How a delivery from a stranger brought music back to this Afghan violinist’s life


Key Points
  • Ali Esmahilzada used to play violin on TV but hardly touched an instrument after the Taliban took over his city.
  • He escaped to the US but setting up in a new country left little time or money for his musical passion.
  • More than $149,400 has now been raised for him to pursue his musical ambitions.
When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan’s capital in August 2021, violinist Ali Esmahilzada burnt his sheet music and a number of instruments in fear of being targeted as part of the group’s brutal crackdown on the playing of and listening to music.
After a few months of avoiding the Taliban, Mr Esmahilzada was eventually able to flee his home country in search of safety. But his musical passion was set aside, hardly having a chance to hold a violin for more than a year.

But a string of serendipitous events has not only seen Mr Esmahilzada’s musical endeavours restart in a new country, but was also the precursor for a new friendship and a life-changing fundraiser.

From ‘Afghan Star’ to starting from scratch

Afghans knew his face from playing in the band on Afghan Star, the local version of the television show, Australian Idol.
“I was really scared, not just me, my family, even my mum, because I got so many calls from the Taliban, I just burnt my certificates, my music sheets, some instruments,” Mr Esmahilzada told SBS News.
“I couldn’t sleep, every minute I thought they were going to come and arrest me.”

Despite the risks, the one thing Mr Esmahilzada could not bring himself to destroy was his violin, which he instead hid, “I couldn’t do that, that’s my love,” he said.

A man wearing a suit and an earpiece plays the violin.

Ali Esmahilzada was part of the on-screen band for the television show Afghan Star for five seasons. Source: Twitter / Latif Nasser

Eventually, he was able to escape from Afghanistan but fearing that the Taliban may stop him and find his violin on his way to the airport, he left it behind.

He spent time in Qatar before being accepted to go to the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa.

Arriving in America in March of 2022, he settled in Los Angeles. Working and making money to get by was Ms Esmahilzada’s focus so he had neither time nor money to pursue his musical passion.

A favour for a co-worker

But a Twitter thread which has since gone viral, tells the story of how Mr Esmahilzada has been able to reconnect with music and now even hopes to pursue it through further study.
The posts to Twitter were made by science reporter Latif Nasser and they tell the story of how doing a favour for a co-worker sparked something bigger.
In May 2022, Mr Nasser was on a work trip in upstate New York when sound designer Jeremy Bloom asked him to take a 100-year-old violin with him back to Los Angeles.
A friend of Mr Bloom’s had told him about an Afghan violinist who’d escaped from Kabul and was now in LA. He wanted to pass on this unused instrument to him.

Not wanting to risk sending such a fragile instrument via post, he sought out someone heading that way who could transport it.

Nasser took on the task of taking the violin on his flight as his carry-on luggage and trying to get it to Mr Esmahilzada.
His tweets recounted the initial difficulty he had in arranging to get the instrument to Mr Esmahilzada and what he discovered when he found out why it’d been so hard to find a time for the two to meet.
Arriving with no money, the violinist had no transport, no family support and had taken up a job with irregular work hours to get by.

“I was just alone, for a person in a country with everything different, it was really hard for me, it was a hard time,” Mr Esmahilzada said.

A new friendship

When Nasser realised how isolated the man he’d just met was, he invited him for dinner at his home.
It was only then that he got more insight into the difficulties his guest had experienced and how well-known he was as a musician back in Afghanistan.

Mr Esmahilzada had toured in the US and East Africa as well as playing the violin for five seasons on Afghan Star.

A man playing his violin at Carnegie Hall in New York

Before the Taliban took back rule of Afghanistan, Ali Esmahilzada was a renowned violinist in his home country and travelled overseas to perform on a number of occassions, including a trip to the US where he was part of a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York. Source: Twitter / Ali Esmahilzada

Dinner at Nasser’s house became a weekly thing, and over the following months Mr Esmahilzada worked hard and got himself a green card, a driver’s licence, a bank account and a better job.

Nasser assisted him in navigating the new country, and upon his new friend marking one year in the US, he shared the story of how they met and started a fundraiser to support Mr Esmahilzada’s violin practice.
“I wanted to tell his story and try to raise money for him,” he tweeted.
“Not for basic needs, but for him to continue the violin lessons he had to stop for two years. I want him to know the WORLD is rooting for him to make music.”

After the initial fundraising goal for tuition was exceeded within 24 hours Mr Nasser tweeted that any further funds donated would go towards future music tuition for Mr Esmahilzada, something he told SBS News he could only have dreamed about upon arriving in the USA.

More than US$100,000 ($149,400) was raised within just a few days.

“I’m so excited. The people are so kind… we have kind people in the world,” Mr Esmahilzada said.

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