban took over before she could teach a single class. She was terrified that one of the militants would recognize her, she said, because a picture of her had been used in a propaganda video denouncing ANIM, the national music school.
With the rest of the school, she evacuated first to Qatar, then Portugal. However, she was housed in a different city from the sitar students, and she didn’t find many performance opportunities for herself.
Eventually, she felt like there was nothing for her there, and stopped feeling like a musician. “I didn’t think about anything,” she said. “I was just sleeping.”
Now, in Boston, she said, “I think there are a lot of opportunities here, but I need a little time.” Maybe she’ll study musicology, or try to perform. She has reunited with her fiancé and her best friend, she recently took the final exam of an intensive English language course at Boston University, and she’s learning to cook. “I’m not a good cook,” she said, laughing. “Fahima is our chef. She can cook everything!”
The Refugee Fellowship program is still in its first stages, with planning underway for its future, but Gurczak said that keeping families and loved ones together as much as possible was a top priority. After refugees get resettled, he said, “people think that’s the end of their journey, but that is just the beginning.”
Plans are in the works to get Rahimi a sitar of her own, a gift from a Silkroad board member: one she’ll never need to return.