Afghan musician who fled from Taliban gifted antique violin by stranger in the US
18 April 2023, 15:33 | Updated: 18 April 2023, 17:24
After the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, this violinist fled to the US for his own safety – but had to leave his musical instrument behind.
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Since Afghanistan was taken over by the Taliban in 2021, musicians have been fleeing the country in search of a better and safer life.
One of these musicians is an Afghan violinist, Ali, who fled Kabul for LA and, fearing he would be stopped and searched, decided to leave his beloved instrument behind. In the US, he has been building his life again from scratch, finding work in a shop stockroom.
His story, which has gone viral on Twitter with over two million views, is an incredible tale of human generosity and the power of music. It starts with Latif Nasser, a writer, co-host of Radiolab and host of the Netflix show Connected, who shared a thread on 16 April.
“Last year, a coworker randomly asked me to hand-deliver an antique violin across the country,” Nasser wrote. “I said yes, because why not. I had no idea what I was getting into, and now I need your help.”
On a work retreat in New York, Nasser was asked by a sound designer on Connected for a favour. The designer, Jeremy Bloom, asked Nasser to hand deliver an antique violin to a violinist who had just escaped from Kabul and settled in LA.
He had heard through a friend (@DerekBeckvold) about an Afghan violinist who had just escaped from Kabul and settled in LA (where I live). Problem was the guy had to leave his violin behind.— Latif Nasser (@latifnasser) April 15, 2023
Jeremy had a beautiful 110-year-old violin in his closet he used to play. pic.twitter.com/k1lAdDuZaD
Having heard about the violinist through a friend, Bloom wanted to gift him a 110-year-old violin that had been sitting in his closet for years. He didn’t want to risk sending the precious instrument by post, so asked Nasser to take it as a carry-on on his flight home to LA.
Nasser agreed, arrived home and coordinated delivering the violin to the musician on WhatsApp. After some weeks, Nasser eventually met with the young man.
“I pulled up to the house and he was waiting outside,” Nasser wrote on Twitter. “Way younger than I expected. Mid 20s. Shy but clearly immensely grateful. Huge smile.”
We eventually found a time for the drop off. I pulled up to the house and he was waiting outside. Way younger than I expected. Mid 20s. Shy but clearly immensely grateful. Huge smile. As I talked to him I realized I TOTALLY misread him. pic.twitter.com/F7EYKf8Ll5— Latif Nasser (@latifnasser) April 16, 2023
The young man’s name was Ali, and he had travelled to the US on a special immigrant visa, Nasser discovered. The US has been evacuating Afghans under special admission programs since the Taliban’s return to power; this year, president Joe Biden has requested 20,000 more of these visas for Afghans who have helped the US government.
In LA, Ali found himself completely alone, with no family or friends close by. To make ends meet, he found a job at the local shopping centre, where he worked in the stockroom of a clothing store.
A few nights later, Nasser invited him to dinner at he and his wife’s house, and Ali told them his story.
His name is Ali (aka @ALIESMAHI). He got to the US a few months prior under one of those Special Immigrant Visas. The reason he fled was because the Taliban DESPISES musicians, has even killed them in the past. The US government helped him get here but not much more. pic.twitter.com/sfDajgXXh8— Latif Nasser (@latifnasser) April 16, 2023
Back in Afghanistan, Ali was the violinist for the on-screen band in Afghan Star, a major reality television programme searching for the country’s most talented singers, which he worked on for five seasons. “Most people in Afghanistan know my face,” he told Nasser.
He was actually a celebrity in Afghanistan, the violinist for the on-screen backup band for their version of American Idol, Afghan Star. It was the number one show in the country. He did it for 5 seasons.— Latif Nasser (@latifnasser) April 16, 2023
“Most people in Afghanistan know my face.”https://t.co/f2epGubPZn pic.twitter.com/i21qzYB165
In 2013 he played at Carnegie Hall on a tour of the US, but he always returned to Kabul, where he studied and played music.
When the Taliban claimed control of Afghanistan, Ali burned all musical items in his house, including instruments and sheet music. But he couldn’t bear to destroy his violin.
Worried about getting stopped and searched, and knowing the atrocities committed against other musicians and artists by the Taliban, Ali left his violin behind when he fled Kabul. It took him around a year to get to the US, and he barely played the whole time.
In 2013 he even toured the US. Played Carnegie Hall in NYC (pictured), the Kennedy Centre in DC, the New England Conservatory in Boston.— Latif Nasser (@latifnasser) April 16, 2023
He also toured East Africa.
But he always returned to Kabul. It was his home, where he loved to study & play music.https://t.co/icBc9BDAeu pic.twitter.com/YVc5X3uzEX
Since meeting Ali, Nasser has invited him over every week for dinner, after which Ali sometimes plays his violin.
Ali has since managed to get himself a green card, a driver’s licence, a bank account, and a car. He now works at a hotel as a food expediter, preparing room service trays, and sends extra money back to his family in Kabul.
In that time, he has done SO MUCH MORE by himself. Got a green card, a driver’s license, a bank account, a car. Got a more stable job at a big downtown hotel, @thebonaventure, as a food expediter, preparing room service trays. His bosses & coworkers treat him with dignity. pic.twitter.com/xo2vY4gVKh— Latif Nasser (@latifnasser) April 16, 2023
But, while he is grateful for his more stable job, Ali is desperate to make a return to professional music-making, and to study at one of the great US music conservatoires, Juilliard, Berklee College or the New England Conservatory, and to train to become the next great violin virtuoso.
We just celebrated his 1yr anniversary in the US.— Latif Nasser (@latifnasser) April 16, 2023
To mark it, I wanted to tell his story and try to raise money for him. Not for basic needs, but for him to continue the violin lessons he had to stop for 2 years.
I want him to know the WORLD is rooting for him to make music pic.twitter.com/FiqfDXPRY4
April marked Ali’s one-year anniversary in the US, and Nasser wanted to mark it by telling his story and trying to raise money for him to continue violin lessons. He partnered with the non-profit Teach to Learn, which supports other Afghan musicians, and has been raising money to help Ali get violin lessons.
The following day, 17 April, Nasser posted an update. “Wow. Ali and I are gobsmacked. In one day, we blasted past our goal of money for his violin lessons. So we decided to up the goal to what he really wants: music school tuition money. Chip in if you can/want. Regardless, your gifts, your words, your love is life-affirming.”
What a generous gift – and there couldn’t be a more deserving recipient.