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From Escaping Bullets To Going Into Hiding: An Interview With Afghan Pop Star Aryana Sayeed

Aryana Sayeed
Pop sensation Aryana Sayeed’s fast-chase exit from Afghanistan was nothing less than an action thriller come to life. As one of the country’s top music performers, fear and danger loomed large over her sourced directly from the recently instated Taliban overlords known for their oppressive disdain for art, entertainment and women’s rights.

For Sayeed, a household name in Afghanistan by way of her music and television presence and easily among the biggest celebrities the country boasts of, that translated to multiple curbs on her identity. “Let alone in regards to female singers, the Taliban still have to make their position clear in regards to ‘music’ itself,” Sayeed tells SheThePeople over the phone.

A hasty retreat – for the sake of her life – was therefore in order.

Last week, Sayeed successfully left her beloved Afghanistan on a US military plane to Doha, Qatar, and thereon to Istanbul, Turkey with her partner and manager Hasib Sayed.

She came to mainstream recognition with her 2011 song Afghan Pesarak. Thereafter, with successes like Gule Seb, Dilam Tang Ast and Banoo e Atash Nasheen, Sayeed cemented her place as Afghanistan’s shining star. Over the years, she has picked several awards, hosted television shows and led women’s activism in her country. As a fiercely independent woman – across choices in career, clothes, life – she is consistently at the receiving end of threats, despite which she persists.

A UK citizen, Sayeed tells us she was in Kabul this time for the launch of her clothing brand.

Coincidentally, she was supposed to fly out on August 15, the same day the capital city fell to the Taliban, sealing their authority in the country amid frenzied panic over a return to the dark ages under them two decades ago.

“We were still at the airport and waiting to check in when shootings started outside not so far away,” Sayeed says. “All of a sudden, except for the passengers, everyone else; including police, army, security guards, custom officers, airline staff, they all left. The airport was left totally unmanaged…”

Searing visuals from a chaotic Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on the night the Taliban took over the city went massively viral online; the episode continued well into the next day (and continues to even today), with the desperation to leave compelling Afghans to cling to the wheels of departing flights only to fall to their deaths mid-air.

On the day of the takeover, Sayeed says the 350-passenger capacity plane she was travelling on was bursting with around a thousand people who had climbed in unauthorised. “Many of them had weapons on them,” she says. “Eventually, concerned about being robbed or worse, we decided to leave the airport.”

But it appeared the Taliban had already reached the airport gates.

Aryana Sayeed, Afghanistan’s Biggest Star, Recalls Her Hasty Exit

“They were shooting in the air to scatter people away,” Sayeed says. Journalist Maryam Nabavi, who also attempted an unsuccessful evacuation from Kabul last week, corroborated claims of the Taliban firing at the airport, in a conversation with SheThePeople. Read a first-hand, on-ground account from her here.

Shielding themselves from bullets and the ensuing pandemonium, Sayeed and her partner made their way towards a vehicle waiting for them at the airport exit. “My face was covered under hijab and my partner’s face was covered under a mask, so thankfully we were not recognised.”

They sped away to a cousin’s house where they went into hiding – a cloud hanging over their departure from Afghanistan.

From escaping bullets to going into hiding: Afghan pop star fears for her life, other women of her country 

Only a day after the fundamentalist terror group assumed charge in Afghanistan, reports surfaced of them reconning neighbourhoods, media establishments and residences in Kabul. In weeks prior to that, Afghan families in various other parts of the country had already sounded the alarm of armed terrorists knocking on their doors, demanding young girls for marriage and alleged sex slavery.

Taliban terror almost came right at Sayeed’s doorstep too, she says. “During the day, we witnessed Taliban soldiers coming to the street of the house we were staying at. My partner had left his gun in the safe at the hotel and we had nothing to defend ourselves with in case of a break-in… It was a nerve-wracking experience.”

“With the arrival of each additional Talib, the check-points and the potential of me being found would increase.”

Hence, on late August 16, Sayeed and her partner took cover under the night and travelled through backroads to the military end of the airport. “On the way to the airport, we passed through at least five Taliban checkpoints and thankfully they did not recognise us. We also came across multiple burnt and bullet-riddled cars,” she recalls.

Scouring their way through thousands-strong crowds and check-in challenges, Sayeed and her partner were finally able to depart on a military C17 plane.

What about the Afghan women left behind in her home country? What fate awaits them?

In the nascent stages of their takeover, the Taliban are attempting to maintain relatively moderate appearances, chiefly with respect to women’s rights, which, they said at a press conference two days after coming to power, will be protected. To what extent is not clear.

Liberties bound within the suffocating constricts of the Islamic sharia law as interpreted by the Taliban will barely afford any rights, Afghan women activists on-ground are saying. Pashtana Durrani, educator and founder of non-profit LEARN who is currently in hiding, told us in an interview, “They are so vague about it. For instance, they say they will let girls study. What kind of education? Islamic studies or general learning?”

Reports from Herat, where the Taliban have reportedly imposed a ban on co-educational settings, suggest a return to the radical outfit’s old ways from the 90s when intermingling of genders and full education for girls was strictly out of bounds.

That is as far as the solemn confines of education are concerned. What about the heavy hand that is expected to come down on art forms like music, entertainment and fashion?

The Taliban’s opposition to these has become amply clear, with the erasure of women’s advertisements and portraits from the terror-torn streets of Kabul and the consequent elimination of living women from the public life.

“While what we currently call Taliban 2.0 seem to be making an effort to portray themselves different than Taliban 1.0, I honestly am quite concerned that they will affect the progress and gains in the rights of women over the past 20 years in a major way,” Sayeed says.

“There is no guarantee that once the Taliban obtain international definition as a government, they would continue being as semi-lenient as they have been over the past few days. Their actions will speak much louder than their verbal commitments.”


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